China's Military Has a Discipline Problem. Here Is How Xi Jinping Is Trying to Fix It.

Military troops march during a welcoming ceremony for U.S. President Donald Trump in Beijing

Instilling discipline is critical to the PLA’s ability to achieve progress in its current cycle of reform and modernization.

A second issue is that downgrading the services and former general departments will not solve the problem of individuals and bureaucracies pursuing their own ends. Even during the height of Mao-era totalitarianism, local officials and governments often selectively implemented policies, provided inaccurate information, and avoided total control—a common expression from the period was that the “top has its measures, and the bottom its countermeasures” (上有政策, 下有对策). Xi should expect this pattern to continue in the contemporary PLA. The ground forces, for instance, may find ways to delay or offset budget reductions, while logistics officials may inaccurately report irregularities in the supply chain in order to retain lucrative relationships.

Third, although Xi has tried to empower different channels of control and supervision within the PLA, such as granting the discipline inspection commission more authority, the fact remains that China’s military is still essentially a self-governing organization. There is no parallel with the U.S. military, for instance, in which uniformed officers are subject to decisions made by a rotating ensemble of civilian political appointees, and must also be attentive to Congressional priorities given the legislative branch’s control of the budget and role in approving the promotions and assignments of senior military officers. Nothing Xi has done to date has changed the civil-military balance in China to grant more formal authority to the civilians. This could pose challenges to the extent that the PLA, as a corporate actor in its own right, tries to preserve its resources, avoid external scrutiny and resist Party directives.

This leads to a final point, which is that too much of the success of the quest to transform the PLA leadership could rest on Xi’s shoulders. Once Xi departs the scene, whenever that may be, there are no guarantees that the same problems that have hobbled the PLA’s progress over the last twenty years—especially pervasive corruption and bureaucratic intransigence—would not quickly reappear. This would not only weaken the PLA’s ability to “fight and win” modern wars, but also hinder its aspirations to become a “world-class force” by mid-century. Avoiding that outcome will require personnel and structural adjustments, but more importantly a PLA culture rooted in professional discipline rather than in self-promotion. Attacking that problem will be one of Xi’s greatest challenges, though success could count as one of his strongest legacies.

Joel Wuthnow is a research fellow in the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University. Phillip C. Saunders is director of the center. The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Image: Reuters


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