China's People's Liberation Army told to learn from Japan's 1894 victory

Military daily highlights factors involved in Qing dynasty defeat to Japan in 1894 in commentary seen as alluding to corruption in today's military

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 March, 2014, 5:20am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 March, 2014, 5:20am

PLA commanders should study the Qing dynasty's humiliating defeat to imperial Japan, a push seen by analysts as a warning against corruption in today's military, the leading military newspaper says.

In a series of commentaries to mark the 120th anniversary of the first Sino-Japanese war, the PLA Daily offered an unusually objective assessment of Japan's dramatic military transformation in the late 19th century, which precipitated decades of bloody conflict between the two neighbours.

The commentaries argue that the superior discipline and commitment of Japanese forces during the period of expansion and modernisation known as the Meiji Restoration allowed them to decimate the Qing dynasty's Beiyang, or northern, fleet.

"The Chinese navy was equipped with the same advanced warships and weapons that were used by the Meiji maritime forces," one article said. "But Chinese sailors and officers were keen on mocking foreign instructors who were highly paid, causing a striking contrast with the Japanese navy's serious and humble learning attitude."

Analysts said the articles were intended to highlight the fact that the Qing-era military faced many of the same challenges that the People's Liberation Army is struggling with now. These include nepotism, factionalism and corruption.

"It's an open secret that the corruption problems inside the PLA today are even worse than those of the Qing dynasty's Beiyang fleet," said Ni Lexiong , director of a defence policy research centre at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.

Ni said that the buying and selling of military ranks had left unqualified officers in senior positions, creating an imbalance in the command structure.

"If such a phenomenon continues, the PLA will definitely be defeated by the Japanese army again if there is military conflict between the two countries," Ni said.

In the last 18 months, tensions between China and Japan have deteriorated to a low not seen since the end of the cold war, with both sides scrambling fighter jets and launching coastguard patrols near the disputed Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.

Beijing counts the islands, which Japan knows as the Senkakus, among the territory China ceded to Tokyo at the end of the first Sino-Japanese war. It therefore argues they should have been returned after Japan's defeat in the second world war.

In a nod to the ongoing dispute, one PLA Daily commentary noted: "The first Sino-Japanese war is not over."

"Our army is facing the same problems that the Qing government failed to tackle," said one retired senior colonel in Beijing. "That's why President Xi Jinping has urged the PLA's senior officers to free themselves from old mindsets and be more devoted."

The three commentaries so far published, including a full-page piece on Friday, have not criticised Japan for wartime aggression, as would usually be expected. Instead, they focus on Japan's achievements and the Qing dynasty's failure to carry out necessary reforms.

The product of the Qing dynasty's "self-strengthening movement", the Beiyang fleet matched Japan's navy in number of ships on the eve of war in 1894. However, it was still defeated.

"Japan is a nation with a strong sense of shame," one commentary said. "They still retain fresh memories of defeat and humiliation, even though they have forgotten their history of militarist aggression.

"However, amnesia, satisfaction with temporary peace and a lack of humility are the national characters of our people," it said.

Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong said it was "pointless to criticise China's national character and praise Japan's innate superiority".

"The PLA has been ordered to learn advanced military skills from Western countries, like the Beiyang fleet," Wong said. "But the party has also warned it not to 'blindly pursue' a Western military system that advocates fairness, political independence and professionalism."

"The core problem of today's PLA is the lack of checks and balances, because it isn't loyal to the country, but to the party," he said.