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China: Plans Laid For A Better Army, But Unemployment Looms

Prague, 17 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- At the 15th People's Party Congress in Beijing, China's President Jiang Zemin has been setting the table from which his countrymen will eat over the next five years.

His announcement of economic reforms, the "common" or "public ownership" plan for some state industries, was foreseen by the international media. And other changes are coming as well. Cuts in the army's troops strength will continue, following up a process begun by Jiang's predecessor, Deng Xiaoping.

Jiang's reduction plan is equal in ambition to Deng's earlier cuts. It calls for 500,000 troops to leave service by the year 2000. In the process of this reduction, the money saved will help to purchase better weaponry and provide the necessary training for using the new hardware. Jiang, backed by China's top commanders, is looking to build a new-style army under the slogan "fewer but better troops with Chinese characteristics."

Jiang's speech on the opening day of the congress was later welcomed publicly by China's military leaders. Jiang needs such support as he is not a military man as his predecessors Deng and Mao Tse-tung were. Defense Minister Chi Haotian supported the move and said this "is necessary to safeguard the authority of the party central committee with Jiang Zemin at its core." General Zhang Zhen, due to retire soon at age 83, told the army to dedicate itself "heart and soul" to the party's central committee. One of four vice-chairmen of the military commission, Zhang Wannian, said Jiang is a "loyal, reliable and promising successor" to the ideas of Deng Xiaoping.

The senior vice-chairman of the military commission, Liu Huaqing, also gave a positive public assessment of Jiang's idea, saying the troop cut was a "major measure to strengthen the quality of the People's Liberation Army." However, Liu is rumored to be against the cuts especially after Deng, in the early 1980s, began a process which cut Chinese troop strength by nearly 25 percent to 3.1 million. Jiang's proposed cut would equate to a reduction by more than one-third of the People's Army in a 20-year period. Though Liu's public approval of this newest cut shows him to be a loyal party man analysts interpret it as a sign Liu has lost his support against the move and will retire later this week, probably to be replaced by Zhang Wannian.

Half a million workless soldiers will add to the burden of unemployment, which is expected to increase in any case. Jiang warned of this in his speech when he spoke of the economic reforms -- which amount to partial privatization, couched in different terms -- of state enterprises.

China's Minister of Labor, Li Boyong, said there would be "no disastrous outcome" as a result of the reform process. Despite the annual arrival of 10 million people from rural areas to towns and cities, Li said urban unemployment could be held at 4 percent by the year 2000, though he admitted that the enormous labor force in China was "quite a headache."

Quite a headache indeed if figures quoted by Reuters, AFP and AP news agencies can be believed. According to these sources the current eligible labor force in China is 834 million. Of that there are about 130 million idle people in the countryside, where unemployment and underemployment is said to be running at almost 35 percent. Li further admits that, apart from registered urban unemployed, there are 20 million "surplus" factory workers in China, kept employed by state run industries. Some or possibly many of these industrial enterprises will merge, downsize or fold as the state withdraws support. With fewer jobs, China may soon have 200 million unemployed people, almost a quarter of the work force and about one of every six people in the country.

China's leaders at the congress say all is in accordance with China's "primary stage" of socialism. The ideas of Deng and Mao, have been made to fit into the new reform package. At any rate, the success or otherwise of the "new trail" will be evident soon enough. The plan envisages that the more sophisticated army, as well as the 4 percent scenario for urban unemployment, will be achieved only three years from now.