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The Chinese humanitarian heritage and the dissemination of and education in international humanitarian law in the Chinese People's Liberation Army

31-03-2001 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 841, by He Xiaodong

Abstract in French  


 Senior Colonel HE Xiaodong is a military lawyer and associate fellow of the Academy of Military Science of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (CPLA). He obtained his M.A. degree in English Literature in China (1988) and an LL.M. in International Law from Bristol University (1996). — This article is based on a paper presented by the author at the 50th Anniversary Seminar organized in July 2000 by the Hong Kong Red Cross (Branch of the Red Cross Society of China).  


 China is a country with a civilized history of thousands of years and has a rich traditional culture in which the concepts of humanity, justice and morality have long played a very important part. Throughout the millennia many aphorisms of Confucius and Mencius, such as those that “a man of humanity and benevolence will care for others”, “no one in the world can challenge a man who is human and benevolent” and “he who cares for others is constantly cared for by them; he who respects others is constantly respected by them”, have shaped the lives of the Chinese people. This shows how deeply rooted such concepts are in China. They have a lot in common with today’s humanitarianism.

 The Chinese humanitarian heritage  

 Looking back over Chinese history, it is easy to find many successful rulers and strategists who liked to cultivate “virtue” and considered that not only military strength but also humanity and morality were decisive factors in winning a war, i.e. in order to win a war, you should first win the people’s hearts, you should take care of the people and protect them. In ancient China, the legendary emperor of Huangdi defeated the emperor of Yandi because Huangdi knew not only how to train the soldiers but also how to win the hearts of the people. He helped them in their farm work, so “people from everywhere would like to see the emperor of Huangdi act as the king, because he is humane and benevolent”. Huangdi gained the people’s support and eventually became strong enough to win the final victory over the emperor of Yandi, whereas the latter, though initially very powerful, lost the war in the end because he was inhuman, violent and savage and had lost the support of the pe


 Huang Gongshi’s “Three Stratagems” was a major work in the famous annals of Chinese military history, the “Seven Books of Military ManÏuvres”. One of its most important viewpoints was that the final outcome of a war would be decided by the people. It says that “with the support of the people, a state will be successfully governed and the inhabitants will live in peace and contentment; without the support of the people, a state will perish and families will be broken up”; that “to run a state, the first thing is to know what the great masses think and to satisfy their needs”; and that “it is the people that will win a war and defeat the enemy”. It thus points out that only with the support of the people will a state be made strong and prosperous and a war be won, so the ruler of a state must “appease the people” and “care for the people”.

 The notion that the people are the dominant factor in military struggles has been quite common in our history and examples of it are very easily found, for it embodies an irrefutable truth, a truth to which our late Chairman Mao Zedong firmly adhered in his leadership of the revolutionary wars in China when he said that “the richest source for the greatest strength of war comes from the people”. It was due to this concept that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (CPLA) grew, within the brief space of about twenty years, from a weak military group of only twenty to thirty thousand men into a strong regular force of several million which defeated the Guomingdang forces outnumbering it once, dozens and even hundreds of times and won the final victory of the Civil War.

 Although the above-mentioned concepts of “humanity”, “morality”, “appease the people” and “care for the people” were not quite in line with the “protection of civilians and the victims of war” that is the aim of international humanitarian law, they have at least one thing in common, namely the humanitarian principles they all advocated. The principles of revolutionary humanitarianism consistently respected by the CPLA are nevertheless in close compliance with those of international humanitarian concepts, especially with regard to the protection of the ordinary people and the treatment of captives.

 The humanitarian tradition of the CPLA  

 The Chinese People’s Liberation Army, as the name itself indicates, is first of all an army of China, so it will beyond doubt succeed and develop the best of Chinese traditional culture. What is more important, however, is that it is also a people’s army, an army of the people, from the people and for the people. To take good care of the people, to protect the people and to serve the people wholeheartedly are the sole purpose and aim of this army. For several decades, either in the past revolutionary wars or in disaster relief operations, the CPLA has proved itself to be a highly disciplined people’s own army which never commits the slightest offence against the people.

 As early as 1927, Mao Zedong laid down for the Red Army of the Chinese Workers and Peasants the Three Main Rules of Discipline and then in January 1928 the Six Points for Attention, in which most of the provisions were connected with protection of the people’s interests. For example, the second rule of the Three Main Rules of Discipline was “Do not take a single potato from civilians” and the Six Points for Attention were, respectively, “Put back the door boards you have taken down for bed boards”; “Fasten the straw bundles you used for bedding”; “Speak politely”; “Pay fairly for what you buy”; “Return everything you borrowed”; and “Pay for anything you damaged”. Later these three rules and six points were developed into three rules and eight points. Some modifications were made. The second rule of discipline was changed into “Do not take a single needle or piece of thread from the masses”. As for the original six points for attention, the third, fourth, fifth and sixth were preserved but re

arranged as Points 1 to 4. The original Points 1 and 2 were cancelled, while four new points were added: “5. Do not hit and swear at people”; “6. Do not damage crops”; “7. Do not take liberties with women”; “8. Do not maltreat captives”. With this last added point, the requirement that lenient treatment be given to captives has from then on been laid down as a written command for the CPLA.

 The Three Main Rules of Discipline and the Eight Points for Attention are now the top set of disciplinary regulations and basic code of conduct for every member of the CPLA.

