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China's officers not so gentle

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Five instructions

Bitterness evident

Unquestioned party allegiance

HONG KONG, China -- The Chinese leadership is conducting a thorough investigation into the circumstances behind a senior military official's defection to the United States.

Just one-and-a-half years ago, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) executed Major-General Liu Liankun -- and imprisoned several other officers -- for selling military secrets to Taiwan.

 More by Willy Wo-Lap Lam

It is too early to conclude whether the defection of Senior Colonel Xu Junping involved money or other foibles, despite rumors that he had a mistress in the U.S. whom he befriended while taking courses at Harvard University in 1999.

However, there is little question these instances of apostasy have underscored the alarming deterioration of disciples in the 2.5 million-strong forces.

The problem is all the more serious given the apparent whitewash being undertaken by PLA spokesmen and the army media.

The standard line is that thanks to intensive ideological education, most officers and soldiers have become "latter-day Lei Fengs," a reference to the PLA hero lionized by Chairman Mao in the early 1960s for being a "selfless screw of the revolution."

Five instructions

Consider the long dispatch in the Liberation Army Daily last week on how army staff had lived up to President Jiang Zemin's famous "five instructions": "We must pass muster politically, be tough in military matters, possess a superior work-style, be well disciplined, and be effective in guaranteeing [top-notch performance]."

The Daily said a survey on political reliability showed "the officers and soldiers are firm in their beliefs and pure in thought and morality."

The mouthpiece concluded that the PLA could withstand efforts by so-called hostile foreign forces to "Westernize and divide the military -- and to use liquor, women and corrupt thoughts and culture to infiltrate the forces."

The reality, however, is much bleaker. Unofficial reports about army officers taking part in smuggling or offering protection to massage parlors and underground casinos are common.

Jiang and other Politburo members also suspect the involvement of rogue PLA elements, including newly demobilized soldiers, in the spate of explosions and bombings that have shaken most provinces the past year.

To tighten discipline, soldiers -- including off-duty ones -- have been barred from buying stocks or shares and patronizing nightclubs or Internet cafes. Near-daily ideological classes urge them to raise their guard against the quasi-Buddhist Falun Gong sect as well as alleged plots by the U.S. "to adulterate the nature of the PLA through peaceful evolution."

What is behind the decline in soldierly virtues? At the most basic level, it's matter of money and perks. As the market-oriented economy is developing in leaps and bounds, officers and rank and file feel they are being left behind.

Some senior officers, such as General Fan Genshen of the Lanzhou Military Region, think they can banish materialistic concerns from the barracks through old-fashioned indoctrination.

"We cannot let our troops be dominated by money," the official media quoted Fan as saying earlier this month.

"We should better spread the values of patriotism and selfless devotion to society."

Idealists like General Fan, however, are among a small minority.

Part of the 17.7 percent budget boost this year is being used to underwrite salary increases for soldiers. Staff in individual divisions will get pay hikes of more than 25 percent.

However, this modest augmentation is unlikely to shrink the difference between the living standards of PLA personnel and those of civil servants, and in particular the nouveau riche in the business world.

Bitterness evident

Generals and soldiers alike have not forgiven civilian leaders such as Jiang and Premier Zhu Rongji for suddenly decreeing in mid-1998 that the PLA must wrap up all their business ventures.

A good chunk of the profits from these multi-billion yuan commercial activities had gone into subsidizing the welfare and pensions of the rank and file.

The bitterness is evident in how the top brass has put up resistance to Beijing's investigations into the mammoth smuggling and corruption scandal that centered on the Yuan Hua Group in the city of Xiamen, Fujian Province.

The PLA, particularly the navy, had provided key support for the monkey business of Yuan Hua kingpin Lai Changxing, now under detention by immigration authorities in Vancouver.

So far, no military personnel have been publicly fingered for their role in the scandal. And the top brass was successful in blocking plans by Jiang and Zhu to slap the death sentence on General Ji Shengde, a key player in Xiamen and other smuggling cases.

Perhaps of even more significance to the PLA's ability to uphold its Lei Feng-like rectitude is Beijing's questionable military doctrine.

At a time when, as Vice Premier Qian Qichen said in the U.S. last week, the Chinese economy is "enthusiastically taking part in globalization," the PLA and its sidekick, the million-strong People's Armed Police, are still wallowing in Maoist norms.

The PLA is the only major army in the world that is under the "absolute leadership" of a political party -- in this case the Chinese Communist Party -- a tradition that dates back to the 1920s.

Apart from protecting China's frontiers, a key role of the PLA is to snuff out challenges to the party's supremacy.

In remarks that hark back to pre-1949 days, senior general Zhang Wannian said earlier this month: "We are the people's army that is under the party's absolute leadership. We are an armed group that carries out revolutionary and political tasks."

These "revolutionary and political tasks" are none other than wiping out the CCP's enemies, including dissident groups, the Falun Gong, and foreign and Taiwanese spies.

General Zhang, considered a Jiang protégé, also revived a key Mao slogan, that the PLA should "uphold the goal of the synthesis of peace and war and the synthesis of the army and the people."

Zhang urged the "harmonization of defense construction and economic development."

No matter that even relatively liberal advisers to Jiang such as former political science professor Wang Huning have argued that political reform will not succeed unless the PLA has sloughed off the trappings of Mao's Red Army.

The idea that the PLA should be a state rather than a party army -- and that it be put under civilian control and subject to parliamentary oversight -- was first raised by radical intellectuals under disgraced party chief Zhao Ziyang.

Unquestioned party allegiance

In a speech earlier this month, however, Chief Political Commissar General Yu Yongbo warned against efforts by so-called hostile foreign forces to peddle "reactionary ideas" that the PLA should be de-politicized and weaned from the party.

While the top brass has in theory pledged its unquestioned allegiance to the party, it is also highlighting the fact that the CCP depends on the armed forces as its ultimate defense against internal rebellion.

Hence reformers such as Premier Zhu cannot afford to be too squeamish in implementing anti-corruption and other disciplinary measures. And Jiang, the putative head of the army, has to in effect let most of the Yuan Hua-tainted officers go free.

And since the Beijing leadership lacks the means to satisfy the material needs of officers and soldiers, it is obliged to make up the difference by yielding to the top brass a disproportionately large say in foreign and domestic policy.

In the final analysis, the party's power pact with the PLA has meant that army personnel -- including bad apples whose big-spending lifestyle can only be financed by selling classified documents to Taiwanese and other agents -- are exempt from the scrutiny of the National People's Congress, the press and anti-graft watchdogs.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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