With its June massacre of 3,000 civilians in Beijing, the
People's Liberation Army betrayed a special trust that the people of Communist
China had always placed in their armed forces.
The loss of popular faith in the PLA—the single most
profound effect that the massacre has had on China's civilian-military relations—has
significant strategic implications. In the aftermath of the shootings, the
PLA faces not only worsening morale but also new barriers to further
professionalization of the Chinese officer corps and acquisition of modern
When PLA units approached Tiananmen Square late on June 3,
they were prepared to shoot, although few in China on that night could have
guessed that the troops would use deadly force.
Faith in the PLA was evident to anyone in China at the time.
In Nanjing on May 21, the day after China's hard-line leaders declared martial
law in Beijing and ordered the PLA to clear Tiananmen Square, banners could be
seen declaring "Long Live the Liberation Army!"
The PLA had not resorted to bloodshed, and everyone agreed
it would not. It was, after all, the people's army.
Thus, it came as a huge shock when PLA armored units
brutally crushed the Beijing student demonstration. Chinese leader Deng
Xiaoping perceived a serious threat to his regime and used the only tool
powerful enough to defeat it: military force.
When civilian leaders use military force, military leaders
do not always achieve new political influence. In China, the signs are that
they have not.
While PLA soldiers patrol the streets, it is the People's
Armed Police (PAP) and Security Police who are entrusted with conducting arrests
Authorities have moved soldiers into some government
agencies deemed to have been too "bourgeois liberal" during the
demonstrations. Shao Huaze, Director of the Propaganda Department of the PLA
General Political Department, has taken over as editor of People's Daily, the
leading national newspaper.
At the national-elite level, however, the military's power
has changed remarkably little. The new ruling Politburo, elected in late June
by the Central Committee of the Communist Party, contains no new military men.
Even President Yang Shangkun and Defense Minister Qin Jiwei, Politburo members
with PLA backgrounds, are both career political commissars.
Over the past decade, foreign observers have noted a
tremendous increase in professionalism within the Chinese officer corps. There
has been modest but significant modernization of its hardware and logistics.
Also noted were improvements in doctrine, training, and especially—the
personnel and educational systems.
Back to Politics
This trend saw a major decline in PLA political
indoctrination and a marked reduction in the influence of Chinese political
commissars over professional commanders.
From the perspective of the hardliners, however, one of the
major shortcomings of the PLA during the Tiananmen crisis was that it was not
politicized enough. The massacre and the return of the PLA to the center stage
of Chinese politics have turned back the clock on the past decade's military
reforms. Within the uniformed military, political indoctrination and commissar
influence have risen.
Defense Minister Qm and three military region commanders
reportedly were arrested on August 15. So far, however, post-massacre purges
within the PLA have been mild. Deng, Li Peng, and Yang Shangkun have lost too
much face to rule without the support of professional senior officers, and
economic reforms cannot continue without senior civilian moderates. But the
growing demand for political orthodoxy is clear.
The military high command avoided taking sides in the
internal political debate that preceded the massacre and seemed to hesitate
about whether to obey orders from authorities other than the Central Committee.
There were instances of military and police commanders refusing orders from
supposedly retired Party elders ("proletarian revolutionaries of the
older generation") who took de facto control of the government.
In late May, reports circulating in China had it that one
senior PAP commander in Beijing refused to suppress the student demonstrations
because, in his view, the order was illegal. Partly for the same reason, the
Commander of the prestigious 38th Group Army, Beijing's elite garrison unit,
demurred and then resigned when ordered to crush the demonstrations.
A decade ago, raising the issue of legality would not have
occurred to a Chinese officer. During the crisis in the spring and summer, it
was one of several ways senior soldiers tried to keep the military out of the
On May 21, the day after the declaration of martial law,
the two surviving Marshals of the PLA, Xu Xiangqian and Nie Rongzhen, published
statements which, while calling for civil order, warned that the PLA should
not resort to bloodshed.