 Three Main Rules of Discipline:

 1. Obey orders in all your actions.

 2. Do not take a single needle or piece of thread from the masses.

 3. Turn in everything captured.

 Eight Points for Attention:

 1. Speak politely.

 2. Pay fairly for what you buy.

 3. Return everything you borrow.

 4. Pay for anything you damage.

 5. Do not hit or swear at people.

 6. Do not damage crops.

 7. Do not take liberties with women.

 8. Do not maltreat captives.

 Giving lenient treatment to captives has always been a tradition of the CPLA. In its early stages the Red Army made it clear that one of the fundamental rules of discipline was: “Fight against the warlords, but not their soldiers, and give lenient treatment to the captives”. Together with the Three Main Rules of Discipline and Six Points for Attention, in 1928 four policies for the lenient treatment of captives were also laid down. They were: “Do not hit, swear at, kill or maltreat captives”, “Do not search captives’ pockets”, “Give medical treatment to wounded captives” and “Let captives stay or set them free at their own will”. These rules were later developed into Five Policies for Lenient Treatment of Captives: “Do not kill or injure captives”; “Do not hit, swear at, maltreat or insult captives”; “Do not confiscate the private property of captives”; “Give medical treatment to sick and wounded captives” and “Set the captives free”.

 In 1937, three main principles for political work were put forward and among them was a mandate to give lenient treatment to captives. In October 1947, Mao Zedong said in the Manifesto of the CPLA that “our army will not kill nor insult any of the Guomingdang soldiers and officers who have laid down their arms. We will collect those who are willing to stay and repatriate those who are willing to leave”. This once again shows that to treat captives leniently has long been a policy as well as a good tradition of the CPLA. Under the impact of such a policy the enemy forces eventually disintegrated, while the CPLA grew quickly, finally defeated the well-equipped eight million Guomingdang forces and established a new people’s regime.

 These policies of giving lenient treatment to captives reflect revolutionary humanitarianism and, as may easily be observed, were all adopted by the CPLA well before 1949. Thus even before the four Geneva Conventions were formally established, the CPLA had already carried out humanitarian policies for over twenty years. This undoubtedly served as a sound foundation for the CPLA to perform its future international obligations.

Implementation and observance of international humanitarian law With the approval of the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China, China ratified the four 1949 Geneva Conventions in 1956 and the two 1977 Additional Protocols in 1983, thereby becoming party to each treaty. The Chinese government and the CPLA have ever since abided by the provisions of the Geneva Conventions voluntarily. During the Korean War in the early fifties, the Chinese Volunteers’ Army strictly observed the international humanitarian principles and treated the prisoners of war most humanely, although at that time the PRC had not yet ratified the Geneva Conventions (signed in 1949 by the Republic of China). Even though the Chinese Volunteers’ Army had great difficulties with its logistic supplies and was living under very tough conditions, it nonetheless did its utmost to provide the POWs with the same living standard as its own soldiers, and sometimes even better. It also gave medical treatment to

all the wounded, including the POWs and foreign civilians. For the dead, it filled out death certificates and sent them to the enemy side together with the mortal remains. In performing these international obligations, it did everything required of it by humanity and duty, as even the American media of that time had to agree. During the border conflict with India in the sixties, the CPLA rescued and helped the wounded on the battlefield, treated the POWs in full compliance with the requirements of the Geneva Conventions, and at the end of the conflict it not only repatriated all the POWs but also returned to the Indian side all the weapons and equipment captured during the conflict.

 In the four 1949 Geneva Conventions, there is a common provision (i.e. Article 49 of the First Convention, Article 50 of the Second, Article 129 of the Third and Article 146 of the Fourth) stipulating that “[t ] he High Contracting Parties undertake to enact any legislation necessary to provide effective penal sanctions for persons committing, or ordering to be committed, any of the grave breaches of the present Convention defined in the following Article”. Accordingly, many of the requirements of the Conventions are integrated into China’s domestic laws. For example, in the “Interim Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on Punishment of Servicemen Who Commit Crimes Contrary to Their Duties” adopted at the 19th session of the Standing Committee of the 5th People’s Congress on 10 June 1981, there were two provisions particularly concerning the protection of civilians and the treatment of POWs. Article 20 provides that “any serviceman who plunders or cruelly injures innocent inhabitants in an are

a of military operation shall be sentenced to a fixed-term imprisonment of not more than 7 years; if the breach is serious, the offender shall be sentenced to a fixed-term imprisonment of more than 7 years; if the breach is especially serious, the offender shall be sentenced to life imprisonment or death”. Article 21 provides that “any serviceman who maltreats a prisoner of war shall be sentenced, if such m altreatment is serious, to a fixed-term imprisonment of not more than 3 years”.

 In the new Criminal Law enacted in 1997, the aforesaid Interim Regulations are substituted by Chapter 10, entitled “Crime in contravention of servicemen’s duties”. The stipulations of the original Articles 20 and 21 are kept but modified, thus making protection of civilians and POWs in wartime a written law of China. Article 446 of the new Criminal Law adds the words “in wartime” to Article 20 so as to more precisely reflect the requirements of the Geneva Conventions. In 1997, China’s first National Defence Law was enacted. Its Article 67 clearly specifies that “in its military relations with other countries, the P. R. China observes the relevant treaties and agreements that it has concluded, acceded to or accepted”.

 Such domestic legislation has provided strong legal support and a firm basis for the CPLA to follow and abide by international humanitarian law.