Nov. 15, 2016 5:50 p.m. ET
On his 22nd birthday, Corporal Li Lei sent a WeChat update from a United Nations compound in South Sudan. A firefight between government forces and rebels had erupted in the capital, Juba, and threatened to engulf the camp where his Chinese peacekeeping force was standing guard.
His birthday wish, sent on the messaging app on July 8 with a picture of a blue U.N. helmet and helicopters overhead: “That all my comrades remain safe.”
It was the last his friends and family back home heard from him. Two days later, a rocket-propelled grenade hit Cpl. Li’s armored vehicle, witnesses and the Chinese military said. He died two hours later. A colleague, Sgt. Yang Shupeng, died the next day.
Their deaths, weeks after a Chinese military engineer was killed in Mali, have triggered soul-searching in China, which for the first time is confronting the hard realities of President Xi Jinping ’s quest to make his nation a major world power.
Young soldiers often come home in coffins, a heartbreaking reality for any nation that sends its military on missions abroad. It’s a familiar one to families in America and many other countries—and a new thing to many Chinese. The deaths represented China’s first combat troops killed in action since border clashes following its last war, with Vietnam in 1979, after which it espoused nonintervention in affairs abroad.
“The effect within China is not something we’ve seen before,” said Wang Hongyi, a former Chinese diplomat and peacekeeper at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The Juba casualties “had major repercussions—in government, in the military and in society.”
When state television broadcast images of Chinese infantry under fire in Juba, struggling to save bleeding comrades, many viewers at home were stunned. Few in China understood the risks, including Cpl. Li’s family in Fuxing, a placid kiwi-farming village near the Tibetan plateau.
His mother, Yang Bin, asked before he deployed if the work would be dangerous. “China is so powerful, who can bully us Chinese people?” her son replied, she recalled as she sat on a threadbare sofa in her rundown concrete home. “So our minds were set at ease.”
The pain was amplified by Cpl. Li’s youth and devotion to family. Born under China’s one-child-per-family policy, he grew up without siblings and, at 13, lost his father to cancer. He enlisted four years later to help support his mother.
And there was a terrible irony: According to several U.N. officials, Cpl. Li may have been killed by a Chinese-made weapon, the likes of which China has sold to developing countries including South Sudan for years under its export-driven economic policy.
Chinese authorities moved quickly to shape public response, staging elaborate ceremonies to honor the fallen while flooding media with commentaries portraying their deaths as the cost of China’s new great-power status. “In protecting world peace, Chinese soldiers are moving to the forefront, and will increasingly face the test of blood and war,” proclaimed one commentary. “This reflects China’s responsibilities as a major power.”
There have been no public protests, and most Chinese still fiercely support the military. The government monitors public discussion of policy, especially security issues, and critics are often censored or punished.
Still, on social media, in policy-making circles and in private conversations, Beijing is encountering the kind of doubts that have bedeviled other nations during military operations overseas.
“It’s not worth China suffering more injuries and deaths!” wrote a user of Weibo, one of many on the microblogging platform calling for China to withdraw from South Sudan. Retired Col. Yue Gang wrote on Weibo that Chinese troops should have hit back: “We can’t passively take a beating.” He didn’t respond to inquiries.
Inside China’s government, differences have emerged about how to use the military overseas, said people familiar with the discussions. The prevailing view in the foreign ministry, they said, is that China should rapidly expand peacekeeping activities to show global leadership, as Mr. Xi demands.
Many military commanders, they said, by contrast want to move more slowly, conscious of their troops’ lack of experience and sensitive to domestic and international criticism.
China’s foreign ministry declined to comment. A senior defense official denied there were differences within the government.
The tragedy speaks to a pillar of Mr. Xi’s political agenda. Last year, he pledged to build an 8,000-strong standby peacekeeping force, adding to 2,600 Chinese deployed today. China is the second-biggest funder of U.N. peacekeeping after the U.S. and the biggest troop provider of the five permanent Security Council members. U.N. insiders said China is lobbying for one of its officials to head the U.N. peacekeeping office next year.
In 2017, China will complete its first overseas military outpost, in the African country of Djibouti. By 2020, Mr. Xi aims to overhaul China’s military for other operations abroad.
One of Mr. Xi’s goals is to protect the nation’s expanding global interests and citizens abroad. China’s leaders were “stunned” by the deaths in Juba, said one senior Western diplomat involved in discussions with China on South Sudan. “They’re fast realizing you cannot be a commercial giant without being an imperial power in some way.”
So far, the deaths don’t appear to have changed government policy. Beijing has said it is proceeding with its peacekeeping-force expansion. The senior Chinese defense official said China had no plans to withdraw or add troops in South Sudan.
That said, the deaths forced some hard questions to the forefront. “They have to decide how far they want to go in being physically present in those unstable situations,” said Princeton Lyman, U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan from 2011 through 2013. “What is their objective as a world power?”
Although China has provided police, engineers and medics as peacekeepers since 1990, only under Mr. Xi has it deployed combat troops, in South Sudan and Mali. China had lost peacekeepers before—16 since 1990—but never combat troops and mostly through illness, accident or natural disaster.
China didn’t plan to become so embroiled in Sudan. Its companies in the mid-1990s bought into oil fields abandoned by their U.S. counterparts after Washington accused Sudan’s government of terrorism ties. Matters became complicated when South Sudan won independence in 2011. China’s oil fields were mostly inside the new state. In 2013, civil war erupted.
Mr. Xi was in his first year in power and trying to establish himself as a strong military leader, ordering troops to protect China’s overseas interests and prepare for “real combat,” while pressing territorial claims in disputed Asian waters.
