September 12, 2011: The Chinese government recently ordered more auditing of how the military spends money, and has changed the way senior commanders are evaluated for promotion, to include the amount of corruption uncovered among subordinates. This puts more pressure on military commanders to refrain from corrupt practices, and to pay closer attention to how honest their subordinates are.
Corruption has long been a big problem in the peacetime Chinese military. The effects of this corruption are usually responsible for Chinese forces doing so poorly in the opening stages of a war. It has been this way for thousands of years. But the current Chinese government is determined to clean things up.
Chinese leaders want to ensure that China's growing military might is real. Corruption can create a situation where ever increasing spending on modern weapons and military equipment only gives the illusion of growing military power. Currently, it is very much an illusion. The 2.3 million troops in the Chinese armed forces are poorly trained and led. A lot of this can be traced directly to a long history of corruption and rot in the military during long periods of peace. The last time the Chinese military has been in action was 1979 (when they attacked Vietnam, and got beaten up pretty bad). You could also count the encounter, in the Spring of 2001, where a Chinese fighter buzzed an American navy patrol aircraft, and managed to collide with the U.S. plane, and crash (the U.S. aircraft landed, despite its damage.) That incident did not reflect well on how the Chinese military was run.
There are many more examples. American sailors are constantly exposed to examples of the poor training and leadership in the Chinese navy, whenever they encounter Chinese warships at sea. Foreigners living in China, and speaking Chinese, can pick up lots of anecdotes about the ineptitude and corruption found in the military. It's all rather taken for granted. But in wartime, this sort of thing would mean enormous problems for the troops, when they attempted to fight better prepared troops.
You don't see much in the media about the poor training of Chinese military personnel. You don't hear much about the poor leadership and low readiness for combat. But all of this is common knowledge in China. There, the military is not walled off from everyone else. Cell phone cameras and the Internet make it easy to pass around evidence (often in the form of "hey, this one is hilarious"). The government tries to play up how modern and efficient the military is, but most Chinese know better, and don't really care. China is winning victories on the economic front, and that what really counts to the average Chinese.
Meanwhile, U.S. military leaders and defense industries are looking for a sufficiently impressive foe to help scare more money out of Congress. The Chinese Navy (or, more correctly, the Chinese Peoples' Liberation Army Navy) is now the favorite candidate, for navy and defense industry analysts, to become the new Big Bad. Just how dangerous are these Chinese sailors and their ships? It turns out that, on closer inspection, not very.
This is the sort of thing that went on during the Cold War. Russian military prowess was hyped by the American military, and their defense suppliers, to justify further increases in defense spending. When the Cold War ended, it was revealed how the Russian military, and defense manufacturers, played the same game. It also revealed that Russian military capabilities were far less than the hype indicated.
The basic weapon for this sort of thing is FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt). Works every time, although it is difficult to pitch the Chinese navy as a crack force. Most of their ships are elderly, poorly designed and rarely used. Their nuclear subs are worse than the first generation of Russian nukes back in the 1960s. The most modern Chinese ships are Russian made, Cold War era models. Chinese ships don't go to sea much, not just because it's expensive, but because Chinese ships tend to get involved in nasty incidents. Like the submarine that killed its crew when the boat submerged (and the diesel engines did not shut down when the batteries kicked in, thus using up all the oxygen.) Breakdowns are more common, as well as a lot of accidents you don't hear about (weapons and equipment malfunctions that kill and maim.) Nevertheless, the Chinese are working to change this. Ships are going to sea more each year, and troops are getting more training. But unless the corruption is curbed, this could all be wasted.
Meanwhile, China is doing well where it counts. In the last two years, China passed Germany and Japan to become the second largest economy on the planet (after the U.S.). That's because 30 years of constant, nearly ten percent a year, economic growth have turned China into an economic superpower, at least in terms of national GDP. The problem is that there are two Chinas. About twenty percent of the population is enjoying most of this growth. They mainly live along the coast, where a recent survey found, to no one's surprise, that 80 percent of the coastal waters were polluted by several decades of sharp economic and industrial growth. But the interior is poor, and angry. In other words, you've got about 300 million people doing quite well, and another billion that are not happy with the situation at all. This does not bode well for the Chinese military budget.
China has a lot of domestic problems to worry about, which is apparently one reason the government isn't willing to give a lot of money to the military. In fact, the generals have been told to shrink their manpower strength, and gradually increase the quality of equipment and training. Over the next few years, China will shrink its armed forces by another few hundred thousand troops. The Chinese armed forces have already shrunk by 1.7 million troops in the last twenty years, and now consist of 2.3 million active duty personnel. Soon, there will be only 1.6 million troops (not much larger than the 1.4 million American forces). China also has 660,000 personnel in the national police, and 1.2 million organized reservists. Remember, China is still a communist police state. There are a lot of Chinese unhappy with the government (which is actually rather corrupt and inefficient by Western standards.)
Given the sorry state of Chinese weapons and equipment, it will take them decades to even have a chance of "catching up with the United States". And that's apparently the Chinese plan. And it's a very traditional plan. The Chinese like to think long term. Works for them. Meanwhile, China does not want to make the U.S. Navy angry. China is now dependent on imports, especially oil and other raw materials. Access to the sea is a matter of life or death for the Chinese economy, and the survival of the communist dictatorship. But the same could have been said for Japan in 1941. The difference is that China is not making big trouble with any of its neighbors, and China and the United States both have nuclear weapons.