19 March 2018
Beijing has been pouring huge funds into beefing up the military's capability, but corruption is still spreading like cancer in the People's Liberation Army. Photo: Xinhua
Beijing has been pouring huge funds into beefing up the military's capability, but corruption is still spreading like cancer in the People's Liberation Army. Photo: Xinhua

Why the Chinese army is a paper tiger

Beijing’s disputes with its neighbors – over territorial rights in the South China Sea and East China Sea as well as Seoul’s deployment of a US-made anti-ballistic missile system – are not likely to be resolved easily.

Washington is behind all of these rows and Beijing knows this better than anyone else. The possibility of a military facedown between the two powers cannot be entirely ruled out.

Global think tanks take a keen interest in China’s military strength as the nation steps up its muscle building. Much is said about the missiles, submarines, stealth fighters and other hardware of the People’s Liberation Army, and their deployment across the nation.

Attention is also drawn to Beijing’s political hierarchy as well as the top leadership’s military strategy and tenets and how these will affect the outcome of any possible military confrontation.

Still, analysts have yet to look at the PLA from the perspective of military sociology, a systematic study of the military as a social group rather than as a military organization.

The study itself is a highly specialized field that examines issues related to service personnel as a distinct group with coerced, collective actions to safeguard their own interests at a time of peace or war.

One example of how military sociology can offer fresh insights is its research into why there has been a significantly higher proportion of African Americans in the US army, particularly among senior generals, than their corresponding percentage in the nation’s entire population.

The reason is that the US army upholds racial equality. When the force has to fight several treacherous battles in some of the most volatile parts of the world, performance, not color, is the only criteria of appraisal for promotion.

PLA more corrupt than ever

Now let’s go back to the Chinese army.

The common observation about the sweeping graft-busting drive by Communist Party chief and top commander Xi Jinping (習近平) is that, amid the factional schisms, he aims to ease out his political foes in the military. But that is only part of the picture.

One fact must not be overlooked: it’s an open secret that one can buy an official post in the PLA, which, more often than not, is open for “bidding”.

When conducting field studies in China back in the late 1990s, I heard from retired soldiers that PLA posts were always up for grabs to the highest bidders.

Later I even obtained a detailed “price list” for specific jobs and ranks in the army, ranging from a company commander to an infantry division chief.

Why is a PLA post so much sought after?

Unlike its US counterpart, the PLA, the world’s largest armed force in terms of headcount, is but a paper tiger and has never conducted one single genuine military operation since the mid-1980s.

Working for the PLA in peacetime means riding a big gravy train with zero war risk.

It is especially so when Beijing’s military funding is constantly on the rise – US$215 billion in 2015, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

You don’t have to die for your country; quite the opposite, you can milk the taxpayers’ money intended to keep the country safe.

In a Sino-Russian joint military drill, it was said that Chinese paratroopers were quite afraid of parachuting into a mock battlefield from a high altitude.

If there is a real war, don’t expect these soldiers to fight and win.

Perhaps Xi is fully aware of this, which is why he is doing some “cleaning” as a deterrent.

The PLA’s current situation is reminiscent of the Beiyang Fleet (北洋艦隊) during the late Qing dynasty, which suffered a crushing defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894.

Much of the funding for ammunition, maintenance and training was carved up and channeled into the pockets of commanders and captains.

It was said that when the fleet’s founder, viceroy Li Hongzhang (李鴻章), inspected one of the vessels, he found many of the cannonballs were actually stones.

More than 100 years later, the PLA’s plight is almost on a par with Beiyang’s. At least 56 generals have been convicted of embezzlement and other forms of corruption since 2012, and many of them were in charge of logistics and munitions procurement.

A deputy naval commander was found to have taken bribes amounting to 160 million yuan (US$23 million), but he pales in comparison with Gu Junshan (谷俊山), PLA’s most senior lieutenant general in charge of logistics, who is said to have amassed some 20 billion yuan including 400 properties across China.

And, the king of venality must be Xu Caihou (徐才厚), vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission.

Investigators found heaps of cash, in US dollars, euros and renminbi, in the basement of his Beijing villa weighing over a ton. They had to use more than a dozen heavy trucks to transport the jewelry, jade and antiques found in Xu’s home.

Beijing has been under mounting international pressure to make its military spending more transparent.

But the irony is that Beijing’s inaction can somehow be justified: it doesn’t know how the money is being spent in the nation’s gigantic yet secretive military-industrial complex, where interest groups on all levels are itching to get a share of the pie.

Beijing’s internal audit of military spending is cosmetic, and there’s practically no third-party examiner to keep an eye on all the accounts.

In contrast, it has been a long established practice in Washington to have private accounting firms scrutinize Pentagon.

One “tired and true” excuse for not doing so and making public details of income and expenditure is military sensitivity or national security.

Hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ money wouldn’t have been so easily flown into the pockets of Gu, Xu and other greedy generals and marshals had there been an independent auditor in the first place.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly.

Translation by Frank Chen with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Party general secretary and top commander Xi Jinping (front, left) has been pushing reforms within the military in a bid to curb corruption, but the issue can’t be tackled without independent supervision of the accounts. Photo: Xinhua

Professor, Division of Social Science, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

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