On August 1 the People’s Liberation Army of China will mark 85 years since its founding. In those early years it numbered just 30,000 troops. Today it has 2.25 million active personnel and is the world’s largest standing army.
The date will be celebrated, as it normally is, with a slew of old-style propaganda efforts, military displays and a ceremonial banquet in the Great Hall of the People.
But there is extra spice this year. As many readers will know, this autumn China carries out its once-in-a-decade leadership change. Perhaps as part of that process, Party leaders have felt the need to remind the PLA where its loyalties should lie.
The vast majority of these reminders have occurred after March 15, the date Bo Xilai was sacked as Party secretary of Chongqing.
On March 22nd the PLA Daily accordingly called on members of the military to “oppose and eliminate” indiscipline in the army and “to resolutely do what the Party asks, and not to do what the Party forbids”.
Two days before, there had been rumours that supporters of Bo had attempted a coup in the capital with the help of a military faction.
There is no real clarity on what happened that night. But it seems that the leadership has been trying to purge supposed Bo loyalists from the military (rumoured to be officers in the southwest divisions).
A second interpretation is that elements of the government are trying to ensure the PLA’s support before an attempt at renewed political reform. Since March Premier Wen Jiabao has been increasingly vocal on the importance of making the Party more responsive to public needs. And as China expert Peter Mattis pointed out in The Diplomat magazine earlier this month, reformers are unlikely to risk the bruising debate required for such a change if they are not sure of the PLA’s endorsement.
“At times of political uncertainty, the loyalty of the military (and now paramilitary) forces is the foundation that allows the Party to take political risks,” Mattis wrote.
A final theory doing the rounds is that there is growing awareness that it is the PLA itself that needs major reform. Despite huge investment in its hardware – a new aircraft carrier, stealth fighters and anti-ship ballistic missiles, for instance – there is speculation that the PLA needs wider overhaul. Several articles in the foreign media have described how vested interests, corruption and training shortfalls mean the army may be far from battle-ready. In April Foreign Policy magazine reported that Liu Yuan, a three star general and son of former president Liu Shaoqi, was spearheading an anti-corruption drive but that it has been meeting stiff resistance.
Given that the army still holds important influence in the selection process that decides the final line-up of the Politburo Standing Committee, it remains to be seen how far these reforms will be pushed.
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