Training and education vital to the PLA's modernisation drive
The quest by the military to become a modern hi-tech fighting force will remain a fantasy unless it improves training and cracks down on corruption, say military analysts and sources.
In an attempt to catch up with global military trends, particularly the US, the military has engaged in a massive plan to convert itself from an army prepared for a 'people's war' of brute force in the early 1950s to a battle of precision and information-based weapons.
To achieve this transformation, the central government has been steadily increasing defence spending to develop and acquire sophisticated weaponry while making massive reductions in the size of its forces.
At last March's National People's Congress, the official PLA budget was raised by 9.6 per cent to 185.3 billion yuan (HK$174 billion). The announcement marked the 13th consecutive year of increased defence spending.
The military is also expected to announce a further 500,000 cuts in personnel in the next five years, following a pattern of reductions that began in 1997.
PLA analysts say a critical factor in the success of this modernisation drive will be the ability of the military to recruit soldiers with a higher level of education.
'Soldier quality is very important in making these reforms work. However, the overall quality of the PLA is very low,' says a former PLA officer.
Analysts say that while the average education and professional standards of the entire PLA are rising, its backbone continues to be made up of poor young men from rural areas. Many of them enlist as teenagers with only a junior secondary school education.
In addition to its enlisted ranks, the PLA continues to suffer from a shortage of officers equipped with a higher education.
In a recent essay, the vice-dean of the PLA's National Defence University, Major General Ku Jiasheng, wrote that the lack of highly educated officers had become a 'bottle neck' to the military's technological reforms. He said only 2 per cent of PLA staff had post-graduate degrees or above.
However, analysts and sources believe the real barrier for the PLA is corruption, which they say has become an epidemic within the rank and file.
'All the problems you see in China's private sector and government bureaucracies, such as corruption, nepotism and lack of rule of law, are even worse in the military,' according to a PLA source.
Corruption is hurting the modernisation drive causing many officers to become cynical, confused and disheartened, particularly at the rank of senior colonel and above, says a PLA source with close ties to the military establishment.
Analysts believe the PLA will be able to bridge the training gaps to meet its modernisation demands. They note the military has stepped up its recruitment of science and computer graduates from the country's top universities and sent officers abroad to study.
Alfred Wilhelm, a former US military attache in Beijing who was also a former visiting professor at the PLA's National Defence University, said he had no doubt the PLA could modernise, given its progress to date.