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What China's Army-issue underwear reveals

What lies beneath says something about the Chinese military's priorities.

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    Free as a breeze? People's Liberation Army soldiers practice skiing in sub-zero temperatures in Heihe, China, in November.
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There’s a lot to learn from an article that just appeared on the website of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army; for example, Chinese soldiers’ underpants were equipped with elasticated waistbands only in the 21st  century.

Until recently, the article recalls, 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.”

Behind this tantalizing tidbit lies an illuminating point: Chinese military planners pay more attention to aircraft carriers and satellite-killer rockets 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 before the revolution. Money is no longer so scarce, but Beijing is still not spending much on its lowly grunts.

The battlefield equipment that the average Chinese fighter wears would cost the equivalent of “two entry level iPhone6's,” says the article. His American counterpart would be carrying gear worth 10 times that, the equivalent of “a mid-level car,” according to the reporter’s estimate.

An example: US soldiers wear Kevlar helmets equipped with communications technology. Most Chinese soldiers, the article says, are still wearing steel helmets; only a minority have Kevlar models and none of them have earphones or microphones.

“Communications basically relies on yelling,” the article quotes a soldier on the point of retiring after 16 years’ service, Wang Fujian, as saying.

Still, they can consider themselves lucky to have helmets at all. During the last war that Chinese troops fought – a border conflict with Vietnam in 1979 – helmets were not even standard issue, scorned as “equipment of the weak,” the article recalls.

That kind of thinking has not entirely died out in the Chinese military. Although China is the largest exporter in the world of body armor, very few of its soldiers are provided with bulletproof jackets. “Some leaders think that it is too indulgent to wrap soldiers with too much equipment,” the article quotes a PLA logistics instructor, Cui Xianwei, as saying.

That attitude contrasts sharply with the approach taken by the US Army, which provides dismounted soldiers with Kevlar boxers to protect them against improvised explosive devices.

An elasticated waistband – and a fetching camouflage pattern according to an illustration on the website – is as high tech as Chinese military underwear gets.

China has the second largest military budget in the world, (far) behind the United States. “But in fact, second place did not bring Chinese soldiers more sense of security,” the PLA website article says.

It points out that according to an article published by the state-run news agency Xinhua earlier this year, spending on soldiers’ individual equipment has remained flat for the past five years, even as the overall military budget has doubled.

That is counterproductive, suggests one unnamed PLA political officer quoted in the article. “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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