China Gossip - Why the Defense and Foreign Ministers Had to Go
Why Should U.S. Military Officials Be the Only Ones Getting Rich?
This week, Beijing made it official: Li Shangfu, appointed Defense Minister only seven months ago has been fired, joining a host of other high ranking officers also recently promoted by Xi, in the ashcan of history. Clearly, things are amiss in the Chinese military industrial complex. But such blemishes do not intrude on the latest edition of Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, the Pentagon’s annual report on the “pacing challenge” of the Chinese military, as deployed on this side of the water to propel our own defense budget to ever greater heights. Its 212 pages are suffused with dark warnings about the growing menace of the Middle Kingdom's military, including the appearance of a third aircraft carrier, an air force “rapidly catching up with western forces” and a doubling of operational nuclear warheads, news greeted with dutiful alarmism by the press. “China’s nuclear arsenal on track to double by 2030,” blazoned the Washington Post. “Beijing has made dramatic advances in ‘scale and complexity’ of sea, air and land military platforms.’”
Who Says the Chinese Can’t Pick Up a Bad Idea and Run With It?
No one had the bad taste to remind taxpayers that a 500-warhead Chinese nuclear force would still be one tenth the size of our own bloated arsenal, or that their new aircraft carrier, the Fujian, is fitted with the same electromagnetic aircraft-launching system first installed on the U.S.S. Ford carrier, with technically woeful and extremely expensive results. Who says the Chinese military can’t pick up a bad idea and run with it all the way to the bank?
The Golden Age of Threat Inflation
Back in the 1980s the Pentagon used to put out a glossy brochure, Soviet Military Power, complete with full-color illustrations highlighting the evil empire’s terrifying martial capabilities. The Soviets responded with a similar (indeed graphically superior) and equally misleading depiction of the U.S. military. It was a golden age of partnership in threat inflation.
Needless to say, Soviet Military Power made no mention of Soviet military morale (terrible) or lack of training (shocking) or drunkenness and corruption (pervasive.) Public acknowledgement of such shortcomings had to wait for the collapse of the USSR.
China has of course replaced Russia as the budget-pacing threat. Our senior military love to talk about the impending “China fight” along with headline-harvesting pronouncements about an imminent invasion of Taiwan.
PLA Generals for Sale!
In reality, things are not well in the Chinese military industrial complex, as the departure of Li, along with the senior cadre of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force - custodians of China’s nuclear missiles - makes clear. For years, the People’s Liberation Army (which includes all branches of the military) was left largely to its own devices. Having helped save the country from the chaos of the cultural revolution, the PLA was politically sidelined by the post-Mao communist leaders, who encouraged the military to engross themselves in commercial ventures and get rich. When that policy shifted in the late 1990s and the military were told to divest their by now enormous business holdings, the generals were instead rewarded with huge boosts to their budgets which in turn offered plenty of opportunity for further personal enrichment. According to Jordan Schneider of the Center for New American Security, itself a bastion of U.S. budget-boosting threat inflation, “..there was not a way to rise up in the ranks without being corrupt. Because at a certain point you ended up having to buy your rank. All these positions had dollar amounts attached.” When Xi Jinping took power in 2012, he promptly purged the ranks of his political rivals’ supporters while showering ever more money on the PLA overall.
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Follow a False God, If That’s Where the Money Is.
In this process, the generals drew inspiration from the masters of the game far away on the banks of the Potomac. “Andy Marshall was our god” remarked one senior PLA general to a western reporter in 2013. Marshall, for decades the director of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment was the acknowledged master in promoting policies that invariably lined the coffers of the military and their corporate partners.
Further evidence that the Chinese high command are bent on the lucrative pursuit of high-technology boondoggles, complete with impenetrable acronyms, is provided in the Pentagon’s China threat report: “In 2022, the PLA continued discussing a new “core operational concept,” called “MultiDomain Precision Warfare (多域精确战)” (MDPW). MDPW is intended to leverage a C4ISR network that incorporates advances in big data and artificial intelligence to rapidly identify key vulnerabilities in the U.S. operational system and then combine joint forces across domains to launch precision strikes against those vulnerabilities.” This should come as good news for anyone who fears Chinese military aggression, since our military have been pursuing the same baroque concept, with ever more complex refinements, for years now, and always with sorry results.
On this side of the Pacific, senior officers tend to follow a deferred path to riches, waiting to cash in until retirement (on very fat pensions) when they sign on with old chums in the defense contractor community for princely sums. In China, on the other hand, they may pursue a cruder route to the money. Joel Wuthnow, of the National Defense University, in the discussion referenced above, suggests that the entire senior leadership of the Rocket Force has been caught in a collective scam to trouser large sums from a budget so generously expanded by Xi, which is why they have had to be suddenly purged
But why did Li Shangfu have to go? The Beijing rumor mill, so I am informed from well-connected Chinese sources, has some intriguing answers.
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