For the last three years Chinese Lieutenant General Yazhou Liu has been giving speeches and writing articles for a mostly military audience, insisting that China must embrace democracy and new thinking in general or perish. This surprised many foreigners who followed debates within the military. But Liu was apparently making a favorable impression at the highest levels because two years ago he was promoted and his speeches and published articles continue to appear despite the seemingly explosive nature of his proposals. Liu is still the political officer (or political commissar) for National Defense University. Here he communicates directly with students who are going to lead the military in the next decade.
Liu's message may be heresy to communists but it finds an eager audience among the Chinese leadership. This is because Chinese leaders have always been respectful of history, especially Chinese history. Liu makes much of how the Qing dynasty (the last emperor and all that) fell largely because it would not accept new ideas quickly enough. The Qing dynasty was one of the great ones in Chinese history, lasting from 1644 to 1912. The Qings made one big mistake, believing their own press releases (about how great they were) and not hustling (like the much more successful Japanese) to adopt more effective Western technology and concepts. Liu is pointing out what is obvious to Westerners, that the Chinese military spends too much time bombarding the troops with “we are great” propaganda and backing away from introducing leadership and training concepts that make the Western troops superior in combat. China has equipped its troops with Western style weapons and equipment and, like the Qings liked to think, this means Chinese troops are as effective as the Western ones. The Qings learned the hard way that appearances alone do not work. This was especially embarrassing when Western equipped Qing forces met similarly equipped Japanese forces and were beaten again and again. The Japanese had accepted Western concepts for training, tactics, and military thinking and made it work for them. The Qings never went far enough and Liu is pointing out that the current government of China is making the same mistake.
Liu is a unique (to Westerners) kind of officer. He's a political officer, a job invented by the Russians during the Soviet period. The political officer is assigned to units from company size on up and is second in command of the unit. The political officer is responsible for the political loyalty of all the officers and troops in the unit. He also acts as a (non-religious) chaplain, morale officer, and publicist for the unit. These days, Chinese political officers rarely say much about communist doctrine, as few Chinese care for it. Political officers do serve as a source of grassroots information on what's going on in the ranks and the word has long been that corruption is a big issue among military personnel. The political officers report to the Communist Party, which still runs China, but is less communist and more interested in beneficial (especially to party members) changes. And change is in the air, whether communist officials want it or not. Liu offers a way out but at the expense of what's left of communist doctrine in China. Apparently Liu's advice is finding receptive ears among senior military and political officials.
Liu has been pushing his ideas since the 1990s. Eight years ago he was ordered to shut up. So his public presentation of these seemingly heretical ideas ceased for a while. But Liu kept talking to military and government officials in private. By 2010, he was quietly allowed to go public again. The way he presents his ideas is compelling.
Liu points out that the American military has continued to innovate, increasing the gap between Chinese and U.S. military capabilities. This has happened despite over a decade of intense reform and upgrades in the Chinese military. This gets the attention of Chinese generals and admirals. Just as, over the last two decades, the Chinese brass were appalled at how quickly the Americans demolished Iraqi forces (using weapons and tactics similar to what China has) in 1991 and 2003. The Chinese military leadership was also shocked at how much the American forces had improved between 1991 and 2003. The quick conquest of Afghanistan in 2001, was also an unpleasant surprise, as this was a very different war than the two in Iraq. Chinese commanders speak boldly, and publicly, of how they are developing methods to defeat all this American cleverness, but Liu knows better, and his private, and public, conversations with fellow generals have changed a lot of minds.
Being an air force officer, Liu has made himself interesting, and popular, by pointing out the success of U.S. Air Force innovations and describing how they could be adopted for Chinese use. Liu may be talking about a lot of radical changes but he describes things that could make China more powerful, and that appeals to a lot of Chinese.
Liu's backing of democracy is purely practical and really has nothing to do with political beliefs. He describes American democracy as a system designed by a genius for effective use by stupid people. As Liu puts it, ''a bad system makes a good person behave badly while a good system makes a bad person behave well. Democracy is the most important reform for China, for without it there can be no sustainable growth.''
Liu has also been active in anti-corruption efforts and points out that democracies tend to have far less corruption than non-democracies. This gets the attention of Communist Party officials, who have long believed that the Russians made a mistake by enacting economic reforms as well as political ones. Liu points out that the Russians had no choice, as the communists in Russia were completely discredited, and the economic reforms followed the political collapse.
Liu points out that communists can compete in a democratic environment, especially since Chinese communists have abandoned the most destructive aspects of traditional communist doctrine (state control of the economy). But growing corruption, especially among communist officials, is crippling China and threatens the economy, as well as continued communist control of the country. Better to compete in a democratic environment and risk losing national power than to proceed with the current system and risk everything. Liu is being listened to by a lot of senior officials, both military and government, who back clean government. But the "dirty" communists are opposed, and that is a formidable opponent for someone like Liu.