Red Army's glory fades
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``All but a few of us had been workers or peasants so we got along very well with the people and knew exactly what they wanted,'' said Li, who was assigned as a government cadre in Luding. Like Li, many of these new officials retained close ties to the armed forces while holding posts as high as those in the ruling Politburo.Skip to next paragraph
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The good will between civilians and soldiers was shattered by the ultraradical Cultural Revolution, when Mao cast China into civil war and then gave the military virtually unlimited power to restore order.
``Chinese people remember with great resentment how the Army took advantage of the chaos during the Cultural Revolution and abused its power,'' another Chinese veteran said.
Mao transformed the military from the champion to the overlord of Chinese. While some officers relished the power, others loathed it, Li said. An acquaintance of Li in the Army, torn by remorse, committed suicide after ordering soldiers to quell an uprising in a nearby town, he said.
Deng has demoted the high standing of the military by cutting its troop strength by 800,000. And he has changed today's 3.2 million-man Army from a mass-based, grass-roots Army stressing ``human-wave warfare'' to an elite, specialized, and professional force.
Deng has also curtailed the political power of the military. Reshaping the party's paramount, five-member Politburo standing committee last fall, he replaced himself and three other veterans with younger technocrats inexperienced in military affairs.
Under reform, the military has waged a losing battle for funding. Deng has cut its share of state spending from 17.5 percent in 1979 to 8.2 percent this year, ordering it to join the campaign to build the economy.
Seeking a supplement of hard currency abroad, China's military has made controversial missile sales to Iran and Saudi Arabia and become the world's fourth-largest exporter of arms to the third world.
The military has sought extra funds from its factories by beating its swords into plowshares, producing fans, refrigerators, and other consumer products. Following state urgings and incentives, most of China's 30,000 inefficient weapons factories have competed since 1986 with civilian manufacturers in making peacetime goods.
The military publicly supports Deng's pragmatic efforts to raise production. But in private, some soldiers complain bitterly that they are treated poorly because of their waning status.
Li said that under reform, some Chinese have forgotten China's revolutionary goals and betrayed the veterans who fought to realize those ideals.
``With the reform, county officials are too concerned about money and they don't care about us old soldiers,'' he said. ``Sometimes my tears almost fall.''
Li keeps his spirits high with his comrades. Most days he and about two dozen veterans in Luding, dressed in faded, blue Mao suits, take their bamboo cages of songbirds to a local park. Amid the whistling of the birds, they talk of families and fighting the Japanese invaders and the nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek.
The decline in the military's prestige under reform has also tested the morale of active soldiers, Li said. Infantry from China's occupation force in Tibet, angered by their reassignments, hurled stones through windows last march along Luding's main street, he said.
``I thought they were bandits instead of members of the People's Liberation Army,'' Li said.