Recently a lot has been made of China’s efforts to modernize its military, and it’s easy to get the West’s attention when you simply remind them of the sheer size of China’s army. Even though China maintains the largest standing army in the world, it hasn’t been involved in international conflicts, outside of a limited peace keeping role, since the 1980’s. So what do they keep all of these soldiers around for?
According to President Hu Jintao, who is head of the Party, the government, and the military, the PLA exists to:
- Consolidate the ruling status of the Communist Party
- Help ensure China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and domestic security in order to continue national development
- Safeguard China’s expanding national interests
- Help maintain world peace
Though, as I mentioned yesterday, I usually see them driving around, or standing guard in front of gov’t buildings.
It is important to keep in mind, that as a percentage of the population, China’s active army is actually fairly small (between Luxembourg and Brazil’s). Also that China borders 14 countries, of which North Korea, Burma, and Afghanistan are unstable; India and Vietnam can be hostile; and traditional foes, South Korea and Japan lay nearby (also the “break away province” of Taiwan). So a large number of China’s forces are located near the borders, and are focused on international threats more than domestic ones (there are other departments for that, like the chengguan).
There has been some concern over China’s definition of their territory, which conflicts with Japan over islands near Taiwan and a handful of countries in the South China sea over two groups of islands. Many think these conflicting interests will spark an arms race once China’s aircraft carrier is operational. In the last few months there was a string of anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam, which typically aren’t allowed by their gov’t.
Safeguarding National Interests
The average Chinese person seems to hold the PLA in very high regard, perhaps because soldiers made up the third class/group of people in Mao’s new China alongside the factory worker and the farmer. This was never truer than shortly after the military’s mobilization in 2008 to provide relief after the Sichuan earthquake.
Every disaster is followed by dozens of pictures reminding the citizens of the army’s more practical side, so I think this is the idea that most readily comes to mind when Chinese people think of the army.
More recently the army was hailed in their efforts to assist with evacuating Chinese nationals from Libya. As China’s investments travel further abroad, we can expect the military to be close behind. China’s national interests seem to be expanding rapidly.
Additionally it seems that despite vocal denials that China has any interests in hacking, there is mounting evidence to the contrary (including a video of a military school launching an attack on US websites).
This became even more apparent to me the other day when a friend casually mentioned that the majority of his time in the army had been in front of a computer. He described it as “playing army games, and other things.” While this isn’t exactly definitive evidence, in the context of the conversation, it was more than clear what he meant.
It seems that part of the reason that the army is held in such high regard though, is that virtually every aspect of the military is kept private, or presented as unassailable. This is because the army serves as the physical manifestation of China’s new found power, and fits perfectly in the Party’s narrative of overcoming national humiliation (which we’ll be looking at tomorrow).