Hu’s New Goal: Inspiring the PLA for Victory

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 5

Even as China has committed an unprecedented level of resources toward the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), President Hu Jintao has placed an emphasis on raising the “fighting spirit” and strategic ingenuity of the PLA. President Hu has also sought the views of his military advisors on ways in which China can remain militarily competitive with the United States, while avoiding a financially debilitating arms race.

After presiding over perhaps the most ambitious weapons enhancement program in Chinese military history, Hu, in the past month, has been paying more attention to the “software,” or the integrity, the strategic dexterity and the combat readiness of both the PLA’s officers and enlisted personnel. The latest instruction from Hu, who also serves as the chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) is that “bravery, ingenuity and combat ability,” in addition to the “readiness to make sacrifices” are the key toward winning the high-tech, information-based warfare of the new century. This dovetails with the famous doctrine of Chairman Mao Zedong, which stated that the human factor, rather than the technological superiority that comes from possessing advanced weapons, spells the difference between victory and defeat. Hu’s dictum, that the PLA must “cultivate the fighting spirit of being brave and indomitable, and consolidate its resolute belief in daring to fight and fighting to win,” is being studied with fervency in ideological classes in both headquarters and regional units.

According to an editorial in the Jiafangjun Bao (People’s Liberation Army Daily) last month, the latest words of wisdom from the CMC chief represent a synthesis of “revolutionary heroism and the scientific spirit.” The army mouthpiece noted that it has been in the PLA’s tradition to repeatedly win wars and accomplish strategic breakthroughs despite its poor resources and relatively unsophisticated weapons platforms. While explaining Hu’s latest instructions, the Jiafangjun Bao noted that despite the fact that advanced weapons systems play a seminal role in information-based warfare, this has not changed the principle that human beings, specifically the fighting spirit and the ingenuity of soldiers, “remain the prime movers and shakers in warfare.” “The human spirit and courage have remained the source of strength behind victories in warfare,” the Jiafangjun Bao said. It was under these conditions that Hu added the slogan, “Be brave and ingenious in warfare” to the more familiar mottos of “Obey the party’s instructions” and “Serve the people” (Jiafangjun Bao, February 20).

Sources close to the PLA said that China’s fast-growing industrial strength and its stockpile of foreign-exchange reserves have enabled the PLA to make substantial strides in areas ranging from Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) to missile and space weapons platforms. Yet, Hu was worried about the “fighting spirit,” strategic ingenuity and overall quality of the 2.4 million men and women in uniform. The last war fought by the PLA was the short-lived incursion into Vietnam in 1979, during which the Chinese suffered casualties much heavier than official accounts would suggest. The military forces of China’s most formidable adversary, the United States, however, have had ample combat experience—from the Gulf War in the 1990s to Afghanistan in 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. While Hu has had little exposure to military affairs prior to becoming the chairman of the CMC in September 2004, it is believed that he seeks to emulate Mao and become an authority on military strategy. For this reason, in the past year, Hu has stipulated a series of axioms and instructions, particularly on military strategy, the directions of modernization and most recently, the ways in which to develop the character of the ideal soldier.

Hu, who first served as a political instructor at Tsinghua University after graduating from college, has always placed an emphasis on ideological indoctrination. Since the 1990s, the PLA has dealt with a growing number of disciplinary problems ranging from corruption to dereliction of duty, and many PLA political commissars have attributed this to senior officers placing more emphasis on weapons than on traditional values, such as “socialist morality” and the fighting spirit. It is understood that Hu wants to ensure that both officers and soldiers remain under the strict control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership, and that they do not become victims to the alleged infiltration and subversion of “anti-Chinese forces abroad.” While PLA recruiters subject applicants to rigorous political screening, the younger generation of soldiers and officers are seen as relatively “soft” and materialistic compared to their predecessors.

Even more alarming are signs that individual military units have displayed tendencies of seeking “selfish and parochial” gains while circumventing orders given by the CMC or party leadership. Another recent Jiafangjun Bao editorial criticized unnamed PLA departments and units for “putting stress merely on the interests of their departments and units.” “They use as pretext the ‘special nature’ of their units to act against policies and instructions given by their superiors [in Beijing],” the army mouthpiece said. It noted that all PLA units must “self-consciously maintain a high-level of unity with the party central authorities under comrade Hu Jintao” (Jiafangjun Bao, January 22).

