Infantry: China Catches Up


July 7, 2008: The recent earthquakes in central China brought out the armed forces for relief work. That's pretty normal. What was not normal was the publicity given to the troops. As happens so often these days, the Internet got ahead of the official media in reporting from the disaster zone, and the bureaucrats were forced to allow the media to run with the story. This meant noticing that the troops were all over the place.

While the Chinese media praised the efforts of their soldiers, Western reporters and pundits were surprised as the lack of equipment (power tools, earth moving vehicles, generators). For outsiders, accustomed to lavishly equipped Western forces, the threadbare Chinese troops were something of a shock. In fact, a decade ago it was much worse. Since then, the troops have gotten new uniforms, pay raises, new weapons (a Chinese designed assault rifle, and many other locally manufactured weapons). But China is still too poor to equip their troops with all the gadgets Western troops are used to.

Since the communists took over China sixty years ago, the armed forces have mainly been occupied with paying their own way (raising their own food, and working other jobs some of the time) and helping out in national emergencies. Once China got its nuclear weapons about 40 years ago, they no longer had to depend on the armed forces for anything important (aside from internal security). The Korean War cost the Chinese half a million dead, gained them nothing. After that, they resolved to avoid wars with the United States, and to get nuclear weapons (which happened in the mid 1960s).

The Chinese armed forces have downsized by 1.7 million troops in the last twenty years, and now consist of 2.3 million active duty personnel. There's been a large reduction in the number of headquarters. The ratio of officers to troops was also improved, by a sharp reduction in the number of officers, and the growth of the number of professional NCOs. China is also spending more money on food and accommodations for the troops. This is partly in recognition of the fact that the quality of civilian food and housing has grown enormously in the past two decades. It's a much greater shock, for new troops, when they encounter lower living conditions in the Chinese military. Thus, if the Chinese want to keep able people in the military, they have to compete with the quality of civilian life.

The military is trying to create a smaller (20 percent of the entire military) force of troops equipped with the most modern weapons, and allowed to train heavily. This is expensive, and makes it clear the Chinese realize they need some modern troops, but cannot afford to modernize the entire force. The elite troops are rarely sent to do disaster relief. But the troops who did show up to help out were regarded as disciplined, eager and well led. The new uniforms made the troops stand out, and the victims did not expect Western standards of disaster relief.

China is determined to have a modern military force. Eventually. When they can afford it.


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