Wed, Apr 24, 2019 - Page 8 News List

China and PLA face long road to reform

By Chang Ling-ling 張玲玲

Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has been striving to “deepen the reform of national defense and the armed forces,” with the aim of boosting China’s military power and improving the status of military personnel.

Worried about the serious psychological and ideological challenges faced by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), China has been using many approaches, including both the “hardware” and “software” aspects, to try to improve morale.

The first challenge is that China’s anti-corruption campaign has shaken the PLA at all levels. The prolonged struggle between military factions loyal to Xi and former Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) has seriously damaged the PLA’s image. The ousters for corruption of two vice chairmen of the Chinese Central Military Commission — Xu Caihou (徐才厚) and Guo Boxiong (郭伯雄) — were seen as a sign that Xi, as chairman of the commission, had completely succeeded in purging the military, but the toxic legacy of these cases remains.

The second problem is that the PLA is neither a people’s army nor a national one, but the army of a political party — the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Xi wants to reform and modernize the PLA to put it in line with international standards, but this goal is stymied by a system of party committees and groups within the PLA.

Being under the command of the CCP, rather than the government, the PLA is unrestrained by China’s constitution. To maintain its authoritarian rule, the CCP needs the army to help suppress counter-revolutionaries and eliminate dissidents.

The PLA can at any time become an instrument of repression by one party faction against another, as it did in the suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement.

Third, Xi’s policy of cutting troop numbers by 300,000, which he announced in September 2015 at the commemoration of 70th anniversary of China’s victory against Japanese aggression, has greatly undermined military morale. There have been numerous protests and petitions by military veterans.

Last year, the Chinese Ministry of Veterans Affairs was established to resolve the issues behind these protests, but it has not been very effective. Some veterans who harbor grievances against the armed forces and society at large have even become involved in criminal activities, including some major criminal cases, and this in turn has caused public resentment against the PLA.

Meanwhile, some active-duty soldiers’ morale has suffered because they worry that they, too, will be discharged.

Fourth, the influence of democratic ideology has weakened the PLA’s core value of “obeying the party’s commands.”

China’s weakness lies in its failure to take heed of public opinion and issues of human rights.

Notably, the “709 crackdown,” which started on July 9, 2015, involved the arrests of countless human rights defenders. Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), who was out of prison, but still under guard when he died of cancer in July 2017.

More recently, Uighurs in Xinjiang have been locked up in camps for ideological reform. Incidents such as these have been condemned by the international community.

Democracy in China is still in its infancy, but in the past few years the PLA has been influenced by Western democratic thought, including the 1989 democracy movement. A few senior officers have even spoken out in favor of a democratic system, saying that the CCP will perish if it cannot reform.

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