Armed forces get a stitch of the times

(China Daily)
Updated: 2007-07-03 09:42

PLA garrison troops in Hong Kong in the new "07 Style" ceremonial uniforms at a march past to mark the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to the motherland. [China Daily]
With the vast majority of Chinese civilians preferring Western-style clothes and trendy urbanites on the lookout for cool trendy items, the 2.3 million people serving in the country's military, too, have got a sartorial rethink. And what better day to unveil their new outfits than the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong's reunification with the motherland.

The brand new ceremonial and casual uniforms - and new battle fatigues - went on display in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) on Sunday, drawing a loud hurrah from the mainland's enlisted men. Different from the "97 Style" uniforms issued to garrison troops in Hong Kong and Macao SARs, the new uniforms will allow the enlisted men to cast off the baggy outfits designed about 20 years ago to look sharper.

Dubbed "07 Style", the new ceremonial uniforms for the first time will have chest insignia, a must with most Western military uniforms, to reveal a wearer's rank and length of service. Berets have been introduced as standard-issue summer headgear, reminiscent of the NATO look. And Navy rank badges move down from the shoulders to the sleeves in line with international practice.

Years of peacekeeping operations with other international forces have influenced the new Chinese designers. "Increasing global military exchanges have upped the requirements for uniforms of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). The new outfits fuse global trends with Chinese characteristics," says General Liao Xilong, chief of PLA's General Logistics Department.

The existing outfits are not very stylish, he says. Often the colors are mismatched. Rising living standards, modernization of the country's armed forces and its growing presence in international peacekeeping operations, too, have prompted the change.

Working on the "97 Style", designers refined the cut and the sizing of the uniforms to enhance the appearance of the wearers. The new casual uniform for spring and autumn fit more tightly, and servicewomen will find their shoe heels a cm higher from the earlier 4 cm.

The designers have focused mainly on improving the aesthetics, the quality and functionality of the outfits, says senior engineer and president of the Quartermaster Equipment Institute (QEI) Yang Tingxin, who was responsible for the uniforms' designs. "It would have been impossible to carry out such a major upgrade if the country's economy hadn't grown so rapidly," he says.

Technological and financial constraints meant Chinese forces were issued only one uniform for working, field surveys and training till 1987, when casual uniforms were first introduced.

"H-shaped uniforms have been bid goodbye once and for all; they're a thing of the past," says Wu Yu, another QEI senior engineer. "Now we have T-uniforms for men and X-shaped outfits for women". Compared to military uniforms of other countries, the H-uniforms appear baggy and dull. Men in T-shaped outfits, which highlight the shoulder width, look taller and stronger, and women appear sassier in the X-shaped uniforms that give the waists a contracted look, she says.

Ceremonial uniforms, reserved for military attaches when they were first employed in 1987, are now available to all officers. Tailor-made, they come complete with special shoes and shirts.

After three years of study, designers made more than a hundred refinements to the "97 Style" and introduced 365 new items, including sweaters, training boots, gloves, socks, training overcoats and apparel such as arm badges, name patches and service insignia. "My impression is that the top military leaders really want to make the rank and file look smarter and feel comfortable. They are very open-minded," says Yang.

The red band, a feature of the big-brimmed green Army hats for decades, has disappeared from the new outfits. Some critics opposed the change, saying the color red was the main symbol of the Communist Party of China. But aesthetics prevailed. The blaze of red didn't match the green hat and green uniforms.

Instead designers have come up with an enlarged peach-shaped badge on the hats for all enlisted personnel bearing the insignia of the PLA Army, Air Force and Navy. A red relief features a star and the Chinese characters ba-yi, or eight-one, commemorating the beginning of the Nanchang Uprising on August 1, 1927, to which the origin of the PLA has been officially traced.

But despite the changes, the uniforms retain "key PLA elements and icons" under the command of the Communist Party of China, Liao says. A dozen traditional icons appear on the new uniforms, including the national flag, the PLA flag, the Great Wall, Tian'anmen Square, as well as ears of wheat and cog wheels representing the alliance of farmers and workers which 80 years ago led to the foundation of New China.

To commemorate the history of the PLA, historic gray - the color worn by the Red Army (1927 to 1937) and the Balujun, or the Eighth Route Army (1937-1949) from which the PLA evolved - was fused with the existing colors, providing a new pine green for the Army, dark blue for the Navy and deep grayish-blue for the Air Force. "The three colors mesh well and go with the global trend of using cold colors for military uniforms," says Yang.

"Our focus will now shift to improving the functionality, quality and recognizability and enriching standard issues for each category", he says. "Training and tactical uniforms need more work."

The upgrade will cost China 6 billion yuan ($789 million) by 2009. The per capita bedding and clothing expenses of the Chinese armed forces, however, remain low compared to the world average, Liao says.

"The expenditure cannot be avoided. But we must budget strictly. By spreading the upgrade process over three years, we can make full use of the existing inventory and avoid waste."

Carefully folded uniforms usually arrive in the barracks from military warehouses. This year, many ceremonial uniforms have come directly from factory production lines. Delivered on hangers, they are without a single wrinkle and have the name labels of the wearers stitched on them. "This uniform upgrade is a stride forward for the PLA's logistics management," says Wang Zongxi, a PLA Logistics Command Institute professor.

The PLA has wanted to provide servicemen and women with tailor-made ceremonial uniforms for a long time, Liao says. "The upgrade will take us a long way towards achieving that goal."

Companies that have won the contracts to make the new ceremonial uniforms will not have to take the measurements of the country's 2.3 million armed forces personnel because every individual will get a tailor-made outfit. Liao says the Army will no longer keep inventories and won't be involved in inventory management for ceremonial uniforms. "The idea is to outsource inventory management of these uniforms to private firms and slash our storage costs."

Technological innovation, industrial advances and armed forces reforms are blurring the divide between defense and civil industries. Many countries use resources from the private sector to reduce the size of their armed forces and improve their combat effectiveness. The PLA is focusing on that to modernize its logistics, Liao says.

In February, the Chinese authorities urged military areas and units to strengthen their collaboration with civil enterprises in order to improve their logistics management. In June, the government said it was encouraging weapon-makers in less sensitive sectors to attract private and overseas investors and increase innovation.

Thanks to the largest-ever uniform upgrade in China's history, quartermasters have been able to update measurement statistics and data on bedding and clothing. They say they will be able to reduce the cost of uniform and equipment issue errors significantly. "Uniforms are an excellent point of departure to experiment with the outsourcing of military logistics," says Liao.

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