People's Liberation Army: lower budgets, lower prestige

When the People's Liberation Army accepts a new recruit, a plaque is hung outside his family home. It reads "House of Glory." This is one of the many ways in which China's leaders are trying to foster close links between the Army and the people. The aim is to get across the idea that, even in times of peace, military service is a glorious privilege. The task is not easy.

The prestige of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has suffered since China's present leaders, headed by party Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping, embarked on the path of all-out economic modernization.

While continuing to stress the importance of defense, the Deng leadership has slashed the defense budget. They have told military leaders that first priority must be given to agriculture and light industry.

Perhaps partly to assuage wounded feelings, the leadership has celebrated Army Day this year with more pomp and circumstance than has been seen in many a year.

For the first time since 1959, military parades were held in Peking and across China to mark the 54th anniversary of the Nanchang uprising Aug. 1, the date the PLA considers its birthday.

In Peking, Defense Minister Geng Biao gave a grand reception in the Great Hall of the People. Foreign diplomats and correspondents were invited, again for the first time in many years. Party chairman Hu Yaobang, Premier Zhao Ziyang, and other top leaders also attended.

"The Chinese People's Liberation Army is the people's own Army under the absolute leadership of the Communist Party of China," said Mr. Geng.The Army's principle, he continued, was that "we will not attack unless we are attacked -- if we are attacked, we will certainly counterattack." Mr. Geng called for further strengthening of "unity between the Army and government and between the Army and people."

The priority of the party over the Army and the need for the Army to be absolutely loyal to the party is a theme that has been sounded many times during the past year.

Politically, the Army and many of its leaders are conservative. Many of them still have a personal loyalty to Mao Tse-tung, founder of both the Army and the People's Republic.

They are not happy over the criticism of Mao in his later years expressed in a recent resolution of the party's Central Committee. Some senior and middle-ranking officers are said to be concerned for their jobs because of the new emphasis on professionalization and modernization of the officer corps.

Most senior officers were molded by the experiences of guerrilla warfare and by fighting the Americans in Korea. Neither of these experiences seemed to be sufficiently relevant to the short, sharp border war with Vietnam two years ago, during which the Chinese realized how far they had fallen behind in modern weaponry and communications.

Many middle-ranking officers gained their positions during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), a period of great factional fighting and one during which political loyalties were more important than professional competence. The present military leadership, including Defense Minster Geng and Army Chief of Staff Yang Dezhi (who commanded the Yunnan front during the war with Vietnam), is making a determined effort to slim down the Army, to modernize it, and to make it more competent.

Both the senior and middle officer levels include many who, for reasons cited above, do not measure up to the standards of competence and technological skills now being required. And they are uneasy about the jobs that await them in the civilian economy -- jobs that also require professional competence and technological skills.

Thus there is a potential for unrest in the officer corps, as the leadership is well aware. Add to this the feeling that the Army itself has lost prestige, that a military career is no longer considered as glorious or as desirable as during the early years of the People's Republic, and unrest could reach explosive proportions. The Deng leadership is therefore making strenuous efforts to convince the officers that the Army is appreciated and loved.

But it is not recanting its order of priorities, under which the Army will have to wait until the country as a whole becomes richer before being able to modernize its equipment -- today considered up to 20 years behind that of the Soviet Union or of the West.

In the countryside, from which the vast majority of the Army's estimated 3.6 million men are recruited, the new prosperity being brought about by Deng's emphasis on agriculture and light industry means that peasants are no longer as happy as they once were to send their sons into the Army.

"My son is an officer, so he makes enough -- about 50 to 60 yuan [$33-40] a month," said a peasant who lives outside Datong in Shanxi Province and whose front door bore the proud plaque, "House of Glory."

"But some of may neighbors whose sons are soldiers complain they could earn much more if they were helping out with farm work at home, instead of staying in the Army."

In 1978 and 1979, 60 youths from the peasant village volunteered for the Army. In 1980, only 16 wanted to join. That is the kind of phenomenon which, if repeated on a nationwide scale, could force a fundamental revision in the concept of China's armed forces as a People's Army.

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