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Brief #40: US assessment of PLA, minority language ed, ideological & political ed, China-Europe

China Neican is a weekly column on the China Story blog written by Yun Jiang and Adam Ni from the China Policy Centre in Canberra. Neican 内参 or “internal reference” are limited circulation reports only for the eyes of high-ranking officials in China, dealing with topics deemed too sensitive for public consumption. But rest assured, everyone is welcome to read what we write. You can find past issues of Neican here.

1. US assessment of China’s military

The Pentagon released its yearly assessment of China’s military as required under the National Defense Authorization Act. Coming in at 200 pages, this is the longest and most substantive assessment since the report series began two decades ago.

The report’s main message is that China is determinedly pursuing its goal of creating a “world-class” military by 2050. In the two decades since 2000, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has turned from a backward force to one of the most advanced in the world, closing the once giant gap between it and the US military. In some areas, including shipbuilding, land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, and integrated air defense systems, the PLA is actually thought to have edged ahead.

In 2000, the Pentagon assessed that PLA was a backward and bloated force with limited capabilities to fight modern wars:

[T]he PLA was slowly and unevenly adapting to the trends in modern warfare. The PLA’s force structure and capabilities focused largely on waging large-scale land warfare along China’s borders. The PLA’s ground, air, and naval forces were sizable but mostly obsolete. Its conventional missiles were generally of short range and modest accuracy. The PLA’s emergent cyber capabilities were rudimentary; its use of information technology was well behind the curve; and its nominal space capabilities were based on outdated technologies for the day. Further, China’s defense industry struggled to produce high-quality systems. Even if the PRC could produce or acquire modern weapons, the PLA lacked the joint organizations and training needed to field them effectively. The report assessed that the PLA’s organizational obstacles were severe enough that if left unaddressed they would “inhibit the PLA’s maturation into a world-class military force.”

This, however, has now changed dramatically:

[T]he PLA’s objective is to become a “world-class” military by the end of 2049—a

goal first announced by General Secretary Xi Jinping in 2017….it is likely that Beijing will seek to develop a military by mid-century that is equal to—or in some cases superior to—the U.S. military...the PRC has marshalled the resources, technology, and political will over the past two decades to strengthen and modernize the PLA in nearly every respect

More striking than the PLA’s staggering amounts of new military hardware are the recent sweeping efforts taken by CCP leaders that include completely restructuring the PLA into a force better suited for joint operations, improving the PLA’s overall combat readiness, encouraging the PLA to embrace new operational concepts, and expanding the PRC’s overseas military footprint.

(emphasis added)

Looking into the future, the report assesses that PLA’s modernisation will continue:

Given the continuity in the PRC’s strategic objectives, the past 20 years offer a harbinger for the future course of the PRC’s national strategy and military aspirations. Certainly, many factors will determine how this course unfolds. What is certain is that the CCP has a strategic end state that it is working towards, which if achieved and its accompanying military modernization left unaddressed, will have serious implications for U.S. national interests and the security of the international rules-based order.

For those of us following the PLA, this report does not offer any major revelations. The trajectory of the PLA, and its rapid development over the last two decades, have been well documented. But this report is still useful because it provides an authoritative Pentagon assessment of the PLA, one that analysts can use as a baseline to compare their analysis against.

Against deteriorating bilateral relations, and rising geostrategic rivalry, this report serves as another wake up for US policymakers. China’s military power is rising rapidly with major long-term implications for the US and the world.

A number of analyses have already been published on the Pentagon’s 2020 assessment, including detailed breakdowns on specific areas, such as nuclear weapons. Here at Neican, we want to offer three broader observations to help frame your thinking.