Since early last year, Hu has undertaken a series of measures to curb the declining levels of discipline among PLA officers. Apart from boosting operations by disciplinary and anti-graft units within the army, Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao have empowered the National Auditing Administration (NAA) under the State Council to look into the finances of military units, including the probity of senior army officers. Being a mere ministerial-level unit, the NAA was unable to fulfill its functions as a government watchdog during the 13 years of former President Jiang Zemin’s leadership. Since 2004, however, the auditor-general and his colleagues have been at the forefront of exposing the corruption and waste in large numbers of government units and state enterprises, though whether the NAA will be as equally successful within the PLA remains to be seen. At the same time, Hu has entrusted party committees within each military unit to make it a top priority to examine the integrity and “political correctness” of all officers. For example, the party secretaries of CCP committees in mid- and high-level military units double as discipline marshals who periodically compile reports on the probity, trustworthiness and “fighting spirit” of party members under their jurisdiction (Ming Pao, November 6, 2006).

Hu realizes that it will take him a considerable amount of time to develop his credibility within—and impose his personal ideological seal upon—the military establishment; it took his predecessor, former president Jiang, five full years before he could tame the top brass. For the time being, Hu has instead chosen to rely upon the same methods used by Jiang to win over the military: raising the salaries and the ranks of select PLA officers. Moreover, to raise their morale and fighting spirit, Hu has largely gone along with the brass’ decision to rapidly modernize the PLA’s weapons systems. Given China’s bulging foreign-exchange reserves, Hu is in a better position than Jiang to satisfy the demands of the generals. The recently begun Fifth Plenary Session of the 10th National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, has again endorsed a double-digit increase in the official military budget. Moreover, Hu has gone beyond his predecessors, including Jiang and Deng Xiaoping, in integrating military research and development (R&D) with civilian industrial or technological research departments. Thus, an enormous portion of the PLA’s R&D expenses is actually being paid by technology-oriented departments and units within the central government.

Hu and his advisers are well-aware, however, that the PLA may be drawn into a financially unsustainable arms race with the United States. Strategists in Beijing’s military research units have pointed to the U.S. military’s trend of deploying its state-of-the-art hardware and weapons systems to Guam as well as to bases in Japan. The Wen Wei Po, a Beijing-run Hong Kong daily that often reflects official opinion, quoted a report compiled by a Western think tank on the fact that Chinese authorities may have to spend $300 billion to upgrade their air-defense system in view of the challenge that a new generation of American jetfighters and missiles poses (Wen Wei Po, February 24). This is despite repeated statements by spokesmen of the Chinese Foreign Ministry that China would never get into an arms race with the United States or any another power.

According to sources close to Hu’s personal think tanks, the president is anxious to revise Deng’s dictum of “hiding its capabilities and biding its time; maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership,” and to project Chinese hard power forcefully around the globe. At the same time, Hu respects the logic behind Deng’s reasoning, which insisted that China must patiently and single-mindedly develop its economy before it can afford to challenge the world’s superpower for preponderance. Hu and his CMC colleagues were caught off guard by the vociferous reactions—coming from not only the United States, but also several European countries—to the PLA’s anti-satellite weapons test in January. He is also wary that Washington might seize upon the incident as an excuse not only to play up the “China threat” theory, but also to subtly coax China into joining an arms-and-technology race in space.

Despite the fanfare over the dawn of the so-called “Century of China,” Chinese economic and technological resources still have limits. Hu clearly realizes that China can only afford to play catch-up with the United States in individual areas of military expertise. The CMC’s current emphasis on promoting the “ingenuity and fighting spirit” of PLA personnel thus reflects two major concerns of the Chinese leadership. Before China has acquired the wherewithal to directly challenge U.S. supremacy, the defense forces must first raise the PLA officers’ standards in professional integrity and strategic expertise. Only with a defense force that passes muster in probity and combat ability can China hope to win in potential conflicts with the United States, particularly given that such contests will remain asymmetrical as long as there is a sizeable gap between the overall strengths of the two countries.