Final word on the White Paper

Having now read through the whole thing, three things strike me:

– The professional vs ideological fissure is alive and well in the PLA

– However they may be easier bedfellows than we might think. Certainly professionalism – particularly in the small things that count – is growing in leaps and bounds

-The combination means the PLA is probably much less likely today than in 1989 to stand aside and not fire (recall in 1989 Deng had to call in special divisions after the usual rank and file were hesitant to fire)

On the one hand, there’s an impressive and growing degree of professionalism: they’re putting in place the basic things and getting them right.  On the other hand there’s still all the ideological baggage and the old modes of thought, replete with empty slogans and vague strategy.  We’ve long known about this professional vs old school tension, but in the White Paper they seem to coexist quite nicely.

On the one hand, many commentators have drawn attention to the evidence of increasing capability. The easiest place to spot this is weapons systems, from increasing proportions of precision guided missiles to nuclear-equipped subs. What’s probably more important, but more subtle, are the ‘software’ elements: the new national information system, the RMB 700mn funding for getting talented people, the increasing size and diversity of training.  Moreover, they’ve cut – if ever so slightly – the time spent on ‘ideological training’.

At the same time, there’s continuous repetition of usual CPC talking-points like the integration with the people, the support of the government, etc. etc. And the ‘ideological training’ is still there in spades.  There’s also all the language about, e.g., terrorists in Tibet and Xinjiang, nasty countries declaring weapons sales to Taiwan in the UN arms register, etc. etc. that are so easy to get picked up by the West (James Fallows has by far the best analysis of this in general, as in here and here and elsewhere)

Where does this all lead? Well, it means the PLA is probably getting more capable more quickly than many expect. However significant numbers of its decision makers will have starkly different views on some basic questions. In the event of success that won’t be a big issue. But it may lead to fissures in case of set-backs (e.g., professional soldiers blaming defeat on the ideologically-inclined and vice versa).

It also means that they’re more likely to step to the government’s aid unless any opposition movement offers a credible economic growth agenda. At smaller size, and more internally concentrated, they aren’t as likely to sympathize immediately with the people. They will have their own clear interests. Remember in 1989 many units refused to fire on demonstrators. I wouldn’t bet on that repeating.

Finally, this document is shot through with a very PRC ‘way of thinking’, from the heavy repetition of key phrases to the reliance on very vague terms.  So both sides within the PRC are first and foremost China-rooted. Don’t count on some kind of ‘international outlook’ emerging.



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