First, the PLA should be seen as a political beast first and foremost, and a military one second. The PLA as the military wing of the party (instead of as a state military) has always had to navigate its political and military priorities. But since Xi took power, politics has ascended to a place of utmost importance. The PLA’s focus on political affairs and ideology has become much more prominent in recent years. The often-cited slogan “developing the military using politics” 政治建军 may seem like an archaic throwback, but is actually seen by Xi as a top priority. Like Mao, Xi seems to believe that political indoctrination and military effectiveness are linked. The implication of this for international observers is that in thinking about China’s military power, we should add the lens of party politics, party-military relations, and ideology.

Second, the PLA is not as strong as some of us tend to think. The CCP has an interest in making the world believe in the prowess of the PLA, but this narrative often stray from facts on the ground. There is no doubt the PLA has made significant progress in the last two decades, but it has a very long way to go before reaching parity with the US military. Hardware aside, the PLA still lags behind on “software” (people, culture, theories and concepts, and training). Revealingly, the way the PLA speaks to itself is very different to the way that it speaks to the world. Internally, it incessantly reflects on its inadequacies, including what it terms “detrimental accumulations of peace” 和平积弊. You would think that peace is not too bad, but the key idea is that the PLA has become accustomed to peace and lacks real combat experience. In contrast, the US military has been fighting non-stop since the early-2000s.

Third, just like underestimating the PLA, overestimation also has risks. For example, other states may self deter from certain actions based on inaccurate perceptions of the balance of military power between themselves and Beijing. Also, they may make suboptimal (and in some cases, detrimental) military investment decisions in response to their assessment of China’s military power. That is why an accurate assessment of China’s military power is critical.

2. Minority language education

The Education Department in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region announced a significant change in language of instruction for schools. ‘Language and literature’, ‘morality and law’ and ‘education’ are subjects that will be transitioned to Mandarin instruction. Previously, they were taught in Mongolian. Although other subjects can still be taught in Mongolian, this represents a significant reduction in Mongolian language instruction.

Activists in Inner Mongolia have petitioned against this move, including calling for students and teachers to strike. Large-scale demonstrations have resulted, and police have arrested many activists. Until this week, Inner Mongolia was seen as one of the less restive “autonomous regions”, compared to the other two border regions of Xinjiang and Xizang (Tibet).

Language is a sensitive issue in China, as it is both a symbol of and an instrument for assimilation. China’s education system and its policy towards ethnic minorities, is highly assimilationist.

We both experienced a strong push for Mandarin-only schools when we lived in Shanghai in the 1990s. Speaking Wu (which is officially designated as a “dialect” 方言) was forbidden in schools, even among students during the break. Local languages were absent from TV until the 2000s, when such policy was relaxed. Local “dialects” were once again allowed, alongside Mandarin. This resulted in a whole generation unable to speak their local language — most people do not even know that Wu is also a written language. Many students had to actively re-learn it.

But Wu is still a Sinitic language, it is written using a Chinese writing system, and Wu speakers are part of the majority Han ethnic group. As a result, Wu culture can be preserved relatively easily even with the dominance of Mandarin. The same cannot be said for ethnic minority languages such as Mongolian, which has its own writing system and has less shared culture with Classical Chinese.

In recent years, Mongolian bands have gained widespread popularity in China. The music often incorporates Mongolian musical instruments, styles and lyrics. Some of these bands have shared petitions against the new proposal on social media.

Assimilation through erasure of minority languages and dialects has been a common nation-building project by many states or empires around the world. However, many of us now recognise the need to  preserve linguistic richness and diversity (and not just in museums or for academic research). But it seems that in China, the desire for assimilation still outweighs any desire for cultural preservation. As the spaces for differences become narrower, the needs of ethnic minorities are increasingly made subservient to the dominant Han culture.

The most recent developments in Inner Mongolia also brings to mind language repression in Xinjiang, where in recent decades, in the words of one analyst:

multilingualism and cultural pluralism have been progressively curtailed in favor of a monolingual, monocultural model, and a concomitant rise of an oppositional modern Uyghur identity.

