Leadership: General Liu Lights The Way

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June 12, 2011: A year ago, Chinese Lieutenant General Yazhou Liu was giving speeches to his fellow officers in which he insisted that China must embrace democracy, or perish. This surprised many foreigners who followed debates within the military. But Liu had recently been promoted, and his speeches and published articles continued to appear despite the seemingly explosive nature of his proposals. A year later, Liu is still the political officer (or political commissar) for National Defense University, but is now being mentioned as taking the job as political officer for the Chinese Air Force. Liu's message may be heresy to communists, but it finds an eager audience among the Chinese leadership.

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, Chinese 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. The political officers report to the Communist Party, which still runs China, but is less communist and more interested in beneficial changes.  And change is in the air, whether communist officials want it or not. Liu offers a way out, but at the expense of what's left of communist doctrine in China. Apparently Liu's advice is finding receptive ears among senior military and political officials.

Liu has been pushing his ideas for a decade now. Six 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. Over a year ago, he was quietly allowed to go public again. The way he presents his ideas is compelling.

Liu 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. Just as, over the last two decades, 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, and public, conversations with fellow generals have changed a lot of minds.

Being an air force officer, Liu has made himself interesting, and popular, by pointing out the success of U.S. Air Force innovations, and describing how they could be adopted for Chinese use. Liu may be talking about a lot of radical changes, but he describes things that could make China more powerful, and that appeals to a lot of Chinese.

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.

 


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