Posts Tagged ‘PLA’

Every few months China has some kind of territorial spat with one of its neighbors – be it Japan, the Philippines or Vietnam – that gets everybody worried about war. As I was standing amidst the unusually vitriolic  anti-Japanese demonstrations recently, it felt like those worries had reached a fever pitch and that the government might actually cave to public calls for military action. Sometimes it feels like a miracle that it hasn’t already happened.

There are plenty of good reasons why China hasn’t invoked its military: The economic implications, the possibility of US military involvement, being perceived internationally as a belligerent bully. But there may be an even more compelling reason than any of these: The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) might not be up to the task.

There seems to be a widespread assumption that without US-backing, militaries from Japan, Vietnam or Taiwan would fall swiftly to the overwhelming might of the world’s largest army. China’s military spending routinely increases by the double-digits, far outpacing its GDP growth. Last year that spending amounted to $91 billion – a 12.7% increase over the previous year. It’s expected to be $106 billion this year.

Now I’m not a military expert by any means, but I have seen how major government monopolies tend to function in China. This might give us a better idea of the PLA’s capabilities than the raw numbers do. So let’s look at another major state monopoly: The Ministry of Railways.

This is a fiefdom if there ever was one. The opaque ministry has its hand in everything vaguely related to or surrounding railways, from construction and manufacturing to hospitals and schools. Corruption and nepotism thrive. There was the $2.9 million promotional film where funds were funneled away, the SINGLE official who was able to embezzle $121 million, and the series of photos showing absurdly marked up bullet train items that resulted from government procurement.

This week the ministry is back in the news as its $52 million online ticketing system continues to be worthless on the eve of another busy holiday. Netizens have demanded to know why the system cost so much, yet is worse than actually standing in line at the train station.

If I may throw out some wild speculation (based on overwhelming precedent): Perhaps a chain of railway officials outsourced the site design to increasingly cheaper (AKA – decreasingly qualified) designers while pocketing the difference and/or gave contracts to personal connections for wildly inflated prices.

Now shift back to the PLA, which is larger, more powerful and more secretive than the Ministry of Railways. So powerful and secret in fact that it operates as an entirely separate entity from civilian government and laws.

People tend to see the huge annual PLA budget increases as a threat to China’s neighbors, but to a large extent it’s a way to quell the PLA’s danger to the Communist Party.  Fear of a military coup has always weighed heavy on the party leadership and big budgets are one way of buying the military’s continued loyalty. It doesn’t take a big leap of faith to guess that a lot of that money is lost to corruption.

In spite of its many scandals, the Ministry of Railways gets its job done for the most part…horrible inefficiency and occasional disasters aside. The public can see many of its failings, which keeps it a bit more honest and efficient than it otherwise might be. And if Hu Jintao decides to seriously clean house of corrupt railways officials, he doesn’t need to worry about tanks rolling up to his office the next day.

With the PLA though, these things are all question marks.

John Garnaut did a great article earlier this year based on inside sources trying to explain how pervasive and destructive corruption is in the PLA. The problem is that because of its enormous power and complete secrecy, it’s impossible for outsiders (and insiders for that matter) to appreciate the true scale and what it means for battle capability.

With a naval/aerial engagement – which is what most potential conflicts would entail – victory would be decided more by hardware than troop numbers. It’s possible that even in the absence of US involvement, China’s military apparatus could falter when facing a presumably weaker opponent like Japan, or even Taiwan (See this in-depth analysis of a possible Sino-Japanese naval war).

If that were to happen, the Chinese government would have a tough choice. It could try to convince people that the US military was actually secretly involved and mitigate its failing, or it could try to answer directly as to why, in spite of a much better funded and staffed military, China got beaten by “little Japan.”

Neither option is very palatable, and the mere possibility of having to make that choice might be a major hedge against an all-out war.

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With the recent Bo Xilai saga, fault lines in the façade of Communist Party unity are emerging in a very public way. After the split between the Zhao Ziyang reformist camp and Li Peng’s hardliners in 1989 emboldened Tiananmen protestors, the Party now rightfully worries about the public sensing any weakness in the top leadership.

Even if the events around Bo hadn’t unfolded, the party would still be very much on edge. Later this year it will pass the torch to a new group of authoritarian leaders; and it’ll do so amid simmering social tension and unprecedented channels of mass communication. To protect itself, the party has recently taken measures demanding loyalty and respect for its relevance.

In January, President-in-waiting Xi Jinping called for more “thought control” over university students. This week, China ordered all lawyers to make a pledge of loyalty to the Communist Party. And yesterday, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Daily ran a commentary opposing “indiscipline” in the army saying, “To resolutely do what the Party asks, and not to do what the Party asks not to do, is the most straightforward measure to oppose indiscipline.”

Army personnel, lawyers and students are real threats to the party. Student intellectuals were behind the Tiananmen Square uprising. Lawyers tend to have an affinity for the written law rather than the whims of leaders – which undermines authoritarian rule. And the military, well, they have guns.

The last group is especially worrisome.

The past few days have seen rumors of a Beijing coup circulating online. While these rumors are unfounded, the idea of a military coup is hardly far-fetched. Worry of this scenario within government ranks became apparent even before the rumors with a series of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Daily articles calling for “opposition to the ‘erroneous views’ of military nationalization, military de-politicization, and non-party affiliation of the Army, and putting ideological and political construction first.”

The PLA, by law, is bound to protect the Communist Party first – not the country. Calling for the army to be loyal to the nation rather than a single political party was one of the things that landed Liu Xiaobo in jail.

When Deng Xiaoping started to hand power over to Jiang Zemin in the early 90’s, he reportedly had some sage advice for his successor: “Spend four out of five working days with the top [military] brass.”

For a party which then had neither socialist nor democratic-based legitimacy, the loyalty of the military was the only guarantor of continued rule. Jiang listened and did manage to stay in the good graces of the military throughout his tenure by consistently increasing military spending and taking a hard-line on Taiwan. When Hu Jintao came to power he continued the military buildup, but took a softer stance on the island. The Beijing-friendly Ma Ying-jeou was elected president in 2008, allowing Hu to engage Taiwan culturally and economically – which tacitly took a military takeover off the table for the foreseeable future. This wasn’t good news for PLA hawks anxious to use their toys.

Last year, the PLA gave a subtle indictment of Hu by launching an unannounced test of the new J-20 stealth fighter during a visit by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Xi Jinping will take control this year lacking even the degree of support from the military that Hu has. He’ll likely have to spend at least the first year consolidating power and PLA loyalty – assuming the leadership transition goes smoothly to begin with. But if the factional fractures become too deep, military hawks could decide to settle the matter themselves.

Whether the party’s rather pathetic demands for loyalty during this contentious period will be enough to maintain unchallenged authority remains to be seen. But whether they’re students, lawyers or soldiers, people aren’t getting any dumber. What they are getting is better connected and less patient with the political status quo. As one of the PLA Daily commentaries aptly points out, “Historical experience shows that, when the Party and the country are facing big issues, hostile forces at home and abroad always stir up trouble, noises in the society also increase, and the people’s thinking becomes more active.”

Translation: People are starting to think beyond what they’re told – and that’s bad news for the party.