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China Taking First Step in Reorganizing Armed Forces

September 29, 1985|JIM MANN | Times Staff Writer

PEKING — Tan Youlin, a high-ranking political commissar with the People's Liberation Army, was deluged last spring with requests from friends and relatives seeking favors before his impending retirement.

According to newspaper accounts, Tan's cronies in the Lanzhou Military District in western China asked whether he "would help them with his final influence." But Tan is reported to have rejected them all.

Such incidents are common these days in the PLA, the largest standing army in the world. Over the last few months, in line with what the military leaders call a "major strategic decision," China has taken the first steps toward a far-reaching reorganization of the PLA, which encompasses all of the country's armed forces.

The country's leaders say that about 1 million people will be let out of the services over the next two years, the largest single reduction since the Communist takeover in 1949. The country's top leader, Deng Xiaoping, and Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang describe the measure as a demonstration of the government's peaceful intentions and its desire to concentrate on economic modernization.

Figure May Be Misleading

Foreign diplomats in Peking say that the figure of 1 million may be misleading. They believe that some of those being removed from the payrolls were already semiretired and that others may have been working in construction or other support units that are being transferred to civilian authority.

"We think the 1-million figure is suspect," a Western defense specialist said.

In 1982, China put the size of its armed forces at 4.2 million, but analysts here believe that the present strength is somewhat lower, around 3.5 million. Whatever the exact number, defense attaches and other foreign military experts agree that there is a massive demobilization and shake-up under way and that these changes are of profound importance for China's military capability and its political future.

They view the effort as the latest and boldest step in Deng's long-standing campaign to abandon Mao Tse-tung's doctrine of "people's war"--the belief that China can rely on superior manpower to defeat its enemies. They believe that Deng and other reformers want to modernize the military and at the same time to limit its ability to act as a source of political opposition.

'Big Push' Required

"This is a peasant army which Deng is trying to push into the 21st Century, and it is a big push that is required," an Asian diplomat said. "He is trying to turn the PLA into a purely professional army, one which has nothing to do with politics. That's an important break with Chinese Communist tradition."

Chinese military officials say that the demobilization is going smoothly, but there have been some indications of resistance. An officer who is still on the military payroll but is working in a research institute told a friend recently that he will refuse to retire until the army reinstitutes ranks and passes an accompanying military retirement law, expected sometime in the next two years.

"He wants to go out as a one-star general," the friend said, "so that he will be entitled to a telephone, an extra room, a cook and the use of a car."

The independent Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao reported last month that there had been "some abnormal phenomena" in the Hubei military district in central China, including army officers demanding special favors at retirement, appealing to Communist Party officials to be allowed to keep their jobs and refusing to go along with transfer orders.

"The resistance is coming mainly from people who stand to lose on retirement benefits," a Peking-based analyst said.

In an effort to make the dislocations less painful, the government has said it will spend 1 billion yuan (about $350 million) to help find new jobs, housing and schooling for the discharged soldiers and their families.

Hu, the party leader, announced the troop reduction last April while he was visiting New Zealand. Asked at a press conference there whether his country would play a military role in the South Pacific, he replied that China intended to reduce the PLA by 1 million troops.

The demobilization was officially approved by the Central Military Commission in the course of an unusually long meeting that began May 23 and lasted until June 6. The powerful Military Commission is the organ, chaired by the 81-year-old Deng, through which the party's Central Committee controls the armed forces.

At the meeting, the country's leaders decided to reorganize the military command structure, reducing the number of military districts from 11 to 7 and replacing all but three of the commanders of these districts. But foreign analysts detected signs of disagreement.

Long Meeting Unnecessary

"If the key decisions had been thrashed out and agreed upon, there was no need for so long a meeting," a diplomat said.

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