March 11, 2015:
Although the Chinese military has achieved many visible signs (new weapons, equipment, uniforms, training and officer training) of modernizing it is still having problems in several key areas. When it comes to leadership there are problems with the political officers. The Chinese long ago borrowed the concept of the political officer (“Zampolit”) from the Soviet Union. The political officer represents the Communist Party and has the authority to overrule any order a military officer gives. In reality, the political officer usually acts as a combined morale and special events officer. The political officers are primarily responsible for preventing anything happening in their unit that would embarrass the party. In theory, political officers are supposed to prevent their commanders from getting involved in fiscal corruption, but often it's the other way around, with the political officers getting involved in illegal money-making schemes first. The Communist Party is trying to purge the political officer ranks of dishonest and unreliable elements. It is slow going. This has caused more friction between commanders and their political officers. That tends to reduce the effectiveness of the unit these two officers are in charge of. There is no easy solution to this problem. Russia got rid of the zampolits in the early 1990s but a decade later brought them back to assure the loyalty and reliability of the armed forces.
Then there’s another leadership problem, one which seriously hurt Japans’ effort against the United States during World War II. This is the fact that the Japanese Army then, like the Chinese Army now is the senior service to the extent that generals can overrule admirals and generally interfere in navy matters that the army generals really know little about. This is already causing China problems and there is no solution in sight. This is particularly true when it comes to joint training. In wartime this “army runs show” sort of thing is a serious problem, just read any history that covers Japanese army and navy relationships during World War II.
An offshoot of the army domination problem is that there is little real joint (all services working together) planning. Right now the army tells the navy and air force what it wants done and that is the end of that. The Chinese understand that their next war will likely be in the Pacific, not mainland China. The navy should be in the lead here but it isn’t.
Another old custom, from before modernization began, is local government having control (actually shared control with the army) of about 40 percent of army personnel. These are mostly support and security (border and key facilities inside the country) that local officials play a role in supporting. Dealing with this problem has been put off for a long time because the local (especially provincial) officials don’t want to give up control of all these local units. It’s mainly about power in a bureaucracy but these support units provide many opportunities for corruption, which cannot be admitted openly. The army is aware that a lot of the officers assigned to these local units got their job because of support (often paid for) from a local politician. The army wants to get rid of a lot of these officers in general and specifically weed out all unqualified officers. But because so many officers have political sponsors, this is a delicate task to carry out. There is growing urgency about this because the surplus of staff and support officers is in sharp contrast to a shortage of officers in combat units.
Another leadership problem is the development of NCOs. Russia downplayed NCOs in the 1930s and China followed that model until, in the late 1990s, they realized the Western custom of developing experienced NCOs was a major asset. It takes time to develop these NCOs and it will be another decade before Chinese NCOs catch up with their Western counterparts.
Not only is it difficult to get rid of unproductive officers, but the government insists that older weapons and equipment be kept in service long past the time when this older (often ancient) stuff is useful. Yet there are often practical reasons for keeping the previous generations of weapons around. That’s because the government will not pay to produce enough of new models (of tanks, trucks, artillery, electronics and so on) to re-equip everyone. Having multiple generations of major equipment around does complicate training and maintenance.
Unfortunately one popular solution for all the maintenance problems is to concentrate on keeping the weapons and equipment looking ready while in fact the stuff is not fully operational. This is an old problem especially in forces that have had little recent combat experience. Senor Chinese military leaders and staff officers recognize this and understand that one thing that makes the Americans a formidable foe is lots of recent combat or operational (flight time for aircraft and long periods at sea for ships).
Senior commanders have done staff analysis of the combined impact of all this and the conclusion is not something they want to publicize. While Chinese forces have gotten much better in the last two decades they still have a serious “combat capability” gap with potential opponents; especially the United States.