3. Ideological and political education in China

CCP journal Qiushi has spilled much ink in its most recent issue on ideological and political education 思想政治理论课, including publishing a 2019 speech by Xi Jinping.

Most countries recognise that educating or “indoctrinating” the youth in a certain way is important in shaping the future. This is evident in the debate around the teaching of Australian history (“history wars” or “black armband”) for example. But in China, this idea is taken to a different level, with a special focus on “ideological and political education”. Such “education” is not confined to one subject, but has filtered through to most of the curriculum, especially in literature and history, but also in STEM fields in the past.

A part of this ideological education is “patriotic education” 爱国主义教育, which emphasises the role the CCP has played in uniting the country and defeating external aggressors, thus “rejuvenating” the nation. The aim is for students to feel supportive of the past decisions the CCP has made, and to fuse in their mind “patriotism” 爱国 and “love for the Party” 爱党, so that the two concepts are one and the same.

A little bit of history on ideology. “Ideological education” has always been very important, first inside the CCP when it was a small group of committed Communists, then across the PRC when the Party took power.

Ideological education was of such importance that, during the Cultural Revolution, it was all that remained. The schools that were still somewhat functional stopped teaching “traditional subjects” including literature, maths and science, and just taught Mao Zedong Thoughts. “Education level” was not seen as important as class background — indeed, the most educated people were most at risk of persecution. In one apocryphal story, a student passed an exam by leaving the paper blank except for the words “All hail Mao Zedong Thought!”

The actual story is no less interesting...shall we go on a tangent? Okay, why not…

Zhang Tiesheng became famous during the Cultural Revolution for handing in a “blank” (actually incomplete) exam paper for the 1973 national exam on physics and chemistry. He wrote on the back of his exam paper:

To tell the truth, I have no respect for the bookworms who for many years have been taking it easy and have done nothing useful. I dislike them intensely. During the busy summer hoeing time, I just could not abandon my production task and hide myself in a small room to study. That would have been very selfish ... I would have been condemned by my own revolutionary conscience.

I have one consolation. I have not slowed the work of the collective because of the examination ... The few hours of the examination may disqualify me from college and I have nothing further to say.

(Translation taken from Chapter 5 of The Changing Face of China (2006) by John Gittings)

Zhang’s action made him a national hero and won him a seat in the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress in 1975. After the fall of the Gang of Four he was sent to prison for 15 years. In the 1990s, Zhang was part of a group that founded Wellhope Agri-Tech, an animal feed and food processing business. Today, Wellhope is one of the biggest agricultural companies in Northeastern China with over 130 subsidiaries. It is listed on the Shanghai Stock Exchange. Zhang, the leftist student hero of the Cultural Revolution is today retired, but definitely not poor.

Back on topic...today, ideological and political education is effective at squaring the ideological and moral circle, but over the long term, the Party still faces the hard task of tackling ideological, moral and reform challenges. The prospect of that under Xi, in our view, is poor:

The Party can’t move ahead ideologically because it still has not openly repudiated its past, and dealt with its mistakes. It needs to open Pandora's box of history and deal with its contents. But that is thought to be highly dangerous to Party legitimacy. This is why we are unlikely to see this from happening under Xi, especially at a time of heightened uncertainty and flux.

The longer this drags on, the harder it is to face up to the past. Without proper ideological and theoretical support, the regime is ruling via material incentives, propaganda, and coercive tools. They can not be effective over the long term.

4. Wang Yi in Europe

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi concluded his visit to Europe (with stops in Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, France, and Germany) this week. Wang’s main objective was to reassure Europeans about China and halt the confrontational approach from spreading across the Atlantic from the US to Europe. His trip, one of mixed results, highlights that Europe is deepening its skepticism with respect to engaging with China.

