Morale: Chinese Soldiers Get Their Cell Phones On


April 14, 2015: The Chinese military leadership apparently decided that morale was more important than unenforceable security rules and is going to allow Chinese military personnel to carry and use their cell phones while on duty. Many Chinese troops already do this, often with the assent (but not official permission) of their superiors. Chinese commanders have apparently noted the experience of their counterparts in other nations and decided that the best way to deal with this problem is to let the troops have their cell phones.

One reason for this attitude is the impact of widespread cell phone use on the ability of the government to control the media. From the time the communists took control of China in the late 1940s until the Internet became widely available in China at the turn of the century, the government controlled the media. The Internet and cell phones changed all that. It is no secret that China is fighting a losing war with cell phones in general. In 2014, the Chinese military surprised everyone by admitting that in early September two J-15 jet fighter test pilots had died recently during landing and takeoff operations on China’s first aircraft carrier. Such testing and training deaths are considered military secrets in China. But with the spread of Internet and cell phone use keeping such things secret has become more difficult. In the past the families of the dead understood that they could be prosecuted for treason if they went public with details and since the state controlled the media that was that. No more. Even if the families remain silent, neighbors and friends of the deceased can spread and discuss the news and this apparently forces the government to announce the deaths. This is to prevent the growth of troublesome conspiracy, but also provide an opportunity to praise exceptional performance and bravery (sometimes when it was stupidity and incompetence that cause the death). This was not an isolated incident and trying to keep the troops from having or using their cellphones is a losing battle.

For example in South Korea soldiers and their parents are pressuring the government to allow conscripts to have cell phones with them when they do their two years mandatory service. The military has long banned conscripts from having phones, considering cell phones, especially smart phones (the only kind most South Korean conscripts have these days) a security risk in the hands of young soldiers. What really annoys the conscripts is that they see American soldiers of the same age being allowed to have cell phones with them all the time. The largest cell phone manufacturer (Samsung) is a South Korean firm and there have been plenty of stories about Samsung phones being used by the American military on active duty and even in combat. So the South Korean soldiers wonder; what is the problem? Many in the government are inclined to follow the American example.

South Korean commanders have also been paying attention to what their Israeli counterparts are doing to deal with the cell phone problem. The “cell phones for soldiers” policy in Israel has gone though many changes in the last decade. Not just cell phones, but also the use of social networks. Back in 2010 Israel prohibited active duty troops from even using social networking sites like Facebook. This included access via PCs or smart phones. This was to prevent information on current or planned operations getting to terrorists. These leaks had occurred several times already by 2010. As a result of that one Israeli soldier was court martialed (and spent ten days in jail) for reporting an upcoming raid on his Facebook page. The soldier had casually mentioned that his unit was going to conduct a raid in the West Bank, to arrest some Palestinians believed planning a terrorist attack on Israel. Another soldier who saw the Facebook posting, alerted the army, and the raid was called off.

For a long time the Israelis felt they couldn't ban troops from using social networking sites, mainly because most of them are reservists called up for a short period of active duty. Instead, the army just kept reminding everyone that only they can avoid deadly accidents on the information highway. When this did not work a total ban for troops, while on duty, was attempted. That didn’t work either. One problem was that for some people social networks like Facebook are an addiction.

The Israeli army tried constant reminders to soldiers to think twice before they post any military related items on the Internet. To that end, the military released information about the soldier who got convicted, emphasizing the punishment angle. Just another reminder for the troops. But since 2010 the Israelis have also come to realize that cell phones can be very useful in combat. The Americans were demonstrating this in Iraq and Afghanistan. That resulted in local commanders being given a lot of discretion on what the cell phone rules were for their troops. That led to different rules for different units and the debate rages on. Meanwhile South Korean troops just want the cell phones many have become addicted to.





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