Chinese efforts, since the 1990s, to curb corruption in the military are not working. At least these efforts are not helping the military to become more effective. Desperate for a solution the government is trying something different. In the last year the government ordered some detailed studies of how the military operates and how effective the armed forces were. The report found lots of problems, most of them connected in one way or another with corruption. This led to the recent appearance of many stories in state-controlled media detailing how corruption in the military was a major reason for Chinese defeats in the last two centuries. At the same time much media attention is being given to senior generals being prosecuted for corruption. In Chinese culture this is the equivalent of a Western country suddenly accusing senior military leaders of corruption and damaging the ability of their troops to get the job done. China is also not sparing recent political leaders as these articles are also discussing more recent military disasters (like the 1979 war with Vietnam) and the role political and military corruption played. All this is a big deal in communist China, a very big deal indeed. Until recently the senior communists rarely criticized each other in public like this. This is supposed to send a message to the people and the troops that something is finally being done, and to scare the senior officers, especially the ones who are dirty.
It’s also important to keep in mind that compared to the leaders of Western nations (mostly democracies) their Chinese (who are running a communist police state) counterparts spend a lot more time with their generals and admirals. They do this because the army is considered part of the Communist Party and the main job of the military is to keep the communists in power. In recognition of this the head of Communist Party runs China and holds two other positions; Chairman of the Central Military Commission (which runs the military) and the President of China. This concept of the military being a subsidiary of the Communist Party was pioneered by the Russians when the Soviet Union was formed in the early 1920s. The CCP (Chinese Communist Party) followed suit and this arrangement worked quite well as long as most national wealth was controlled by the CCP. Thus the military got its money and other favors via the CCP.
Since the 1990s the defense budget has grown by over 600 percent (six times). While the military has used a lot of the additional money to good effect the government now admits that a lot of it was stolen or wasted. Despite that two decades later the troops are better trained, more carefully selected in the first place and have modern weapons and equipment. Chinese troops have also joined international peacekeeping operations, and their performance has impressed their military peers.
But while the Chinese troops are much better, they are not as good as they think. This is what worries Chinese leaders because many generals and admirals are now clamoring to be turned loose on real or imagined Chinese enemies. More thoughtful political leaders realize that the Chinese generals and admirals probably overestimate their capabilities and that could lead to economic and political disaster if China suffered humiliating defeats as a result of being too aggressive with the military. The CCP leaders are having an increasingly hard time dealing with their aggressive military commanders, who are sometimes acting first and conferring with their political bosses later. That’s one reason for going after the most corrupt ones. These guys are not going to have much public support because they are dirty and the government is releasing most of the sordid details. This is meant to get all senior commanders to adjust their thinking and perceptions.
There are other problems with the generals. Chinese economic reforms of the 1980s shifted control over most GDP from party officials to entrepreneurs. While all officers and many lower ranking troops are CCP members, they came to see their future economic opportunities coming from the free market, not the favor of CCP bureaucrats. This is bothering the CCP leaders a great deal because for the last two decades most of the officers have been selected more for their military skills than for loyalty to the CCP. These new “technocrat” officers all swear allegiance to the CCP but the secret police (who have informers everywhere) report that the technocrat type officers, who will be occupying senior positions in another decade, are more concerned with economic opportunity than party loyalty.
The CCP has been increasing its efforts to curb corruption in the armed forces but this has to be handled carefully. If the CCP upsets too many officers the military might become unreliable. In an effort to avoid this the military is insisting that most new officers be college graduates.
Since the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) was founded in the 1920s, the main qualification of a new officer was being a “good communist.” That is no longer the case and the last of the “old comrades” (officers who served in the late 1940s and early 1950s) are gone. There are still a lot of officers who came up in an atmosphere that favored “good communists” and tolerated a lot of corruption. Now a new generation of government leaders (all of them communists) are demanding that the officers be “good commanders” and much less corrupt. It’s a period of transition and there’s no telling when it will be reflected in better combat capabilities. If not the CCP will have to deal with the growing number of officers who wrongly think they are in the military to defend China and not the CCP. This is very dangerous thinking as far as the CCP is concerned. Thus the senior CCP officials are getting out and spending more time with the younger officers and reminding everyone that it’s the CCP that has been increasing the military budget faster than the GDP and making it possible for all the new uniforms, equipment and weapons to be obtained. There have also been several pay and benefits increases for officers and troops.
Many CCP leaders are wondering if they can have corruption-free as well as effective modern armed forces. Thus the current military reforms in China, needed to turn the armed forces into a modern and effective organization may end up putting the political leadership between a rock and a hard place. Many Chinese leaders believe that they cannot have military leadership that is corruption free, capable of fighting a modern enemy and politically loyal and reliable at the same time. What is comes down to is what is the main criteria for promoting junior officers who are loyal (and often corrupt and not capable warriors) or those who can get things done (and are often disdainful of corrupt and politically correct officers and government leaders).
Reliability and corruption has always been a problem in police states. The first communist nation, the Soviet Union, solved this by killing thousands of senior military officials in the 1930s, mainly for suspected disloyalty. There were side effects. This "Great Purge" was bad for morale, and hurt the nation’s ability to defend itself when the Germans invaded in 1941. Two decades later, the Russians tried another approach. In return for keeping their mouths shut and staying out of politics, the military was given what amounted to a blank check. Oh, there was one other detail. The promise was made, and kept by a faction in the Communist Party that wanted to oust, without a civil war, the then current head of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev and his cronies. Unfortunately this deal led to an arms race with the United States which, after two decades, wrecked the Russian economy and brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Chinese Communist Party noted that Russian experience, and sought to avoid making the same mistakes. During the 1960s and 70s, China went through a period similar to the Russian Great Purge of the 1930s. However, China's "Great Cultural Revolution" did not do as much damage to the army, and in 1976 the army backed a group of moderate Party leaders in shutting down the Cultural Revolution for good.
Since then, the Chinese military has been well taken care of and stepped up in 1989, when the government needed muscle to shut down massive pro-democracy demonstrations in the capital. The CCP leaders did notice that many military commanders hesitated to support this crackdown. Since then officers are bribed with the implied promise of good jobs in the government or business after they retire and similar help for their children, in addition to an edge in getting into the best universities. Because of this a growing number of families consider the military a family business and many sons, and grandsons are following the family tradition of being career military officers. All this has created a new aristocracy that is increasingly aware that, like it or not, they are the new aristocracy and if the people get too angry, there could be yet another revolution and another catastrophe for aristocrats who did not pay attention to who the military was most loyal to.