Is China’s PLA fit for purpose?

May 7, 2014 by Timothy Beardson

Widespread and growing concern over China’s growing military prowess has been accompanied by a steady and equally fervent undercurrent of international analysis questioning the professionalism of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). And yet sometimes it seems as if advocates for these two communities don’t often speak to each other.
Military capability is normally calibrated through battle performance. In the last 50 years, however, China’s military experience has barely extended beyond some skirmishes with the Soviets in the Amur-Ussuri region along the border with Siberia, some similar engagements with the Vietnamese in the 1980s and the 1978 Sino-Vietnamese war. It is not a lot by which to judge Chinese military performance.
The 1978 three-month war against Vietnam was with an opponent – and at a time – entirely of Beijing’s choosing, yet the question of who was the victor continues to be disputed.
No subsequent wars have occurred, but the low intensity conflict in Xinjiang rumbles on decade after decade. In 2013 the military leader in Xinjiang, General Peng Yong, was fired from the Provincial Party Standing Committee, suggesting concerns about his performance.
Otherwise we have a handful of non-combat examples of military mobilisation by which to judge PLA performance. In January 2008, for example, the snow-laden Guangzhou railway system was in chaos, which led to a PLA mobilisation. It was not altogether a success; America’s National Defense University said the PLA responses were “woefully inadequate” and that there was no effective disaster management plan.
In May the same year the Sichuan earthquake struck. While part of the response went well, one clear disaster was the lack of airlift capability, which led to China borrowing planes from Russia, Pakistan, the US and even Federal Express.
Further afield, in 2009, Somali pirates captured a Chinese ship, the De Xin Hai. The Chinese vowed to free the 25 sailors with helicopters and special forces from their contingent to the Indian Ocean anti-piracy patrols. In fact, there was no rescue. Poor negotiations led to an excessive $4m being dumped by helicopter onto the deck of the ship, leading to the release of the captain and crew.
While China’s participation in the anti-piracy programme has engendered some criticism for its ineffectiveness, it scored reasonably well for its evacuation of 36,000 workers during the 2011 Libyan civil war. However, the credit probably lies with the foreign ministry.
Recent reports by state media and Chinese academics that senior military leaders – such as General Gu Junshan and even former Politburo member General Xi Caihou – bear responsibility for the widespread sale of military posts raise important issues. Both are now under investigation for large-scale corruption. Could this mean a recent further deterioration in professional standards which have already been questioned in recent decades?
It is no secret that jobs are for sale in the PLA. Even a farmer’s child needed to pay 50,000 yuan in bribes to enter the PLA, whilst a major-general’s post can cost up to $4.8m. David Tsui, a military expert at Sun Yat Sen University in Guangzhou, says that corruption has become much worse over the last ten years and is now “rampant”.
According to the military expert Anthony Wong Dong, the military, including the navy, is “well-known for its poor transparency and its lack of checks and balances. This creates many opportunities for those at its upper levels, especially senior officers in charge of personnel appointments, to benefit privately from their power.”
A further factor is the changing character of military recruits. Professor Liu Mingfu from the PLA National Defence University noted in February that 80% of combat troops were from one-child families. In an open report to the central government in 2012, Liu stressed that sending a Chinese family’s only son to battle had been taboo since ancient times. Excessive numbers of single children amongst combat troops is still a “strategic fear” for China’s long-term military development. There has been a critical deficiency in PLA manning for over ten years.
Professor Ni Lexiong in Shanghai recently observed that “the army needs to wait at least 20 years until all the second babies are young adults”. He added: “That means we can’t go to war without serious concerns.” Naturally, not all observers agree.
Nor is it simple a question of who is in the PLA. There was plenty of coverage in February to the unsettling announcement in Beijing that PLA soldiers’ average waistline had increased over the last 20 years by 1.97 inches – although few noticed that simultaneously US soldiers had increased by an average two inches.
What are the operational implications for the PLA? First, it is not evident that its soldiers are any less fit than US soldiers. Indeed during the recent Afghan war, a senior US military official admitted that recruitment standards had been lowered to a mental threshold termed Category III – “one level above imbecility”.
Furthermore in 2010 most American forces personnel in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were not strictly US citizen-soldiers; most were mercenaries, citizens of diverse nations fighting for money, but today known by the banal term of “contractors”.
Second, the high proportion of single child PLA recruits may cause emotional traumas and may lead to the induction of spoilt children, but military training could address this.
The burning issue is the recent widespread selling of military positions. Of course, England allowed the purchase of military commissions until as late as the late nineteenth century. It didn’t prevent the building of the largest empire the world has ever known.
However, sale of office during the same period in China’s history was rampant. It is estimated that between 1865 and 1911, 66% of all officials and holders of official titles had bought their status. For China the results were less positive than in England. The widespread sale of office may have helped the state raise finance but it contributed notably to the Qing state’s erosion.
Given the differential results between countries, if we now note diminished PLA professionalism owing to the sale of positions, there might be such a thing as “the sale of office with Chinese characteristics”.
There is a concern that a generation of military leaders might be unsuitable for their responsibilities. This suggests that the recent operational weaknesses noted by analysts may show further deterioration.
Peacetime is sub-optimal for an audit of military effectiveness. However, wartime mobilisation is uncomfortably late to measure it. The PLA needs a broad leadership restructuring and a thorough review of the competences of its command in order to demonstrate fitness for future use.

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