Leadership: Why Four Is An Unlucky Number In China


August 14, 2009: Reformers within the Chinese military are urging further consolidation of military command, so that the military can more quickly mobilize its forces for an emergency, or a war. The current form of organization is based on seven military regions (Shenyang, Beijing, Lanzhou, Jinan, Nanjing, Guangzhou and Chengdu), each of them containing army, air force and navy (riverine in the interior) forces. This form of organization is an ancient one, and based on the need for "local armies" living and training in the area they are defending. But reformers note that modern communications and transportations systems make this ancient system unnecessary, and, worse yet, simply a source of wasteful expenditures on unneeded headquarters. Some reformers sneer at the military regions as rest camps for unneeded generals.

The government has been reducing the number of military regions. The current system was instituted in 1985. There were eight before that, down from 11 in 1973 and 13 in 1968. Reformers want to have just four military regions (north, south, east and west), but are having a hard time persuading enough officials that such a move is worth it. The 1985 reduction in military regions (from 8 to 7) was justified by the fact that the armed forces were going through the first of several reductions, with a million troops being discharged. The four region arrangement would mean big cuts in the senior ranks.

The Chinese armed forces are run by a lot of consensus, and the generals and other officers in the three military region headquarters the reformers want to shut down, are not, for the most part, keen on this kind of reform. Underlying this is the ongoing corruption in the armed forces (and a job at a military region headquarters provides lots of opportunity to be bad and rich), and the ever present fears, in the capital, about the loyalty of the armed forces in a crises. After all, it was twenty years ago that the senior officials (the Politburo) had to shop around to find generals willing to go into Tiananmen Square and slaughter thousands of unruly students. Once you reach a certain level in the Chinese military, there is no tradition of blind loyalty. Everything must be negotiated. And, at the moment, the reformers haven't got what it takes to bargain their way to a consolidation.



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