Are the Armed Forces of the Chinese Communist Party a steel-shelled Turtle?

By Shree Pandey

Since the early 1990s, the economic growth of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been nothing short of spectacular. The rise of the current Communist Party of China (CCP) leader, Xi Jinping, has however seen China’s growth take a strong military bend. In his address to the 19th National Congress of the CCP in October 2017, Xi Jinping had declared his vision to produce a “world-class force” that would dominate the Asia Pacific and “fight and win” global wars by 2049. And his determination can be seen by the expansion of the People’s Liberation Army’s maritime force, PLA(Navy). 18 ships were commissioned in 2016 and another 14 in 2017 by the PLA(Navy), while in comparison the US Navy commissioned 5 ships in 2016 and 8 ships in 2017.

China dreams to be a global superpower by 2049. However, the question remains, whether a military built only on money and new technology can stand and fight? While such discussions have been dismissed by Chinese state-controlled media as Western propaganda, the large casualties suffered by PLA, while fighting the unarmed Indian soldiers during Galwan crisis and the subsequent capture of the Kailash Heights, as a part of Operation Snow Leopard by the Indian Army, has surely caused alarm bells ringing in Beijing. The conduct of the PLA and CCP during this clash brought the fatal flaw in the Chinese Dream– the lack of astute military leadership. It took more than seven months for CCP to finally muster the courage to admit that many Chinese soldiers were killed in action as a result of this flaw.

The conduct of warfare reflects not in technological terms alone but in organisation and leadership styles. While technology has changed the way we fight but without systemic and well-coordinated doctrinal and organisational changes, no new technology can translate into actual military combat power. The current situation of the CCP Armed Forces, as laid bare in the Himalayas, is clear evidence of the same.

It is pertinent to note that while the CCP Armed Forces have evolved a new doctrine after every major conflict, there remain fundamental issues with regards to institutional reforms which can prevent them from achieving any significant changes. Technology aside, key elements of a modern fighting force remain largely unchanged. These include technically proficient soldiers with combat experience, led by professional and proactive officer cadre. These elements seamlessly organised in a mesh and nimble command and controlled architecture enable decisive action in dynamic situations. Areas where the Chinese lag.

The changing dynamics in Chinese society over the past two decades of “reform and opening up” has proven to be a double-edged sword for the CCP forces. The rising economy has provided stiff competition to the Armed forces in attracting the best of China’s youth. Though rural illiterate youth still consider military service as personal progression, the educated urban youth remain unwilling to conscription. Thus, while CCP forces ranks are being filled, their education standards are not likely to complement their ongoing modernisation program.

Although HR remains a problem for all militaries, the uniqueness of the Communist Chinese model takes the issue to a completely different level. China’s “one-child policy” has brought about a unique set of problems as 52 percent of the conscripts are “only – child soldiers”. While the loss of the only child creates unparalleled hardships to rural agriculture-based families, the much savvier urban parents find ways for their children to evade military service. Though better living standards have enhanced the life expectancy of the Chinese population, “greying China” has also led many of the educated military officers to jump ship to the private sector so as to financially support the emerging ‘4-2-1’ family structure (04 grandparents – 02 parents – 01 child). Thus, the personnel that are left behind are ‘child emperors and empresses’ who don’t always have the mettle required for the harsh realities of warfighting.

While publicly CCP has given a lot of emphasis on enhancing the quality of military leadership, below the surface, there remain endemic issues that Beijing has found difficult to overcome. The majority of the current senior military leadership, despite having one of the highest retirement ages, had their only exposure to combat during the 1979 Vietnam War whilst the middle/lower leadership have had no combat experience. Moreover, studies have also revealed that there are significant regional biases in the induction of officers which continue to reflect in promotions and postings.

The PLA is the de-facto ‘strong arm’ of the CCP and therefore political intrusion, rather than military threat, has defined its early development and duties. While generals in the post-Mao era were less inclined to get involved in the party functioning, this trend has seen a reversal in recent times. In the Xi Jinping era, there have been substantial efforts in making the military subservient to the party in all respects. Consequently, a culture of developing political-lineage-based coteries has set in and resulted in the promotion of political favourites rather than merit-based advancements. This, to an extent, may explain the complete lack of anticipation of the Indian military response to China’s unilateral and unprovoked aggression in the Galwan sector in mid-2020. It is quite possible that the highly centralised command and control organisation of PLA, populated with officers of dubious professional standing, were unable to take decisions on time to allow the army men on ground to react to Indian counter-action.

The popular Indian metaphor of the “elephant’s two sets of teeth” applies very well to the current state of the CCP Armed forces. While a large number of modern technologies, some even acquired through unscrupulous means, explains their efficacy in combat is largely speculative. Given the intrinsic infirmities in the socio-cultural build-up of China today, the quality of soldiers being used to operate this equipment is even more suspicious. Rampant corruption, political gamesmanship and obscuring truths, further undermine the efforts in developing a ‘world-class force’. Beijing could have seen the rotting underbelly of the PLA in the aftermath of Galwan, but choose to double down on its false narrative and ignore the realities that were laid bare.

In the quest to “win without fighting” propaganda and misinformation, Xi Jinping may need to take a moment and look closely at his “yes men” generals. After all, the popular folk tale of the “emperor’s new clothes” also finds its origins in the court of another totalitarian ruler of the middle kingdom.

About the Author:

The author is a freelance journalist and a research scholar of International Humanitarian Law.

Leave a Reply