In Liu Cixin's Rememberance of Earth's Past series book 3: Death's End, Cheng Xin has joined the PIA – planetary defence intelligence agency – as an intern. Her boss presents as an acerbic yet determined person. In her work, the narrator touches on the concept of military democracy but its exact application is not clear, and the Wikipedia article is, now, of really poor quality. Liu explains that Chinese soldiers captured during the Korean war tended to know much more than perhaps they needed too about their collective military strategy, since the goal was to use a democratic process to determine the strategy. Am I right inferring that military democracy is a way of trying to engage soldiers in determining the appropriate strategy while sharing only the essential details on a need-to-know basis? Or is it something different?

  • Welcome to SFF.SE AdamO! What a great question.
    – Lexible
    Commented Jun 27, 2022 at 22:58
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    Reading the English Wikipedia article, and especially the longer German one, it seems that the term has two meanings. The Wikipedia one describes the shape of an entire society, a proto-state which is chiefly military, occupied with wars and looting. Its leaders are elected though, therefore "democracy" (as opposed to a military dictatorship, e.g. in Greece around 1970). Commented Jun 28, 2022 at 9:46
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    By contrast, Mao and Cheng Xin appear to use the term to describe a military with democratic elements. Of course there may be overlap: A state or people engaged in total war is essentially an army, and the constitution of the army is the constitution of the people. My memory of Death's End is sketchy, but for a while the main focus of mankind was to fight and prepare for the pending invasion, so how the military was run was basically how the society was run. May be. Commented Jun 28, 2022 at 9:50

1 Answer 1


The question refers to the following passage from Death's End where Wade explains the concept of "military democracy" (MD) to Cheng Xin:

“During the Korean War, the Americans discovered that even common Chinese soldiers taken as prisoners seemed to know a lot about their own field strategies. It turned out that your commanders had presented the battle plans to the troops for mass discussion, hoping thereby to find ways to improve them."

This philosophy of engaging all members of the army in the development of strategy goes back to Mao Tse Tung himself. In particular in January 1948 Mao drafted an inner-party directive "The Democratic Movement in the Army" (available in translation here) which made the point about the unity of an army:

With regard to military democracy, in periods of training there must be mutual instruction as between officers and soldiers and among the soldiers themselves; and in periods of fighting the companies at the front must hold big and small meetings of various kinds. Under the direction of the company leadership, the masses of soldiers should be roused to discuss how to attack and capture enemy positions and how to fulfil other combat tasks. When the fighting lasts several days, several such meetings should be held. This kind of military democracy was practiced with great success in the battle of Panlung in northern Shensi and in the battle of Shihchiachuang in the Shansi-Chahar-Hopei area. It has been proved that the practice can only do good and can do no harm whatsoever.

Mao envisaged a military organisation that was indeed highly democratic, in which all the ranks would contribute to strategy and forming plans for combat, having confidence that the "masses", the lowest-level soldiers, would have valuable insights which would elude experts (similar thinking led to the party line that the children of peasants would come up with technological solutions that were superior to those proposed by trained experts). This contrasts with most military thinking in which information is shared only on a "need to know" basis. Mao though that the risks of disseminating information was outweighed by the benefits.

  • This is similar to how Navy Seals operate now. Instead of specific orders, "go here, do this", they are instead given a directive "prevent x". It's then up to individual squad/unit's discretion on how to tackle the problem. They're the ones on the ground and can assess everything and make decisions easier than high command. Commented Jun 28, 2022 at 13:23
  • So basically MD is nothing more than allowing all ranks to participate in formulating and settling on the strategy?
    – AdamO
    Commented Jun 28, 2022 at 15:34
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    @AdamO Pretty much, yes. There were also aspects related to the army electing its officers, and choosing who to promote and demote, but that would have been done with the guidance of Party members (so was not truly democratic). Commented Jun 28, 2022 at 15:49
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    If I remember correctly, the (Russian) Red Army also briefly tried a democratic military system under which officers were elected by their units. It's not too hard to draw a line from the ideology of communism to the idea that the common soldier should have a say in how a war is fought. Commented Jun 28, 2022 at 17:41
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    @MichaelSeifert Yes, electing officers in the Red Army was Lenin's idea. It did not last long in practice though. Commented Jun 28, 2022 at 23:30

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