Leadership: China Throws The Fat Into The Fire


March 2, 2015: The Chinese Communist Party recently issued an order that all promotions in the military now require candidates to meet strict weight and physical fitness requirements. This is yet another attempt to curb corruption in the military. In this case the thinking is that one way to curb paying bribes get promotions (enabling the promoted officer to steal even more) is to take advantage of the fact that corrupt officers tend to be overweight because they are more interested in getting rich than in being good soldiers. The corrupt officers drink more, eat more and exercise less than officers devoted to their military duties. Thus is anyone bribes their way past the new regulation they would be instantly recognizable as dirty (and fat).

Decades of anti-corruption efforts have had little impact on the military. Then again corruption in the military has been a problem in China for thousands of years. Yet this new rule is clever in that it takes advantage of the fact that fat officers have become symbolic of corrupt officers and it is hoped that any officers who continue to bribe their way past the new regulations will be called out by an angry public with access to photos of the fat officers on the Internet. For the new rule to work at all the Communist Party has to resist calls for exceptions for “special cases” (seen by most Chinese as yet another form of corruption) which would be publically ridiculed anyway. So far bribery has had little impact on public ridicule, especially via the Internet. Not that corrupt officials don’t try, by hiring (from firms that specialize in this sort of thing) Internet shills to try and shout down those ridiculing the chubby and probably corrupt officers.

Westerners might wonder why it is the Chinese Communist Party that is taking the lead in all this. That’s because in China the Communist Party has run the government since the late 1940s. It does this by controlling the military, literally. Officers and troops swear loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party and not the nation of China. But as China has undergone economic reforms (ditching communism for capitalism) since the 1980s there was more temptation for all communist leaders (civil and military) to steal and take bribes. Party and government officials proved easier to prosecute and punish than military officers who, after all, control all those guys with guns and other weapons. But in this case the party could point to the fact that Western armed forces, which the Chinese officers have been deliberately studying and copying, put great emphasis on physical fitness. So the Chinese Communist Party is pitching this as a military reform not an anti-corruption measure. But the officers, and Chinese in general know what is really going on here.

Meanwhile the West has indeed become increasingly strict about physical fitness in the military, especially in combat units. The Americans have taken the lead here. Yet even the American use of this physical fitness policy has had its ups and downs. For example in late 2012 officers and NCOs attending U.S. Army Professional Military Education (PME) schools had to meet all weight and physical fitness standards first. Otherwise, the soldier would not be allowed to attend. This would show up on their record as “failed to achieve course standards.” This would make it difficult, if not impossible, for the soldier to get promoted. If you don't get promoted within a certain amount of time you must leave the service.

This was the reinstatement of a rule that was suspended during the height of the fighting in Iraq. Thus since 2007 troops could attend PME courses without meeting weight and physical fitness tests. That was because there was a war on and the army could not afford to lose otherwise qualified leaders. But by 2012 the war was considered over and in peacetime the army tends to rely more on appearance than reality.

Meanwhile the weight issue had become particularly acute as many troops endured multiple, and very stressful, combat tours. While overseas, booze was forbidden, smoking was discouraged, and using illegal drugs got you tossed out of the service. Prostitutes (and local women in general) were off-limits. What’s left were gyms or workout equipment (in some areas) and lots of food everywhere. Guess what the favorite stress-reliever was? The flab followed you home, as does a lot of the stress. It’s tough being a skinny combat veteran. What this demonstrated was that in wartime another set of physical standards took over, standards that were secondary to troops remaining effective (physically and psychologically) in combat. Note that the combat troops had fewer weight problems in the combat zone because their job was extremely physically active. But all those support troops were eating themselves out of a job.

In peacetime there is no way to measure and monitor such wartime standards, so the substitute is insisting that troops “look” effective. Thus the emphasis on thin was one of many similar changes that imposed more restrictions on how you can look. That means more conservative haircuts, shaving every day (even when off duty), fewer tattoos, and no visible piercings. Male troops cannot wear earrings at any time. No dental decorations, including gold caps. For female troops this means less makeup and dyed hair as well as shorter fingernails. There will be restrictions on what kind of civilian clothes can be worn on base. There are also a bunch of other petty restrictions, all intended to improve the appearance of the troops.

While fighting continues in Afghanistan, for the lifestyle police in the U.S. Army the war is over. Senior officers and NCOs who were dismayed at the usual wartime relaxation of appearance standards are now putting more emphasis on marching and similar drills, as well as greater attention to wearing uniforms correctly and saluting every time you are supposed to. More effort is being directed at improving appearances. On the positive side, there will be growing emphasis on being physically fit, with more soldiers discharged for being too fat or unable to pass the physical fitness test.

But overall, emphasis will shift from being combat ready to appearing (especially to politicians and the media) combat ready. The troops call this "mickey mouse" (or a lot of less printable phrases). The troops don't like it but the senior officers and NCOs do. This time around the brass promised to change promotion standards to see that more pro-mickey mouse officers and NCOs rise in the ranks. This means going to the right service schools and getting the right assignments, as well as looking and acting like a good soldier should. It's the old "getting your ticket punched" mentality again.

During wartime the lifestyle police still try to take control but are stymied by wartime realities. For example, back in 2006, the U.S. Army was forced to back off on its "zero tolerance" rules on tattoos. "Zero tolerance" meant that if you had any tattoo showing (when you are dressed, wearing a long sleeve shirt and long pants) the army would not take you. But after turning away so many otherwise qualified recruits the army changed the rule to allow innocuous tattoos to be showing. Moreover, the army didn't set any precise standards about what was acceptable and what was not. Enforcement was a judgment thing, with recruiters and staff at basic training centers often disagreeing over what was acceptable. The brass had been increasingly allowing recruiters to have the final say. After all, if the guys (and some gals) with visible tattoos, as a group, make good soldiers the tattoo policies themselves may be in danger. But now that fewer proven warriors are required the trend has moved towards appearance. In peacetime this is important because there is no trial by combat to prove who can fight and how well.

China has not yet reached the point where they are seriously concerned about combat performance. They are still struggling to keep the troops from cheating and stealing.





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