Leadership: Chinese Generals and Their Fatal Distractions

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October 18, 2005: In China, the armed forces are rather more independent of the government than in most Western countries. Sort of like a special interest group that, technically, is part of the government, but has to be treated with deference and care. The government has tried, with some success over the last decade, to curb the independence of the armed forces. This is difficult to do, as you have to be careful when arguing with a lot of heavily armed people. The government stuck a particularly telling blow in the late 1990s when they forced the military to sell off the many commercial enterprises they had long operated. These enterprises began as farms, so the troops could eat, and factories for making uniforms and weapons. But as the Chinese economy boomed over the last two decades, many officers were more concerned with getting a piece of the growing economic action, than in preparing for war.

Corruption in the military has always been a Chinese problem, long before the Communists took over, and the economic boom was threatening to destroy the ability of the armed forces to become a modern, effective fighting force. While most of the commercial enterprises were sold off by the military, some remained, and so did the corruption. Completely cleaning up the military is going to take a while, if it is ever going to be accomplished at all.

So for the next decade or so, expect to see some strange things going on between the government and the generals. For example, it was recently revealed that the military is using several hundred million dollars of its own money to buy back Chinese art, and artifacts, that are in foreign hands. Over the last century or so, billions of dollars (in current valuations) worth of Chinese art and cultural artifacts have left the country (via plunder or purchase). Over the last few years, it has become something of a national obsession to get a lot of this stuff back. This is being done by encouraging companies, and wealthy individuals, to pony up the cash to buy these objects (paintings, statues, books, and so on) back. Each notable item that is returned to the motherland is greeted with a barrage of positive publicity for the buyer. The military likes good press, and good art. So money that might otherwise go for equipment or training, is being used to buy back bits of Chinas heritage.

 


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