Running Mao's film backward: doffing a million uniforms

REMEMBER Uncle Ezra's home movie gimmick -- reversing the film so all the kids rocket feet-first out of the swimming pool and do a reverse jackknife back onto the diving board while the splash is magically sucked back into a smooth pool surface? Well, if you want the version with a cast of millions take a look at the latest reel of Deng Xiaoping's home movie of China on the move. You see 1 million members of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) shrugging off the uniforms they donned in the last scene and sliding into civilian clothes. That's nearly one-fourth of the entire army.

The only mystery, to those who saw the original film, will be the change in the civilian clothes -- from the standard blue-gray of the '50s, '60s, and '70s to the brighter mixture of modern China.

Chairman Deng's official announcement of the army demobilization followed hard on the heels this past week of the official disbanding of the last of the late Chairman Mao's communes. That event would have been major news had we not become so accustomed to dramatic reversals in China in the past decade.

The remarkable fact about the Deng revolution-in-reverse is the degree to which it is still running roughly on schedule, despite several periods of retrenchment. Anyone who has ever planned a new corporate venture, or even a Girl Scout picnic, can imagine -- but not really grasp -- how difficult it is to keep a radical change in the lives and work habits of a billion people on course and on schedule.

Deng's chief problem has been to override bureaucratic resistance and lethargy in overstaffed enterprises without creating a counterforce. The PLA has been a potential source of both ideological and overstaffing resistance. It has provided prestige and a sinecure to many of its 4.2 million members. Send-ing a million of them into civvies will work only if a rapidly expanding economy provides rewarding employment to those vets and to young people entering the labor force. The growing and profitable farm sector will help. But the test will come in the 79 light-industry sectors that are moving from central-government control to private-market competition.

A related challenge to Deng and his handpicked successors has been how to decentralize management while still retaining the reins of power. In the case of the PLA, Deng holds the position of commander in chief. His leaders have selected the top officers, and thus kept control of the command structure.

That structure has been subtly reinforced by the gradual abandonment of the supposedly classless Mao army. First the idea that officers and enlisted men should wear identical uniforms was modified. Savvy viewers could tell officers at a glance by uniforms which were superficially the same as those of the enlisted ranks but in fact had more pocket flaps and were often of better fabric. Then, even the pretext of uniform-ity was abandoned, with the return of insignia showing rank.

Deng himself explained the demobilization to a specially arranged meeting of the Central Military Commission last week. He put the sharp reduction in terms of helping the country build so it could better afford a modernized army in the future.

While the younger armed-forces officers await results, they can take comfort from the knowledge that about 47,000 older officers are to be retired as part of the demobilization plan and that student military training will resume.

Overall, the 24 percent cut in the PLA is another grand strategic gamble, like the dismantling of the communes and the shift to free-market pricing. There will be a period of higher risk while China awaits the promised fruits of new productivity.

In the case of free-market competition, the hazard is inflation and the reward is higher pay and more quality goods for the majority of Chinese. In the case of defense-force cuts, the hazard is unemployment and the reward lies in diverting budget and semiskilled laborers into economic expansion.

It is useful to remember that economists looking at Soviet stagnation pin a measure of blame on diversion of resources from the civilian to the military economy. China starts from a much smaller economic base. So its move to shift resources, labor, and skill from the military to the civilian sector is all the more logical, if breathtakingly largescale and swift.

Peking's rapprochement with Washington in the 1970s helped make such a move safer in strategic terms. It didn't provide a nuclear umbrella of the kind Washington holds over Europe and Japan. But it ended momentary flirtation in Moscow with the idea of a preemptive strike at China. Peking's mending of fences with Moscow in the past two years added to that margin of safety.

Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.

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