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Anxiety for Xi
China’s Army Getting Restive

President Xi Jinping’s announcement of troop reductions at last month’s 70th anniversary of the end of World War II has many soldiers in the PLA unhappy, according to a Chinese government official. “People are very worried,” he said. “A lot of good officers will lose their jobs and livelihoods. It’s going to be tough for soldiers.” Xi decided on the reductions, which amount to 13 percent of China’s fighting force, “suddenly” and with little input from anyone outside the highest commission governing the army, which the President heads.

The PLA has other reasons to be restive: Xi’s anti-corruption purge has targeted the highest levels of the military. In June, a PLA newspaper said Xi’s proposed reforms and earlier, smaller troop cuts would meet serious opposition, requiring “an assault on fortified positions” in order to change anything within the army.

This unrest in the army, a body which is never perfectly under the control of the government even in calm times, should make Beijing officials a tad nervous. A coup may be unlikely, but it is “conceivable”, Sulmaan Khan argued in the March/April issue of our magazine. It’s never safe to antagonize the guys with the guns.

China’s military needs to change; the revolution in military affairs is reducing the importance of boots on the ground and raising the importance of bytes on the chip. But that change is wrenching; officers and enlisted men don’t like to be laid off, and local governments hate it when bases close.

President Xi does not seem fated to enjoy a quiet life in power.

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  • Fat_Man

    My hypothesis would be that “Xi’s anti-corruption purge” is a euphemism for Xi’s purge of disloyal officials. OTOH, if you can’t purge disloyal officials, what is the point of being a dictator.

  • Kevin

    I’m not so sure that the RMA changes the calculations on the size of the PLA all that much. The RMA (and the disappeared of the massive Soviet army on their northern and western border) means a large ground force is less needed for security from foreign foes, and the desire to expand into the East and South China Ses (plus probably the desire to seize Taiwan in a coup de main) all point towards reducing land forces and diverting resources to air and sea forces. However the principal role of the PLA is to backstop internal security – for this a massive number of troops are needed – high tech aircraft and ships won’t put down the next Tiananmen Square incident.

    I also think Xi is repeating Wilhelmine Germany’s key strategic mistake as a continental power of diverting resources to a naval competition for reasons of national prestige – this is incredibly expensive and ends up deeply antagonizing maritime powers who otherwise would be much less inclined to balance against continental great powers.

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