Then 150 active and retired commanders submitted a
cautionary letter to Deng and the Central Military Commission. Signatories
reportedly included Defense Minister Qin and Chief of the General Staff Chi
Haotian, as well as senior retired soldiers. They declared that the PLA should
not kill protesters. This was an explicit rejoinder to Deng's earlier
injunction that the PLA must be willing "to spill some blood" to
The PLA's disinclination to crush the demonstrations does
not mean it supported the students' ideas. Many officers who opposed violent
suppression also opposed the political reforms. There may be some liberals
among junior and field-grade officers, but there are few, if any, in the high
command. For the most part, the generals and senior officers want law and
order. They opposed violent repression principally because they knew it would
lead to new problems.
In the end, few commanders disobeyed. Despite their
reservations, the vast majority of officers fell in line once the "gang of
elders" gained control and gave unambiguous orders. PLA officers believe
that a unified army, even one enforcing bad policy, is still preferable to a
divided army at war with itself.
In the US, there is a popular notion that President Yang
Shangkun is installing a "Yang family dynasty" at the helm of the
Chinese military establishment. This is a clear overstatement.
President Yang has close ties to the Chinese military. His
brother Yang Baibing, who is Director of the PLA's General Political Department,
also sided with the hardliners. Even so, the "Yang dynasty" thesis
rests mainly on the belief that the 27th Group Army, commanded by the
President's nephew, Yang Jianhua, singlehandedly rescued the regime and suppressed
the demonstrators after the 38th Group Army refused.
In fact, the 27th Army was not the only force in the
streets. By June 3, Deng had brought elements from all over China into the
capital, probably to prevent any one army or regional commander from
dominating Beijing. Some 200,000 troops, representing fourteen of the PLA's
twenty-four Group Armies, were in the area.
Most of the carnage was wrought by tanks and mechanized
infantry. In the now-famous news footage, a lone unarmed student demonstrator
faced down a column of new Type-69 tanks. The 27th Army has few armored
vehicles and no Type-69s. The tanks probably belonged to the
"pro-democratic" 38th Army. The regime and the PLA have encouraged
the misperception. This deflects popular resentment away from troops
occupying city streets and bolsters President Yang's side in political
The troop buildup in Beijing in May was smooth and
professional, but troop behavior and fire discipline during and after the
massacre were terrible. The troops, who never expected to be in such a
situation, were confused. So, it appears, were military leaders at all levels.
Command and control was inadequate.
Neither the troops nor their officers had any idea how to
suppress a civil disturbance with minimum bloodshed, and there is little indication
that they tried to minimize it once the shooting started. There was very little
tear gas in evidence and no shields, batons, water cannons, or other
riot-control equipment. Nor was there any indication of riot-control training
Soldiers had been kept ignorant about the demonstrations,
forbidden access even to official national news media. They were told there
was a "counterrevolutionary rebellion" in Beijing, but they found
only common people demonstrating. The hard-line leadership took steps to
prevent the troops from talking to citizens. Troops in the lead were ordered to
advance rapidly and shoot anyone in their way. Those in the rear were ordered
to fire on any troops in front who hesitated.
It seems that once they had blood on their hands, the
soldiers became committed to their work. Old revolutionaries like Yang and
Deng had exploited this psychological dynamic decades before in Communist
campaigns against internal rivals. In fact, one reason for bringing in units
from all over China may have been Deng's desire to bloody the hands of senior
Many soldiers, especially those turned back by the citizenry
before June 3, probably realize now that the senior leaders lied to them. In
any case, the high command quickly withdrew from the city those troops that
did the shooting. A current campaign praising the PLA for "defending the
capital" is intended as much to repair military morale as to fool the
Even before the spring crisis, the PLA had serious morale
problems. Military modernization was assigned the lowest priority among the
nation's "Four Modernizations." The official 1988 defense budget was
the equivalent of $5.87 billion. That is about six percent of China's national
economic output, down from a high of fifteen percent. The PLA cut manpower
levels from 5,000,000 in 1979 to 3,000,000 today.
