In China, the Army has long been more than simply a defense force. It has been the embodiment of the revolution, the people's Army, a powerful player in the Communist system. More recently, the Army has found a new role in China's ever more capitalistic economic system. It operates some 15,000 businesses, from hotels to howitzer manufacturers..
Chinese President Jiang Zemin frowns on this. He has ordered the military brass to give up commercial holdings and return to core duties. The goal, according to Mr. Jiang, is to divorce the Army from economics, and hence from the smuggling operations endemic in its ranks.
Those operations occasionally involve illicit trade in military goods - a blight on China's international reputation. More often, they bring into the country consumer goods, which evade taxes and duties. Lost government revenue has been estimated at $10 billion a year. (The country's whole military budget this year, by comparison, is less than $10 billion.)
But the elimination of smuggling is only the pretext for a wider reform agenda. Jiang reportedly has in mind clearer lines of authority within the military, more accountability, and enhanced civilian control. A smaller Army - perhaps 2.5 million instead of the current 3 million - is envisioned.
That shrinkage, together with the selling off or closing down of Army-owned businesses, could throw millions of Chinese onto the job market. But that's a challenge worth taking on if it delimits military and civilian realms and points toward more rational economic and political structures.
Jiang is also reported to be considering broad governmental reform, including an elected president, multiparty politics, and a stronger justice system. That could be of a piece with reining in the Army. It remains to be seen whether these reforms are more rhetorical than real. Nonetheless, it's good they're being discussed.
Meanwhile, unfortunate habits of power persist in Beijing, exemplified by the jailing of dissidents on the heels of President Clinton's recent visit. The best test of the sincerity of China's governmental reformers will be an end to such repressive practices.