Chinese Lieutenant General Yazhou Liu has been giving speeches to his fellow officers in which he insists that China must embrace democracy, or perish. Liu recently got promoted, and his speeches and published articles continue. What is going on here?
Liu has been pushing his ideas for nearly a decade. Five years ago, he was ordered to shut up. So his public presentation of these seemingly heretical ideas ceased. But Liu kept talking to military and government officials in private. Now he has been allowed to go public again. The way he presents his ideas is compelling. He points out that the American military has continued to innovate, increasing the gap between Chinese and U.S. military capabilities. This, despite over a decade of intense reform and upgrades in the Chinese military. This gets the attention of Chinese generals and admirals. Earlier, the Chinese brass were appalled at how quickly the Americans demolished Iraqi forces (using weapons and tactics similar to what China has) in 1991 and 2003. The Chinese military leadership was also shocked at how much the American forces had improved between 1991 and 2003. The quick conquest of Afghanistan in 2001 was also an unpleasant surprise, as this was a very different war than the two in Iraq. Chinese commanders speak boldly, and publicly, of how they are developing methods to defeat all this American cleverness, but Liu knows better, and his private conversations with fellow generals has changed a lot of minds.
Liu's backing of democracy is purely practical, and really has nothing to do with political beliefs. He describes American democracy as a system designed by a genius for effective use by stupid people. As Liu puts it, ''a bad system makes a good person behave badly while a good system makes a bad person behave well. Democracy is the most important reform for China, for without it there can be no sustainable growth.''
Liu has also been active in anti-corruption efforts, and points out that democracies tend to have far less corruption than non-democracies. This gets the attention of Communist Party officials, who have long believed that the Russians made a mistake by enacting economic reforms as well as political ones. Liu points out that the Russians had no choice, as the communists in Russia were completely discredited, and the economic reforms followed the political collapse.
Liu points out that communists can compete in a democratic environment, especially since Chinese communists have abandoned the most destructive aspects of traditional communist doctrine (state control of the economy). But growing corruption, especially among communist officials, is crippling China and threatens the economy, as well as continued communist control of the country. Better to compete in a democratic environment, and risk losing national power, than to proceed with the current system and risk everything. Liu is being listened to by a lot of senior officials, both military and government, who back clean government. But the "dirty communists" are opposed, and that is a formidable opponent for someone like Liu.
Liu is a special kind of officer. He's a political officer, a job invented by the Russians during the Soviet period. The political officer is assigned to units from company size on up, and is second in command of the unit. The political officer is responsible for the political loyalty of all the officers and troops in the unit. He also acts as a (non-religious) chaplain, morale officer and publicist for the unit. These days, political officers rarely say much about communist doctrine, as few Chinese care for it. Political officers do serve as a source of grassroots information on what's going on with the troops, and the word is that corruption is a big issue with military personnel as well. Change is in the air, whether communist officials want it or not. Liu offers a way out, but there's no guarantee that enough of these officials will take it.