With almost 2.3 million personnel, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), China’s military, is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with. The largest army in the world, the PLA has taken advantage of China’s vast population to maintain a standing force unsurpassed in the modern era.
Despite this, it is has only been in recent years that the PLA has begun to close the vast technological and logistical gap that exists between its military and those of its rivals, which include the Japanese Self-Defence Forces, the Russian Armed Forces and the United States Army, though it still has plenty of catching up to do with the latter in particular.
In theory, the announcement in September by President Xi Jinping that 300,000 men and women would be trimmed from this monstrous force was unsurprising. As China embraces its rapid economic growth to improve the capabilities and efficiency of the PLA, fewer conventional forces should be required.
However, this view does not appear to be shared by elements within the PLA and the wider public, forcing the Beijing government to use its main news mouthpiece, The People’s Daily, to warn people not to ‘speak nonsense, make irresponsible comments, have your own points of view, act as you see fit or feign compliance’ over this issue.
Indeed, a large army is a source of both pride and success in recent Chinese history. Having fought the nationalist Kuomintang for the best part of two decades, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was only eventually able to seize power after amassing a force of almost 4 million men by 1949.
During the Korean War, Chinese forces scored historic victories over the vastly more experienced and better-equipped troops of the US Army and its international colleagues, largely because of the sheer weight of numbers the PLA could send into battle. Indeed, Mao Zedong was content to sacrifice many thousands of his soldiers to prove to his then Soviet benefactors that he was a crucial ally in their Cold War struggles, and he would use the leverage gained by his country’s involvement in Korea to secure nuclear secrets from Moscow.
Likewise, after centuries of foreign invasion and internal conflict – particularly during the ‘century of humiliation‘ – the vast size of the PLA has been credited with securitising China’s borders and preventing ‘separatist’ counter-revolutions by the country’s myriad ethnic minorities.
What is more, for many thousands of China’s downtrodden peasants, the army offers an escape from a life of drudgery and poverty. To deprive unskilled and uneducated people of this traditional right – which Xi’s cut is likely to do – could serve to provoke unrest amongst the civilian population.
With the PLA generals also unlikely to look kindly upon the downsizing of their prestigious force – many officers are set to lose their jobs in the restructuring – there is the potential for a toxic combination of military and popular pressure to take hold which, if harnessed by one of his political foes, could lead to a significant challenge to Xi’s rule.
That his government has felt compelled to issue a public warning against dissenting this historic decision shows that its implementation is likely to prove difficult, with potentially powerful opposition voices certain to resist the upending of their convenient status quo.
If there has been one consistency in the history of the People’s Republic of China it is the influence of the armed forces. To be seen to ‘weaken’ this powerful institution, however reasoned such a decision may be in seeking to modernise the PLA, could prove Xi’s undoing.