Global think tanks take a keen interest in Beijing’s military buildup, and there has been plenty to attract their attention during the spending spree on cutting-edge weaponry in the past few years.
Much is said about the missiles, submarines, stealth fighters and other hardware of the People’s Liberation Army, and their deployment across the nation, as well as the people pulling the reins. China’s political hierarchy is scrutinized, as well as its military strategy and tenets and how these will affect the outcome of any possible military confrontation.
But analysts have yet to look at the PLA from the perspective of military sociology — a systematic study of the military as a social group rather than a military organization — Ding Xueliang, professor of sociology at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, noted in a column in the Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly.
The study delves into a highly specialized field that examines issues related to service personnel as a distinct group with coerced, collective actions to safeguard their own interests in both peacetime and war.
The common observation about the sweeping anti-graft drive by Communist Party chief and top commander Xi Jinping is that he is attempting to ease out political foes from the military amid factional schisms. But that is only part of the picture, Ding argued.
He stressed there was another point that should not be overlooked: it was an open secret that one could buy an official post in the PLA, as positions, more often than not, were open for “bidding”.
“When conducting field studies in China back in the late 1990s, I heard from retired soldiers that PLA posts were always up for grabs to the highest bidders … Later I even obtained a detailed ‘price list’ for specific jobs and ranks in the army, ranging from a company commander to an infantry division chief,” he wrote.
Why is a PLA post so sought-after? The world’s largest armed force in terms of headcount, the PLA is nothing but a paper tiger, as unlike the US it has not conducted a genuine military operation since the mid-1980s.
Working for the PLA in peacetime means riding a big gravy train with zero risk of having to go to war.
Ding said it’s especially so when Beijing’s military funding is constantly on the rise – 1.1 trillion yuan (US$175 billion) for 2018, a year-on-year increase of 8.1%.
“You don’t have to die for your country; quite the opposite, you can milk the taxpayers’ money, intended to keep the country safe.”
Hong Kong and Taiwan papers revealed last year that Chinese paratroopers were afraid of dropping into a mock battlefield from a high altitude in a Sino-Russian joint military drill.
Ding’s conclusion is that Xi is possibly fully aware of this, and is conducting some “cleaning” within the PLA as a deterrent.
The PLA’s current situation is reminiscent of the fate that befell the Beiyang Fleet during the late Qing dynasty, when it suffered a crushing defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894.
Much of the funding for ammunition, maintenance and training was carved up and channeled into the pockets of commanders and captains. It was said that when the fleet’s founder, viceroy Li Hongzhang, inspected one of the vessels, he found many of the cannonballs were actually stones.
Since Xi took the helm of the PLA in 2012, more than 60 generals have been convicted of embezzlement and other forms of corruption; many were in charge of logistics and munitions procurement.
A deputy naval commander was found to have taken bribes totalling 160 million yuan ($25,376,248), but he pales in comparison with Gu Junshan, PLA’s most senior lieutenant general in charge of logistics, who is said to have amassed some 20 billion yuan (US$3,172,380,800) of assets, including 400 properties across China.
The king of venality must be Xu Caihou, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission. Investigators found heaps of cash in the basement of his Beijing villa, in US dollars, euros and renminbi, that weighed over a ton. They had to use more than a dozen heavy trucks to take the jewelry, jade and antiques away. Xu died while in custody.
While the corruption push continues, Beijing is also under mounting international pressure to make its military spending more transparent. One typical excuse for not making details of income and expenditure public is military sensitivity or national security.
But Ding said Beijing had its own ready-made excuse for keeping the wraps on: it doesn’t know how the money is being spent in the nation’s gigantic yet secretive military-industrial complex, where interest groups on all levels are itching to get a share of the pie.
China’s internal audit of military spending is cosmetic, and there is practically no third-party examiner to keep an eye on all the accounts. Hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ money wouldn’t have slipped so easily into the pockets of Gu, Xu and other greedy generals and marshals had there been an independent auditor in place.