Leadership: The New Military Aristocracy In China


January 5, 2014:   Compared to the leaders of democracies their Chinese counterparts spend a lot more time with their generals and admirals. They do this because the army is considered part of the Communist Party and the main job of the military is to keep the communists in power. In recognition of this the head of Communist Party runs China and holds two other positions; Chairman of the Central Military Commission (which runs the military) and the President of China. This concept of the military being a subsidiary of the Communist Party was 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. Thus the military got its money and other favors via the CCP.

The military has used a lot of the money to good effect. Two decades later the troops are better trained, more carefully selected in the first place and have modern weapons and equipment. Chinese troops have also joined international peacekeeping operations, and their performance has impressed their military peers. But while the Chinese troops are much better, they are not as good as they think. This is what worries Chinese leaders because many generals and admirals are now clamoring to be turned loose on real or imagined Chinese enemies. More thoughtful political leaders realize that the Chinese generals and admirals probably overestimate their capabilities and that could lead to economic and political disaster if China suffered humiliating defeats as a result of being too aggressive with the military. The CCP leaders are having an increasingly hard time dealing with their aggressive military commanders, who are sometimes acting first and conferring with their political bosses later.

There are other problems with the generals. Chinese economic reforms of the 1980s shifted control over 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. This is bothering the CCP leaders a great deal because for the last two decades most of the officers have been selected more for their military skills than for loyalty to the CCP. These new “technocrat” officers all swear allegiance to the CCP but the secret police (who have informers everywhere) report that the technocrat type officers, who will be occupying senior positions in another decade, are more concerned with economic opportunity than party loyalty.

Then there is the growing corruption, caused by the larger economy which gave communist officials more to steal, or receive as bribes for. The CCP has been increasing its efforts to curb corruption in the armed forces. This has to be handled carefully as if the CCP upsets too many officers the military might become unreliable. In an effort to avoid this the military is insisting that most new officers be 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. If not the CCP will have to deal with 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 is concerned. Thus the senior CCP officials are getting out and spending more time with the younger officers and reminding everyone that it’s the CCP that has been increasing the military budget faster than the GDP has been growing and making it possible for all the new uniforms, equipment and weapons to be obtained. There have also been several pay and benefits increases for officers and troops.

Despite these efforts the CCP recently ordered more attention be paid to the loyalty of officers, especially the many who are now college grads. This will be handled by the secret police and unfavorable reports will harm an officer’s career or get him expelled from the military and the CCP. The party wants everyone reminded that the military answers to the Chinese Communist Party first of all. However the growth in college educated officers has led to more enthusiasm for political reform by younger officers. This is a popular idea among many Chinese who back the concept of the armed forces existing to defend China above all. This is heresy to the CCP and less concern about the survival of the party is something every officer must be reminded is incorrect thinking.

The government is frustrated at its efforts to curb corruption in the military, This is an ancient problem in China and 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.

Many CCP leaders are 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 is comes down to is what is the main criteria for promoting junior officers 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 a 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 cronies. 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 and stepped up in 1989, when the government needed muscle to shut down massive pro-democracy demonstrations in the capital. The CCP leaders did notice that many military commanders hesitated to support this crackdown. Since then officers are bribed with the implied promise of good jobs in the government or business after they retire and similar help for their children, in addition to an edge in getting into the best universities. Because of this a growing number of families consider the military a family business and many sons, and grandsons are following the family tradition of being career military officers. All this has created a new aristocracy that is increasingly aware that, like it or not, they are the new aristocracy and if the people get too angry, there could be yet another revolution and another catastrophe for aristocrats who did not pay attention to who the military was most loyal to.





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