|As the People's Liberation Army looks to downsize, significant numbers of soldiers are being tasked with non-military missions
China will plant new forests covering an area of 84,000 square kilometers, roughly the size of Ireland, in 2018, as it aims to increase forest coverage to 23% of total landmass by the end of the decade, China Daily reported last week. The current forested area stands at 21%.
Meanwhile, a separate source in the Central Military Commission said a large regiment of the People’s Liberation Army – in addition to the nation’s armed police force, which has just been absorbed into the commission – have been withdrawn from northern border areas and tasked with a new mission: planting trees.
The actual number of soldiers mobilized is said to be over 60,000.
The armed police force has a specially designated forestry branch to patrol and exercise jurisdiction in forested areas such as the northeastern Greater Khingan mountain range – dubbed ‘China’s green lungs’ – in Heilongjiang and Inner Mongolia provinces.
Zhang Jianlong, head of the State Forestry Administration, said at a meeting last week that China would aim to grow at least 6.66 million hectares of new forest this year.
China’s total forested area is now around 208 million hectares, with 33.8 million hectares having been added in the past five years.
Heavily polluted Hebei province, which encircles Beijing, has pledged to raise its total forest coverage to 35% by the end of 2020, and the bulk of the troops pulled back from the frontlines will be dispatched there for afforestation in a province that is seen as the major culprit in producing the fumes and smog that blanket not only Beijing but also large parts of northern China in cold seasons.
In 2015, Beijing announced a plan to lay off 300,000 soldiers and many PLA personnel have been re-assigned to non-military missions such as planting trees and revving up key state-level infrastructure projects.
Posts on online forums popular among veterans and military aficionados reveal that soldiers covet being re-stationed inland, away from the frigid northern border areas, in order to plant trees, so long as their ranks and entitlements remain unchanged.