For over a decade China's leaders have complained about the state of their armed forces. The critics include many irate generals and admirals. Increasingly the complaints are published, so that everyone knows the problem is still seeking solutions. Initially these complaints were confined to private meetings. But so many people attend these meetings that details eventually get out to the general public. Since these leaks do not represent official policy, they do not get repeated in the Chinese media, and foreign media tends to ignore it as well. It's more profitable for the foreign media to portray the Chinese military as scary.
The truth, as Chinese leaders describe it, is more depressing. It's all about corruption among the military leadership and low standards for training and discipline. In short, Chinese military power is more fraud than fact and three decades of trying to change that have not produced as much change as befits the most technology advanced and well-equipped military China has ever produced. Corruption has been reduced, mainly through the use of unannounced audits by anti-corruption organizations that have been kept clean, so far. These audits continue to find a lot of theft and other misbehavior.
Some improvements come from ordering ships to stay at sea for long periods, which is the customary way to develop effective crews. Same with modern aircraft, which are built to be used a lot in peacetime so the pilots can develop flying skills. While the pilots enjoy all that time in the air, the sailors are not happy about spending weeks or months at sea per voyage. The ground forces are the focus of most criticism because commanders can appear capable just by training the troops to look good during basic drills and paying attention to keeping the new equipment clean and presentable.
Government investigators continue to find ground units that report they are well trained to operate all their modern equipment, while the reality is that commanders don’t employ realistic training, especially the kind that might injure troops or result in damaged equipment. History shows the more you sweat in peace the less you bleed in war. History also shows that peacetime commanders have to be pushed to practice this because peacetime soldiering has always been more about appearance than wartime reality.
It’s not for want of trying to improve. Since the 1990s China has been undergoing a major military buildup and frequent equipment, organizational and training upgrades. There have been several generations of this since the 1960s. All have failed. Why should the current efforts be any different? The earlier efforts failed because of growing corruption and loss of military spirit.
Most people can understand the role of corruption. Military spirit is another matter, but as successful generals and military historians have noted for centuries, the warlike attitudes of an army make more difference than the quality of their weapons. It wasn't always this way. The People's Liberation Army (PLA), as China's armed forces are known, was forced to win or die from the 1920s to 1949, as it fought a civil war with the Nationalists while also resisting a Japanese invasion. The PLA was basically an infantry army which developed innovative tactics and leadership methods that defeated the Western trained Nationalists and fought the American army to a bloody standstill in the 1950-53 Korean War. The original PLA was forged in an atmosphere where failure was not an option. Currently getting rich, or simply looking good to get promoted, is more important than fighting skills because there's no one to fight and much wealth to be had.
After the Korean War the traditional PLA values began fade. The senior members of the PLA had been campaigning for twenty to thirty years and they were tired. China was in ruins, it had to be rebuilt. To make matters worse the communists then spent the next twenty years indulging in disastrous economic and political experiments. In the mid-1970s, the Chinese communists finally got down to business and introduced economic reforms that are still under way. But reforms in the military were not so easily implemented.
Then there’s the political angle. The PLA was always seen as the basic enforcer of communist rule in China. The Communist Party wanted one thing above all from the PLA: loyalty. Everything else was secondary. This included military capability and fiscal responsibility. Until the 1990s the government was also broke most of the time. There was not much money for the military. What cash was on hand for defense went into things like nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and warplanes. Generals were allowed to fend for themselves. Units had farmland and grew their own food. Other soldiers worked in factories to produce weapons and equipment. This didn't leave much time for training, and a lot of the spare time available went to political indoctrination. Above all, the troops must be kept loyal to the Chinese Communist party. The results of all of this were predictable. For example, when China fought a short war with the combat experienced Vietnamese in 1979, Chinese losses were enormous and the performance of the troops obviously poor. The Chinese soldiers were brave. They rushed forward and died by the thousands. The soldiers were not trained and their leaders knew little of battlefield management. The military still needed reform and going into the 1980s, but did not get it.
China went through an enormous economic boom starting in the 1980s. The communists held on to political power but allowed great economic freedom. It was now OK to get rich and the head of the Communist Party (and thus the country) said so, repeatedly and in public. The military took advantage of this. The military factories that had previously supplied military needs now began producing consumer goods and weapons for a booming export market. It wasn't until the late 1990s that the government forced the military to pay more attention to their primary job. Officers were ordered to get rid of their business interests. There was a lot of grumbling but by and large everyone complied.
More money was allocated to new weapons, including the latest warplanes and missiles from Russia and building new things like aircraft carriers. But this did not mean that the PLA was going to become more effective. There had been several attempts to introduce new weapons and new ideas since the 1970s. All had failed to improve combat abilities because of corruption. Money disappeared and little was spent on actually training the troops to use the new stuff or providing funds to maintain the high-tech stuff.
Going into the 21st century China was still a paper dragon. They have an impressive arsenal of weapons, which are often long on quantity and short on quality. The troops are still spending a lot of time doing non-military tasks. Moreover, the economic boom in China rendered a military career less attractive choice for talented young men.
Despite that, things were changing this time. The lessons of the past finally caught up with the military leadership. The most obvious evidence of this is the change in pilot training. For decades pilots got little air time. This reduced the wear and tear on the aircraft, making it cheaper to maintain a large number of warplanes. What this produced was a large number of ill-trained pilots flying second rate aircraft. Such a force is usually cut to pieces by a better trained foe. That happened time and again to everyone from 1941 on. The Chinese tried the other approach favored by Western air force. The PLA pilots were officially required to fly over a hundred hours per year. There was such enthusiasm for developing competent pilots that most squadrons scrounge up the money to fly their pilots more than the new minimum. Front line units, like those on the Taiwan strait, get even more and some have pilots in the air for over 200 hours a year. This is more than Taiwanese pilots fly and explains why the Taiwanese are so eager to upgrade their air defenses. Yet, at the same time some squadrons do not fly all that much, and the reason is usually that senior officers have stolen the money allocated for all that flight time.
The paper dragon is trying to sharpen its claws, putting on some muscle and learning how to fight. China now has thousands of modern warplanes, a growing fleet of modern warships, and modern equipment for many of its ground troops. But there are still a lot of corrupt or incompetent officers at all levels. It's not just the stealing, it's also the many officers who don't make the extra effort. There's also a lack of recent combat experience, which eliminates the possibility of getting the best officers promoted and worst ones killed off or pushed to the side. While this mess is recognized by the senior political leadership, the public image the state-controlled media puts out there is that the Chinese armed forces are ready for anything and capable of handling any foe. You can get away with that kind of propaganda in peacetime but once these troops go into combat it all falls apart. Keep that in mind the next time China rattles its saber because the Chinese leaders are.