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China Claims Zero Infections in Its Military

Soldiers wearing protective face masks march past the closed entrance gates to the Forbidden City, usually crowded with tourists before the new coronavirus outbreak in Beijing, Thursday, March 12, 2020. For most people, the new coronavirus causes…

In addition to its 2 million-strong active-duty military troops, the country also has an 800,000-strong-armed police force.

While militaries around the world are seeing their soldiers fall victim to the coronavirus, China's People's Liberation Army (PLA), the world's largest standing army, claims it remains virus-free.

"China Confirms No Cases of Coronavirus Infection in Military," said a headline in an official military publication on March 3. There has been no public update on military infections since.

In addition to its 2 million-strong active-duty military troops, the country also has an 800,000-strong-armed police force. During the height of the crisis, tens of thousands of soldiers, medics and support personnel were deployed into some of the most infected areas of China, including Wuhan, to fight on the front lines.

But the disease has never made it to PLA barracks, according to China's official data and reports.

When asked why there were no cases of infection, Chen Jingyuan, health division director of the Logistic Support Department under the Central Military Commission, said in a press conference last month it was because the Chinese military's strengthened prevention measures have been completely successful.

"We have strengthened personnel training on disease response measures, imposed restrictions on unnecessary personnel movements, and canceled unnecessary gatherings," Chen said. He said the outbreak has actually "improved the combat readiness of the Chinese military, instead."

Mounting skepticism

As known coronavirus cases topped over 1 million worldwide, many countries' armed forces have reported infections. In the United States, roughly a month since the first service member tested positive for coronavirus in South Korea, the U.S. military reportedly has about 1,000 confirmed cases. Elsewhere, countries including France, Great Britain, Japan and South Korea are also seeing a steady rise in infection in their armed forces.

In some countries, top generals were not spared from the coronavirus. Gen. Felimon Santos Jr., chief of staff of the Philippines armed forces, and Jaroslaw Mika, general commander of Poland's armed forces, both have tested positive.

"We are seeing all over the world that militaries are being impacted just like the rest of societies," said Zack Cooper, a former U.S. official working on China-related issues at the White House and the Department of Defense. "So, I would expect that to be the case in China, as well."

Cheng Chi-wen, editor-in-chief of Asia-Pacific Defense, a leading Asia defense magazine published in Taiwan, noted that there are several PLA units based in and around Wuhan, including airborne troops, a reserve anti-aircraft artillery battery and the central depot of the Joint Logistic Support Force.

In such an army town, "Tens of thousands of the soldiers and their family members were interacting with local residents all the time," Cheng said in a telephone interview.

Speaking about the PLA's virus-free claim, Timothy Heath, a senior international and defense researcher for the policy think tank RAND Corporation, told VOA in an email that "no one would expect that, and nobody would believe it."

He said the claim is especially dubious because the PLA has been making a serious effort to fight the coronavirus.

Are military infections counted?

Since Jan. 21, China's National Health Commission (NHC) has been releasing its daily national account of coronavirus cases. The commission says the statistics in their reports are reported to them by each one of China's provincial governments.

In other countries, infections among soldiers are usually tallied under the local government count where the soldiers are living. However, under China's current political structure, provincial governments have no jurisdiction over PLA units that reside in their areas.

"The PLA medical personnel and units that detect infectious diseases report them to the military chain-of-command, not civilian," said Drew Thompson, a senior research fellow at National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, and a former U.S. Defense Department official responsible for managing bilateral relations with China.

"The PLA is not subject to oversight by local authorities in these circumstances, even though PLA units often have close relationships with local governments where they operate," he said in an email to VOA.

Military experts interviewed by VOA in the United States and in Taiwan for this report pointed out that NHC's reports never said there was any data received from the military. The experts believe the figures do not include military infections.

Transparency vs. national security

Every government struggles to balance transparent communications with national security concerns during major crises.

The U.S. military recently decided to stop providing some of the more detailed data about coronavirus infections among their personnel, citing concerns that the information might be used by adversaries as the virus spreads.

Cooper, now a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said that it is understandable that the U.S. and China are sensitive about infection numbers. He said keeping information about infections in the PLA concealed "is in Beijing's interest, just as protecting similar information in the U.S. military is in Washington's interest."

On the other hand, analysts say although some of the more mission-specific information will be withheld to prevent compromising operational security, the Pentagon will keep providing broader data about infections in the armed forces. They say accurate counts of infection and death rates from the virus have worldwide public health implications.

Last week, the commander of a U.S. aircraft carrier was relieved of command after a letter he wrote to senior military officials pleading for help with an onboard outbreak leaked to the press. Capt. Brett Crozier was accused of failing to follow the U.S. Navy's chain of command and for exhibiting "poor judgment."

A slew of videos showing hundreds of sailors aboard the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt cheering Crozier were posted on social media, becoming a national news story in the U.S.

Retired Taiwanese Lt. Gen. Wu Sz-hua said in every country, politics will inevitably be involved in military decisions, and they all have different political considerations regarding the release of information about the epidemic.

"It is expected that China takes extra precaution measures to ensure such data is classified," said Wu, who was deputy commander of the Taiwanese army under former Nationalist Party President Ma Ying-jeou.

"It is a safe bet that infection rates within the PLA are a state secret," said Thompson, the former Pentagon official.