At the end of the nineteenth century China was Asia’s leading naval power – albeit briefly. Back then the Qing court had imported some of the most advanced battleships from Europe and boasted a fleet of 78 vessels that grossed 7,300 metric tonnes (making it the eighth-largest in the world). More than 200 foreign technicians were recruited as trainers and advisers, and drill commands were barked out in English.
It all looked rather impressive until the First Sino-Japanese War broke out and ended in a dire Chinese defeat in 1895.
The war is particularly remembered for a maritime disaster that saw China’s entire Beiyang Fleet sunk by supposedly inferior Japanese vessels. Researchers have blamed rampant corruption among the military bureaucracy. Despite its impressive appearance the fleet was found to be ill-equipped. Some of the warships even found that their artillery shells had been filled with sand.
Fast forward to the present day and China is once again trying to boost its maritime might. But revelations in the state media seem to suggest that old lessons are yet to be learned. Last month state broadcaster CCTV aired unusual footage of the destroyer Zhengzhou taking part in a drill in 2014. Battling raging waves in the West Pacific, the ship lurches as a watertight door suddenly gives way. Two of the sailors who try to close it are knocked senseless by the blast of seawater. A dozen more sailors then arrive, using wooden planks to keep the door closed before welding it shut. Others bail water frantically with plastic basins.
Last week CCTV followed up with a second report about another destroyer, the Yancheng, which encountered a similar problem. This time the sailors were seen soaking up seawater with their bedsheets.
The timing of the broadcasts is unlikely to be accidental – they coincide with the 120th anniversary of China’s defeat in the 1895 war with Japan – and will embarrass the top brass in the Chinese navy. Worse, the Zhengzhou only entered the fleet in late 2013 and belongs to the new generation of home-developed missile destroyers known locally as “China’s Aegis”.
“We spent so much on defence but the Chinese Aegis is not even waterproof,” read one of the more popular comments on Sina Weibo.
So why did CCTV highlight the failings now? More thoughtful onlookers believe it is related to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s purge on corrupt practices within the PLA, (which comprises China’s army, air force and navy). Graftbusters claimed a major scalp last year in the form of Xu Caihou, the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), the powerful body that controls the PLA. In January the CMC then took the unprecedented step of naming 15 more generals that were under review for graft, and last week it indicated a further 14 senior officers were under investigation.
The majority are from the political and logistics departments of the PLA. This highlights two distinct types of corruption in the military, the New York Times has noted: bribery in political departments relates to the sale of positions; and embezzlement is the result of procurement contracts.
“The defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War was not just down to weapons and equipment, but also loose discipline and corruption,” Fan Changlong, a CMC vice chairman, has warned. “If a military is corrupt it could not even fight battles, let alone win them.”
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