Western observers tend to assume that the Chinese Army and the Communist Party are as close as the proverbial “lips and teeth.” However, a number of troubling, but largely unremarked upon, reports in the Chinese media raises nagging doubts about just how close the two really are. This is an important question for the United States, as the People’s Liberation Army is the rock upon which the structure of Party dictatorship rests.
China Central Television (CCTV) recently reported that, according to a September 21 article in the authoritative newspaper People’s Liberation Army Daily, the military has been exhorted to:
“[A]dvance the Party’s construction in the army, persist in the Party’s absolute leadership of the army, uphold the Party’s flag as the army’s flag, and take the Party’s will as the army’s will.”
Hortatory articles like this one have appeared regularly for years in the Chinese media. Last summer, however, the tone of such standard articles began to change, becoming more insistent, even panicky.
I noticed the shift and began to puzzle over it. Others have noticed it, too; James Mulvenon, for instance, has written an important essay called “They Protest Too Much” about demonstrations by demobilized soldiers. The new tone was clear in a lecture by President Hu Jintao on June 25, during which he told an audience at the Central Party School that they must guard against “arrogance and rashness,” and remain “ideologically sober-headed.” What, I asked myself, could have prompted such strong language?
Then on July 15 and July 16, according to Hong Kong reports, Hu spelled out for more than 80 top commanders at the Central Military Commission in Beijing the eight problems that most concerned him. These were a daunting list:
1. Decreasing sense of military responsibility.
2. Disconnect and lag in building the political ideology, organization, and in the PLA’s self-development.
3. Weakened fundamental belief in the Party’s absolute leadership over the military.
4. Decreased ability to resist westernization, segregation, and corruption.
5. Changed organizational and disciplinary principles.
6. Worsening relationships among various military rankings and internal departments.
7. Questionable ability to win a war in the modern era.
8. Increasing and sometimes severe conflicts between the military and local government and residents in certain regions.
Reading this list, I finally grasped the point. The Chinese army has serious problems with morale, competence, and political loyalty. That is what Hu is telling the army, and us.
Some Chinese military officers are undoubtedly corrupt, but others likely despise the present political leadership. They probably discuss among themselves what is to be done to save their country from the looming disaster of corruption, pollution, and unrest. The West tends toward an optimistic view of China’s future, with reform and stability both assured, and no danger of breakdown in civil-military relations. President Hu seems not to share our optimism. Perhaps it is time for us to reconsider.