Because of the low budget levels, most PLA units went into
business in the mid-1980s, creating what the Economist has termed an
"entrepreneurial army." Units are expected to "operate at a
profit" by peddling various kinds of commercial production and services.
The Policy Backfires
This policy is backfiring. Soldiers are routinely shunted
aside in favor of paying customers by the PLA's own hostels, transportation
units, and even hospitals. An Army photographic unit is reported to have sold
pictures revealing state secrets. Some soldiers have been allowed to take more
profitable civilian jobs, provided they forfeit their military pay and funnel
kickbacks to the unit.
Waste and corruption are growing. The pay of officers and
soldiers was raised in 1988, for the first time in years, but even officers'
pay still lags behind that of Chinese factory workers. Soldiers are impoverished,
deprived of food, lodging, and basic services. Units conduct scant training
because they spend most of their time and energy on self-sufficiency production
and commercial enterprises. This lowers the prestige of the Army and hampers
recruiting and retention. PLA units are vulnerable to local authorities and
state enterprises, which extort illegal taxes and fees for goods, services, and
PLA regulations prohibit individuals from engaging in
business but encourage units to do so. The boundaries are unclear, and the
legal guidance is vague. Discipline and morale suffer in a climate of
semiofficial bribery, profiteering, and "bureaucratic racketeering."
Corruption almost certainly extends to the highest levels of the military.
For PLA professional commanders, the trend is worrisome.
"If we permit such phenomena to develop," Liberation Army News recently
stated, "what will happen to our PLA's discipline, style, and order of
life? Is such a military worthy of its name? Will there be any combat
effectiveness at all?"
The international community's post-massacre economic
sanctions are already hurting PLA weapons programs and are going to hurt worse.
In the United States, electronic upgrades for China's F-811
have been suspended, as have sales of ANITPQ-37 counterbattery radars,
artillery-shell manufacturing technology, Mk 46 antisubmarine torpedoes, and
Grumman Aircraft has suspended work on an engineering feasibility
study on upgrading the F-7 (based on the MiG-21) to a "Super-7" with
American engineering and components. Chinese engineers working on the F-8II
and Super-7 projects were excluded from Grumman facilities within days of the
China had been importing military electronics, missile
technologies, naval guns, and automotive technologies from Switzerland and
many NATO countries. All of this has been indefinitely suspended. Britain has
banned further shipments of GEC head-up displays and weapon computers for the
Chinese F-7M Airguard export fighter-interceptor. F-7M sales, a significant
source of foreign exchange, will be lost. So will sales of the A-5M attack
aircraft, for lack of French or Italian components.
A likely arena for further China-bashing is COCOM, the
sixteen-member committee on control of exports to Communist countries. COCOM,
whose membership includes all NATO members except Iceland, plus Japan, had
liberalized restrictions on technology exports to China for ten years, but will
likely tighten them again.
Financing and Contacts Lost
International financing is drying up. World Bank loans worth
the equivalent of $780.2 million have been suspended, as has a $5.8 billion
aid program from Japan. All that money was earmarked for Chinese power,
transportation, and industrial development.
Contacts between the PLA and the US military have been suspended,
cutting off training and educational and technical help. Two years ago, the
PLA activated a major training range modeled on the National Training Center
at Fort Irwin, Calif. A US Air Force training delegation visited the PLA and
influenced Chinese pilot training.
In sum, the events of June were a disaster for the Chinese
military. The PLA hoped that, within a decade, the economy and industrial base
would be sufficiently modernized to permit improvement of weapons and
equipment. The Beijing massacre changed that. The PLA will have to wait longer
now, and things will never again be the same.
Harlan W. Jencks, a
colonel in the US Army Reserve, is a research associate of the Center for
Chinese Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He last visited
China in May of this year. This is his first article for AIR FORCE Magazine.
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