How China’s military took a frontline role in the coronavirus crisis

Minnie Chan

Chosen by Chinese President Xi Jinping to help fight the novel coronavirus outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the People’s Liberation Army has taken on some of China’s heaviest responsibilities at a time of great crisis, military experts said.

Last week, Xi – who chairs the powerful Central Military Commission (CMC) – chose the command centre at military-run Huoshenshan temporary hospital as the first stop of his first official trip to the capital of Hubei province the since outbreak began, reaffirming the PLA’s leading role in fighting the contagion.

Inside the three-storey building and 500 metres (1,640 feet) from the isolation complex where critically ill patients were treated, Xi told members of the PLA’s medical contingent by video link that the spread of the virus had been “basically curbed”, meaning it was contained within Wuhan, where it first emerged, and nearby cities.

Since Beijing declared the highest level of medical emergency in Hubei on January 25, the CMC has sent more than 10,000 personnel into the area. The PLA was also armed with more power than local governments to control medical supplies, a sign of the central government’s determination to contain the spread of the virus.

The first batch of 1,400 military personnel was sent to Huoshenshan on February 4, two days after the hospital was completed. The 25,000-square-metre complex was built within 10 days and provides 1,000 critical care beds.

“The military has been well trained to give a quick response to any critical events,” Beijing-based military observer Zhou Chenming said. “All the officers and soldiers took the battle against the coronavirus as a call-up to a non-traditional military operation where they could show their combat-readiness.”

When confirmed case numbers climbed to more than 60,000 in mid-February, Xi ordered an extra 2,600 troops into two hospitals in Wuhan to help treat 1,600 patients. That order on February 12 was given a few hours after he chaired a meeting of Politburo Standing Committee, the country’s most powerful political body, a military insider said.

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The source said Xi ordered commanders to submit lists of volunteers immediately and, as a result, the first batch of 1,400 medical volunteers was sent to Wuhan the next morning.

They were flown in 11 aircraft, the PLA Air Force’s largest mobilisation yet, the PLA Daily reported.

The central government has mobilised more than 60,000 civilian and military medical staff to fight Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus over the past two months. So far, more than 3,000 personnel have been infected, but none were from the military teams, Chen Jingyuan, medical bureau head of the CMC’s Logistic Support Department, said this month.

When the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars, broke out in late 2002 and 2003, the CMC sent a 1,200-strong PLA medical contingent to Xiaotangshan temporary hospital in Beijing, which was built in a week, to help treat 680 patients.

“The PLA has many experienced epidemiologists and virologists, because the military has a long history of studying biochemical warfare,” Zhou said.

The PLA set up its Academy of Military Medical Sciences (AMMS) in 1951 while a volunteer Chinese army of more than one million troops joined North Korea in a struggle with South Korea and a United Nations-backed multinational force for control of the Korean peninsula.

The academy’s central mission was to research nuclear, biological and chemical warfare, becoming a Chinese counterpart to Fort Detrick in Maryland – the centre of the United States’ biological weapons programmes from 1943 to 1969 – and Britain’s Porton Down, the world’s first chemical weapons installation, set up in 1916.

Major General Chen Wei, an AMMS scientist, had led a team at Wuhan since January, the PLA Daily said. State-run CCTV said Chen and her colleagues worked in shifts around the clock on a vaccine for Covid-19. She has been recognised for her role in relief efforts during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and vaccine development during the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Major General Chen Wei has led an AMMS team at Wuhan since January. Photo: Handout

Chen, 54, is also widely credited for her contribution in developing a nasal spray that helped keep the 10,000 medical workers fighting in the 2002-03 Sars outbreak from catching the virus.

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The CMC’s Chen Jingyuan said the nasal spray had not yet been mass produced but that military medical personnel in Wuhan used it and none of them have been infected with novel coronavirus.

In September 2016, the CMC set up its Joint Logistic Support Force in Wuhan after Xi’s overhaul of the Chinese military.

“The joint logistic support headquarters in Wuhan plays an important role in distributing medical resources and essential supplies for the military medical personnel fighting at the front line,” said Song Zhongping, a Hong Kong-based military expert and military commentator for Phoenix Television. “That’s why the PLA medical detachment could operate so efficiently.”

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At the epicentre, PLA logistics officers took charge of medical and daily essential supplies when civilian colleagues complained about a lack of protective gear, the military insider said.

“When the PLA logistics troops took over the distribution works, the problem was solved because the army’s system is more efficient than local hospitals,” the source said.

The PLA Daily said logistic corps from Wuhan garrison also took charge of purchasing and transport of the daily essentials needed by 11 million people under lockdown inside the city.

“The reason to let the PLA take over essential supplies in Wuhan was because military leaders found there were improper operations involving different local vested interests, which dragged down the battle against Covid-19,” the insider said.

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