The latest recruitment video for China’s armed forces is an intense three-minute barrage of military hardware. Rapid-fire editing skips between tanks, jet fighters, and aircraft carriers. They throw everything they have into the video, with an abundance of gunfire and explosions, all set to a Chinese hip-hop track called “Battle Declaration” with the shouted refrain “Kill, kill, kill!”
It looks like Fast & Furious: PLA Edition, with trucks leaping over rough terrain and motorbikes speeding past flaming obstacles. There’s hand-to-hand combat with stereotyped terrorists being taken down by Chinese special forces. Snipers, satellites, and submarines whiz by. Even the strategic rocket arm makes an appearance, with a montage of ballistic missile launches spliced together. Aircraft are blown up, terrorists are shot, and landscape disappears beneath artillery fire. It ends with a Chinese flag planted firmly on the site of victory by a proud soldier.
This is a world away from the U.S. Army’s sober approach. Current recruitment advertisements are themed around the strapline “Join the team that makes a difference,” and have titles such as “Diversity” and “Versatility.” These videos are slideshows of still black-and-white photographs, with ethnic minorities and female soldiers highly visible. (The only woman in the Chinese video is a hostage held by the terrorists.) Martial music plays behind a sombre voice explaining that “our next mission could be anything…so we prepare for anything.” A soldier exchanges a high-five with a girl in a hijab, others are seen in science laboratories or constructing bridges.
According to Mark Davis, assistant secretary of the Army for marketing, the ads aim to highlight its strength, versatility, and professionalism. They make life in the U.S. Army look worthy, but rather dull; one commentator described them as “Facebook pictures from a camping trip.” There are none of the explosions, gunfire, or missile launches that enliven the Chinese video. Fighting is hinted at rather than portrayed. You might get the impression that the U.S. Army is mainly involved in disaster relief and scientific research.
The Chinese version, on the other hand, looks quite insane, suggesting that every soldier is involved in high-intensity conflict on a daily basis when in reality they have not fought a war for years. The lyrics of "Battle Declaration" do nothing to dispel the impression given by the visuals: “Even if a bullet passes through my chest / My mission remains carved in my heart,” “Roar with animal spirit / from the center to the border.”
However, the video needs to be understood in the context of Chinese state advertising. What seems bizarre over here is quite normal over there. An official anti-corruption video last year featured a rap that included soundbites from premier Xi Jinping himself — referred to in the song as “Xi Dada,” which roughly translates as “Big Daddy Xi.” Propaganda chiefs recently decided to drop the nickname, but it has appeared in official news stories and headlines for years.
There is also a clear purpose to including all that high-tech hardware: They are trying to convey the message that the PLA is no longer a second-rate force burdened with outdated equipment, but can match anyone. It is true the Chinese do now have modern hardware, but the quantities are limited. They have one aircraft carrier compared to the ten operated by the U.S. Navy, for example.
Nor is the flag-planting incidental. A 2015 Chinese Navy recruitment video included pictures of islands in the South China Sea which are disputed with China and Taiwan, to the alarm of some Western commentators. There is a certain irony that China, which has not fought for decades, should strike such a belligerent pose. Perhaps this drives a need to proclaim more loudly that they are not scared of a war.
However strange it looks to Western viewers, its effectiveness will ultimately be judged on whether it helps the PLA’s recruitment drive. Pay, at an estimated $450 a month for a Lieutenant, is mediocre even by Chinese standards. This has reportedly led to high levels of corruption, and there are doubts over army morale. It may take more than hip-hop and hyperkinetic visuals to make the PLA look like an attractive career move.