European public opinion on China has deteriorated in recent months due to COVID, and human rights issues in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. On Wang’s visit, the issue of Hong Kong’s autonomy was raised by the leaders of Italy, Netherlands, France and Germany (not sure about Norway). French President Emmanuel Macron and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas both raised human rights in Xinjiang, including the treatment of Uyghurs. In addition, Mass condemned Beijing’s threats made against Czechia for the visit to Taiwan by a delegation led by Czech Senate President, Milos Vystrcil.

Wang’s message called for further economic partnership during post-COVID reconstruction, and the importance of multilateralism in tackling common challenges echoed with his European audience. But as François Godement notes:

[A]part from vague talk, Wang Yi appears to have made no new offer or concession on any issue raised or on the economic crux of the EU-China relationship – where China would more effectively balance the mounting criticism of its political and strategic behavior. In effect, Europe and China are currently talking past each other.

Moreover, however as much as Europeans want to maintain and strengthen their trade links with China, ambivalence towards Chinese investment and technology firms have become prominent. Also, there is increasing recognition that the kind of “multilateralism” Beijing wants may be different from the kind that is represented by the European project.

Indeed, Europe is in the process of a major rethink on its engagement with China. This is complicated by the fact that in major European capitals there continue to be heated debates about the direction of Europe’s roles in the world. For example, we see this in debates in Germany on the nature of its strategic role in Europe and the world at large. Related to this, Berlin released its Indo-Pacific Strategy this week, which emphasises Germany’s growing interest in the region, and the “repercussions” for Germany of regional developments.

Wang Yi’s visit and its ambivalent results highlight deeper fissures in Europe-China relations. Europeans are becoming more skeptical of its engagement with China, but they are unlikely to follow the US’ confrontation approach to China.

Quote of the week


Those whose courses are different cannot lay plans for one another.

From the Analects (translation by James Legge, via ctext).

This quote is conventionally taken to mean that people with different aims (or principles/paths) cannot (and should not) work together. It is often used to justify not cooperating with someone different (in terms of either goals or methods), because supposedly it will inevitably lead to failure.

Such moral absolutism appears to stand against pragmatism or compromise. Yet, we recognise that people often have different interests. In fact, a measure of a great leader is someone who can bring together people with different aims in order to achieve an outcome. The quote is also contrary to the now known phenomenon that diverse teams often deliver better outcomes.

We can juxtapose this quote to another. This time, from 抱朴子 Baopuzi (Book of the Master Who Embraces Simplicity), a Jin Dynasty (265-420 CE) taoist text:


Even mountains and seas cannot keep apart those with common aspirations.


  • Noah Barkin’s monthly blog/newsletter Watching China in Europe is an excellent source on Europe-China relations. Noah is an informed analyst based in Berlin with a depth of knowledge on the US-Europe-China triangle.
  • Kirsty Needham’s Reuters Special Report on Australia-China relations is essential background reading, not only for those interested in the bilateral relationship, but also for insights into how smaller and medium states may respond to an increasingly coercive Beijing.

This week on China Story:

  • Victor Ferguson, China sours on Australia’s wine: Why might Beijing have chosen to use anti-dumping and anti-subsidy investigations as informal economic sanctions?On Monday this week, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce announced it has commenced an investigation into whether Australia has been subsidising winemakers. This follows a parallel investigation launched two weeks ago to examine allegations that Australian winemakers have also been “dumping” their wares into China at artificially low prices in order to expand market share and undercut local competitors, contrary to international trade rules.
  • David Stroup, The everyday ethnic politics of Han-Hui relations in the Xi Jinping era: The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) legitimating narrative emphasises the party’s role as the guardian of China’s social stability. During the Xi Jinping era, the party’s successful management of harmonious ethnic politics comprises an increasingly large and crucial element of this narrative. The CCP’s rhetoric on ethnic politics stresses the unity and equality of all of China’s minzu (often translated in official documents as “nationalities”) as a result of the party’s leadership. However, observations of everyday interactions between the majority Han and minority Hui suggest pervasive separation and prejudice that undermines the CCP’s claims of ethnic togetherness and equity.