Soldiers fight to defend home and country, but what happens when those two motives contradict one another? The slaughter last week of four deserters from the People’s Liberation Army, apparently on their way to their squad leader’s home, may have been ordered to prevent the Chinese people from asking that question.
On Nov. 9, the local police station at Shulan City in Jilin Province issued an alert. Four soldiers, all from a military base at Shulan, had escaped from the base between 4:30 and 6:00 a.m. They carried with them one model 95 automatic rifle (QBZ-95) and 795 bullets.
That afternoon, rumors started circulating on the Internet that four soldiers had been caught in Liaoning Province, which lies just southwest of Jilin Province. Some said that three of them had been killed on site and one seriously injured.
At 4:30 p.m., the Traffic Control Unit of the Jilin Public Security Bureau (the police), replying to requests by netizens on Weibo, the Chinese microblog, confirmed that three were dead and one was captured alive.
This information soon disappeared from the Public Security website, and news about the four suddenly became hard to obtain. The official media didn’t report the incident, and the Internet was relatively quiet. Many sites that had discussed the issue now displayed error messages.
When some reporters went to the deserters’ hometowns, the solders’ family members were found already to be under the control of authorities and unavailable for comment.
Reasons for Deserting
On social networks and blogs, the most discussed topic has been why they deserted. Three of the deserters were newly recruited last year. But one of them, Yang Fan, was a squad leader. Neither Public Security nor the military has released any details about them.
Most desertions happen in the first several months for new recruits. In the training centers, when the new recruits can’t take the training and the harshness of the trainers, they try to flee. That’s not what happened in the Jilin incident. These three new recruits had finished training and were already in their unit; the squad leader has been in the army for six years.
Another possible motive for desertion would be a conflict with commanding officers. This is also not likely. Usually, such conflicts end up with a fight or even a gunfight within the military base. In some cases, such conflicts have spilled to the outside.
In 1994, 1st Lt. Tian Mingjian killed or injured several of his commanding officers at his military base in Tongxian County, in Beijing. He then drove to Jianguomen, which is not far from Tiananmen Square, and continued his shooting spree. Tian was finally shot dead by a police sniper.
In the Jilin incident, the four solders left the base quietly and didn’t cause any trouble until they were intercepted by the Special Police Task Force about 10 hours later.
A third possibility makes more sense to most Chinese people. Someone posted unconfirmed information online, stating that back in their hometowns, the homes of three of the solders had been demolished, and the sister of one of them had been raped.
One of the unconfirmed reports said the home of the squad leader Yang Fan had been demolished and his sister raped. According to this account, he wanted to take revenge on the local authorities, and the other three solders volunteered to help him.
This assumption doesn’t exclude the possibility that the other three had also suffered having their family homes demolished and helped Yang because of their own deep feelings of grievance.
The possibility that the three recruits were helping Yang is supported by their travel route. They were stopped and shot in Qingyuan County, on State Highway G202. From the map and the time, it’s clear that after they left the base at Shulan City, they merged into G202, then went southwest, passed Jilin City, continued southwest on G202, and then were intercepted at Qingyuan County.
At this point, if they had exited on G202, going due south, they would have arrived after about 50 kilometers (30 miles) at Yang Fan’s hometown in Xinbin County.
This route would not have been relevant to the other soldiers. One of them is from Heilongjiang Province, which is in the opposite direction. Another one is from Hunan Province, which is thousands of miles away and almost impossible to reach, with or without a gun.