24 February 2020
Chinese soldiers practice shooting amid a heavy snowfall in Xinjiang province. Photo: Reuters
Chinese soldiers practice shooting amid a heavy snowfall in Xinjiang province. Photo: Reuters

What Chinese soldier’s underwear reveals about the PLA

China’s military infrastructure is one of the biggest in the world.

With a defense budget that increases about 12 percent every year, the emerging superpower has acquired the most sophisticated weaponry, including intercontinental ballistic missiles, fighter jets, submarines and an aircraft carrier.

Yet here’s one revealing trivia in an article on the People’s Liberation Army website: its soldiers’ underpants were equipped with elasticated waistbands only in the 21st century.

Until recently, according to the article, an infantryman would “have to worry about the rope of his big underpants, which would loosen suddenly but could never be untied when he wanted to answer the call of nature”.

The Christian Science Monitor says this just goes to show that Chinese military planners pay more attention to state-of-the-art armaments than they do to their foot soldiers.

“Chinese infantrymen have a tradition of stripped-down fighting that dates back to the days when the Communist Party was fighting a guerrilla war … Money is no longer so scarce, but Beijing is still not spending much on its lowly grunts,” the newspaper says.

The PLA article estimates that the average foot soldier wears battlefield equipment that would cost the equivalent of two iPhone6 handsets. By comparison, his American counterpart would be carrying gear worth 10 times that, or the equivalent of a mid-range car.

The standard issue for a US soldier is a Kevlar helmet equipped with communications technology.

Most Chinese soldiers, on the other hand, are still wearing steel helmets; only a tiny portion of the troops have headgear with the high-strength synthetic fiber material and none of them have communications accessories.

“Communications basically relies on yelling,” the article quotes a soldier as saying.

In fact, during the border war with Vietnam in 1979, helmets were not even a standard issue for Chinese troops.

And although China is the largest exporter of body armor, bulletproof jackets are seldom used by its infantrymen.

It could be that all this is part of efforts to toughen up the Chinese soldier. “Some leaders think that it is too indulgent to wrap soldiers with too much equipment,” a PLA training officer was quoted as saying.

Helmets, for example, are scorned as “equipment of the weak”, says the article.

An unnamed PLA political officer cited in the report believes that soldiers will perform better in they are provided with the best available equipment. 

“We educate soldiers that we shall fear neither hardship nor death,” he says. “But if we provide him with advanced protective equipment he will feel very assured, and as a result he will have more confidence to win the war.”

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