The Chinese Dilemma

May 6, 2013: Ever since the economy was turned lose in the 1980s, China has been having more and more trouble keeping its generals and admirals under control. The big problem is not the threat of a coup but corruption, which can lead to all sorts of problems. This has led to many Chinese leaders wondering if they can have corruption-free as well as effective modern armed forces. Thus the current military reforms in China, needed to turn the armed forces into a modern and effective organization, may end up putting the political leadership between a rock and a hard place.

Many Chinese leaders believe that they cannot have military leadership that is corruption free, capable of fighting a modern enemy, and politically loyal and reliable at the same time. What it comes down to is what is the main criteria for promoting junior officers, those who are loyal (and often corrupt and not capable warriors) or those who can get things done (and are often disdainful of corrupt and politically correct officers and government leaders).

Reliability and corruption has always been a problem in police states. The first communist nation, the Soviet Union, solved this by killing thousands of senior military officials in the 1930s, mainly for suspected disloyalty. There were side effects. This "Great Purge" was bad for morale and hurt the nation’s ability to defend itself when the Germans invaded in 1941. Two decades later, the Russians tried another approach. In return for keeping their mouths shut and staying out of politics, the military was given what amounted to a blank check. Oh, there was one other detail. The promise was made, and kept, by one faction in the Communist Party that wanted to oust, without a civil war, the then current head of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev and his faction. Unfortunately, this deal led to an arms race with the United States which, after two decades, wrecked the Russian economy and brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Chinese Communist Party noted that Russian experience and sought to avoid making the same mistakes. During the 1960s and 70s, China went through a period similar to the Russian Great Purge of the 1930s. However, China's "Great Cultural Revolution" did not do as much damage to the army, and in 1976 the army backed a group of moderate Party leaders in shutting down the Cultural Revolution for good.

Since then, the Chinese military has been well taken care of. The generals were allowed to go into business when the economy was opened up in the 1980s. Unfortunately, after a decade of that, it was noted that the generals were more interested in getting rich than in seeing to their military responsibilities. So the government shut down a lot of those businesses. The generals were not happy but they obeyed. The generals even stepped up in 1989, when the government needed muscle to shut down massive pro-democracy demonstrations in the capital.

The problem here is that the army is considered part of the Communist Party and its main job is to keep the communists in power. This was a concept pioneered by the Russians when the Soviet Union was formed in the early 1920s. The CCP (Chinese Communist Party) followed suit and this arrangement worked quite well, as long as most national wealth was controlled by the CCP. The Chinese economic reforms of the 1980s shifted control over of most GDP from party officials to entrepreneurs. While all officers and many lower ranking troops are CCP members, they came to see their future economic opportunities coming from the free market, not the favor of CCP bureaucrats.

Then there is the growing corruption, caused by the larger economy which gave communist officials more to steal or receive as bribes. The CCP has been increasing its efforts to curb corruption in the armed forces. It is taking two approaches. First, it is insisting that most new officers are college graduates. Since the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) was founded in the 1920s, the main qualification of a new officer was being a “good communist.” That is no longer the case and the last of the “old comrades” (officers who served in the late 1940s and early 1950s) are gone. There are still a lot of officers who came up in an atmosphere that favored “good communists” and tolerated a lot of corruption. Now a new generation of government leaders (all of them communists) are demanding that the officers be “good commanders” and much less corrupt. It’s a period of transition and there’s no telling when it will be reflected in better combat capabilities. But the CCP is now more worried about the growing number of officers who wrongly think they are in the military to defend China and not the CCP. This is very dangerous thinking as far as the CCP leadership is concerned.

As a result of these disturbing trends, the CCP recently ordered more attention be paid to the loyalty of officers, especially the many who are now college grads. The party wants everyone reminded that the military answers to the Chinese Communist Party first of all. The growth in college educated officers has led to more enthusiasm for political reform by younger officers and less concern about the survival of the party. This is a popular idea among pro-reform Chinese, who back the concept of the armed forces existing to defend China above all. This is heresy to the CCP.

The government is still concerned about corruption in the military (an ancient problem in China) because it has a direct impact on military capabilities. The same can be said for corruption outside the military, which is having a corrosive and increasingly obvious impact on the economy and public order. As the Chinese grow wealthier they get increasingly noisy about the corruption. Government efforts to curb corrupt practices are encountering a lot of (unofficial) resistance from the bureaucracy. It’s common for seemingly successful anti-corruption officials to be corrupt. There is a similar problem in the military, where two decades of anti-corruption efforts have reduced but not eliminated the problem. Between the corruption and shifting loyalties, it’s hard times for the party leadership.

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