Aug. 30, 2020, 10:51 a.m.
Beijing: Conscription into military service and the pitiable standard of living of soldiers are resulting in the People’s Liberation Army being a force with men and women having no stomach for fighting for the nation.
The world’s largest army has been in the news in the past few months for all the wrong reasons, particularly over its ill-conceived actions along the Line of Actual Control with India in Ladakh.
While the PLA lost a large number of its soldiers in the clash with Indian Army troopers on June 15 in Galwan Valley, China has grudgingly admitted, after days of silence on the matter, that two of its officers died in that battle. The actual PLA toll, according to those with knowledge of what happened that night in Galway Valley, was more than what they claimed. The sacrifices of its soldiers have not even been recognized by the Chinese army and the nation’s political leadership to date.
The PLA has evolved over the years from a ‘peasant army’ to the present day force, wherein it is desperately trying to match the joint operations capabilities of the US. It remains far away from being a professional armed force.
Let’s look at its recruits who are conscripts. They generally belong to the socially backward and disadvantaged sections. Single child policy has created social insecurities and dependencies of the fast-aging population. Each soldier is known to bear responsibility for at least six aged people, which reduces his risk-taking ability and inhibits him from putting his life in danger.
This policy has also led to strong aversion to ‘body bags’ in Chinese society. Borne out of cultural belief that a child is a gift and should be nurtured and protected, older people are reluctant to expose their children to mortal danger. The fact that children of senior party leaders do not join the PLA reveals China’s pseudo-nationalism. University graduates have a strong preference for technical jobs, that too mostly out of China.
Sources have revealed that the PLA has been forced to incentivise jobs in the armed forces with inducements like easy membership of the Communist Party of China (CCP), better chances of going to university post the conscription period and soft loans for starting businesses. The rank and file of PLA are not driven by value-based soldiering and thoughts of serving the nation, but are forced to serve a fixed period to avail of certain perks which in a democracy will be rightfully available to all, an Army officer explained.
Pay and allowances for the conscripts are highly discriminatory. While a conscript is paid 800-850 Yuan (equivalent of Rs 8,500-9,000), an officer’s pay starts at 10,360 Yuan which is almost 13 times the pay of a recruit. Given the high cost of living and dependencies of older parents, a soldier finds it difficult to make ends meet. There are restrictions on a soldier that he cannot stay with family in parts of Tibet, whuch creates additional burden, both emotional and financial.
Even though it is difficult to get data from China, reports indicate that soldiers postpone their marriage and do not start a family while in the army. “The ones who do, do so at a very late age. Delayed marriages are placing an additional burden on the social fabric of the countryside in China,” the Army officer said.
Despite all this, there is no concept of ‘welfare’ in the PLA. It is evident from the fact that PLA has not even tried to develop accommodation for its soldiers where families can live, even in developed areas of Tibet. On the other hand, from the days of Mao, PLA has nurtured a highly privileged officer class. While they command much higher pay, which can go up to 35,000 Yuan or the equivalent of Rs 3,75,000.00 for a General, they have limited accountability. Till recently, the PLA was running profit-making ventures which provided for much better living standards of officers in comparison to the soldiers.
The gold standard of a professional army is its apolitical nature and a ‘capability based’ promotion opportunities, available to all members in a transparent manner. But, the PLA sets itself apart over here too. An important criterion for future promotion is not capability but membership of the CCP. Being a ‘princeling’ is a definite advantage.
In fact, lobbying and bribing are common in PLA ranks for gaining favours like promotion. Further, loyalty to the ‘rising stars’ and the party are considered more important, else one runs the risk of being ‘purged’ on cooked up charges. Sources said that in the first quarter of this year, more than 93,000 officials had been ‘purged’ and mostly jailed. Purging of senior military commanders has been taking place since 2013 and a number of senior Generals have been forced to retire and some are still languishing in jail.
While a facade is created of ‘corruption’, the actual reason as reported is that they may be professional soldiers who had perhaps fallen out of favour with the central leadership. “In a recent trend, PLA generals who were from the ‘anti-Xi’ camp have also been selectively targeted,” said a source.
Another significant trend is the supremacy of ‘political commissars’ appointed in the PLA, by the CCP, who enjoy much greater powers than the military commanders. This trend starts from the rank of Commanding Officer upwards. It goes without saying that these are not professional soldiers but party loyalists and thus have very limited understanding of military operations.
The PLA has been largely used by bosses in China to intimidate the opposition within the country and maintain a vice-like grip over Chinese society. The fact that PLA has not seen active combat since 1979 has morphed the world’s largest army into the world’s largest ‘personal’ army, serving only the top bosses of the party, and not the country.
The efforts at modernisation backed by an ever-rising defence budget are yet to demonstrate their effectiveness. Armed with weapons and battle systems, which are a poor replica of western technology, mostly stolen by China, the PLA is yet to transform itself into an integrated and reliable war machine. Marred by lack of professionalism and corruption, there is an atmosphere of fear, suspicion and risk-aversion within PLA ranks, to survive which their leaders prefer to tow the party-line in public, though they may not be convinced of its merit.
Retired soldiers’ plight
The PLA has been using its retired soldiers and officers too for expanding its nefarious designs. Given the number of veterans in China, which stands at 57 million, and is second only to the membership of the CCP, they form an influential group. Post retirement, soldiers are employed either on projects of PLA Rocket Force and Nuclear Forces or are used for selling illegal weapons. These can be easily found in the markets of Chiang Mai, Thailand.
There is no sense of ‘welfare’ for the veterans after they retire and need the help of the state. It is conveniently left to the provinces to provide for them. In the last decade, the veterans have increasingly felt disgruntled, leading to unprecedented protests by them all over China in 2018. Fearing a backlash and to assuage the veterans, the CCP was forced to establish new ‘Pension Regulations’. Beijing has only instituted a number of measures since 2018 on paper, to address the problems of veterans.
“The PLA is used to viewing soldiers as cannon fodder,” said the officer. Though they have been trying hard to change the perception of the world, true professionalism is miles away from the haloed offices of Beijing.