In January 2015, Beijing sent a 700-strong infantry battalion to join more than 300 Chinese engineers, medics and transport forces in the U.N.’s South Sudan mission. China’s goal was partly to avoid a repeat of its Libya experience, when Chinese companies lost most of their investments in a civil war that forced Beijing to evacuate 35,000 of its citizens in 2011. Chinese leaders also thought the military needed experience overseas.
State media hailed the deployment as a milestone and broadcast footage of the troops on patrol, highlighting their discipline, training and modern equipment.
The Chinese battalion is mostly based at a Juba compound called U.N. House, including two tent camps housing about 37,000 internally displaced people. A sign declares one camp was co-funded by China National Petroleum Corp. The troops’ main task is to patrol the perimeter.
Soldiers live in whitewashed barracks considered the compound’s best equipped. They eat Chinese food with ingredients from local Chinese-owned supermarkets and play basketball, sometimes with locals.
Cpl. Li, who arrived in December with the second troop rotation, was proud to be part of the historic mission, relatives said. But in occasional phone calls home, his mother said she could tell he was finding it tough. The displaced-people camps were overwhelmed, drinking water was in short supply and security was deteriorating.
His WeChat messages became more somber. One in March read: “When a soldier is sacrificed for the motherland on a nameless front line, his grave is the place where he falls, his shroud the uniform he wears.”
The July 7 violence began in the town center, then moved near U.N. House. Government forces with tanks, machine guns and attack helicopters exchanged fire with rebels in bushes.
On July 10, government forces moved tanks within 400 meters of U.N. House, firing on a building where rebels had taken refuge, according to Chinese accounts. Rebels began fleeing toward a compound entrance where a Chinese armored vehicle was parked with six soldiers in the back, including Cpl. Li.
Inside, soldiers frantically sent messages to friends and family. “Sister, we’re being hit, there are bombs coming!” said one received by a Chinese civilian in Juba. Witnesses described a projectile—identified by U.N. investigators as a rocket-propelled grenade—hitting the vehicle and exploding inside.
The Chinese military dispatched an ambulance. Inside it, a Chinese soldier tried to keep Cpl. Li conscious.
“Leilei hold on, hold on,” the soldier recalled saying in a television interview.
Cpl. Li was pronounced dead at 8:43 p.m.
The U.N. said the vehicle was unintentionally caught in crossfire. Several witnesses said government forces were firing toward the camp. Lt. Gen. Johnson Mogoa Kimani Ondieki, the U.N. force commander there and a Kenyan, said he believed the vehicle was struck because government forces thought the U.N. was shielding rebels.
Lt. Gen. Ondieki said a ballistic investigation would reveal whether the grenade launcher was made in China. The senior Chinese defense official said: “We need to focus on who used this weapon, not who manufactured it.”
The U.N. announced early this month it was replacing Lt. Gen. Ondieki after its investigation blamed poor leadership for a “chaotic and ineffective” response to the July violence. A Kenyan defense-force official said Lt. Gen. Ondieki declined to comment, referring to a Kenyan government statement protesting his ouster.
Adding to the soul-searching in China, the U.N. investigation also found that Chinese troops abandoned defensive positions at least twice and refused to intervene to stop Western aid workers being raped. China’s foreign ministry called that finding “irresponsible criticism” and urged better protection for peacekeepers.
South Sudanese government officials didn’t respond to inquiries about the U.N. report. South Sudan’s Vice President, Taban Deng Gai, in September said the government was still investigating the July violence.
Chinese state media barely mentioned the fighting in its first three days, reporting it in depth only after the soldiers died.
Many Chinese soldiers today are from what the Chinese call the “post-90” generation that has only known increasing prosperity, uses social media voraciously and is perceived as quick to criticize authority. The cohort comprises mostly children raised under China’s one-child policy, so fatalities are likely to leave parents with no one to support them in old age.
The death of Cpl. Li, youngest of the three Chinese soldiers killed in Mali and South Sudan, resonated widely as his poignant final messages spread online.
On July 7, the day before his birthday, he posted photos of himself as a civilian, as a new recruit in camouflage, as a U.N. peacekeeper in blue beret. “Growing up year by year,” he wrote.
“Are you back, handsome?” wrote Zhang Lijuan, a village neighbor.
“No auntie, six months more.”
He called his mother on his birthday but exchanged few words, as the line was bad and she was going to work, his mother said.
A cousin, Li Chao, worried later that day after seeing his message with the helicopter photo. “What’s up?” she replied. He never answered.
Cpl. Li’s family said they didn’t know he was dead until July 11 news reports named him. Even then, they weren’t sure—another soldier in his brigade shared the name. Cpl. Li’s mother called brigade headquarters; it couldn’t tell her, she said.
Then she saw her son’s birth date and photograph online, she and other family members said, and only after that did the military notify the family. China’s Defense Ministry said military officials decided to inform the family in person, rather than by phone, and did so later that afternoon.
His mother had supported his enlisting, considering it a steady job. “I never thought there would be this kind of danger,” she said. “He went to protect people, didn’t he? We never imagined there would be rockets.”
When Cpl. Li returned to China, his coffin and the other soldier’s, draped in Chinese flags, were received by an honor guard and paraded through streets lined with some 200,000 people, live on state television.
They were cremated and flown home to cemeteries reserved for “revolutionary martyrs,” mostly from China’s civil war and Japanese occupation. A cousin of Cpl. Li’s, Li Shuai, described picking shrapnel from the ashes.
The military delivered his belongings, most of which sit in canvas bags in his room—bedding, toiletries, a few clothes.
There is also his diary. An entry reads: “If one day I’m gone, don’t miss me. I chose this. I have no regrets.”