The colossal scale of the disaster beggared the imagination. The swift and efficient response of the Chinese government and army was awesome and drew admiration the world over.
It just so happened that this year, one the most secretive military forces, the two-million-strong People’s Liberation Army of China, was forced to show its paces to the public gaze not once, but twice.
In March, an estimated 25,000 troops rushed to suppress an uprising in Tibet and its neighboring regions. Most are still there and will stay until after the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games this summer.
Then, on May 12, the army was called out with shocking suddenness to meet the emergency of China’s most devastating earthquake in 58 years. In 14 minutes, 113,000 soldiers, 115 medical teams and 78,000 tons of supplies were airborne, driving and entrained to the rescue of Western China’s Sichuan Province stricken by a 7.9 magnitude quake.
By May 19, the military had airdropped more than 307 tons of provisions in 1,069 flights to the quake victims, defense ministry spokesman Hu Changming told a press conference in Beijing. Using wall-piercing radar and heavy engineering equipment, they pulled 21,566 survivors from the rubble of thousands of buildings.
Yet the death toll continued to climb past 60,000 as powerful aftershocks and the secondary disasters of landslides, burst dams, clogged lakes and flooding beset the millions of destitute and bereaved survivors.
This week, a further 20,000 troops were assigned to relief missions; altogether 130,000 Chinese soldiers are employed in urgent operations to save lives – often at the risk of their own.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources have obtained a breakdown of the services from which these troops were drawn:
Extreme regimentation expedited relief and saved lives
The PLA Ground Force and engineering units were reinforced by the PLA Air Force and its special aviation rescue branches, the Peoples Armed Police, the Second Artillery Corps and specialist chemical, biological and nuclear warfare outfits.
The Chinese government diverted to the disaster areas security teams trained by the International Atomic Agency in Vienna to respond to a possible radiological attack, such as a dirty bomb, during the Olympic Games in Beijing.
Also deployed are special units of the Chinese central intelligence agency, the MSS.
The PLA Navy and marine units were placed on the ready – elements moved into Beijing in the last ten days, apparently to take the place of regional security forces assigned to the disaster area. Except for providing fast command boats, the PLA Navy has not taken part in the rescue mission.
This juggernaut could not have acted with the speed and efficiency it displayed without two key attributes:
First: Professor Eli Joffe, the former head of the Hebrew University’s Chinese Studies department, speaking in an exclusive interview to DEBKA-Net-Weekly, drew attention to the harmonious relations prevailing between the Beijing government and the military command, which hinges on the military’s unquestioning obedience to the civilian regime’s bidding.
A world authority on the Chinese armed forces, Prof. Joffe found premier Wen Jiabao only had to raise his voice once in the two-week relief operation to a military officer who questioned his instructions. In the early hours of the disaster, when bad weather caused delays, Wen gave paratroopers 24 hours to be ferried in by helicopters to the quake’s epicenter at Wenchuan in an effort to stem the loss of life. The area had been cut off by landslides and fallen bridges. When the officer said it was too risky, the prime minister yelled it was their duty to serve the people, whatever the cost.
There was no more argument.
Second: The centralist, nationwide control exercised by the high command in Beijing over every element of the armed forces units, however widespread across the vast country, is such that its orders elicit total obedience from every local commander.
In consequence of this high level of regimentation, our military sources report, the Chinese high command alone of the world’s armed forces – except for the Israeli army – can concentrate more than 100,000 soldiers within hours in a given arena.
America can manage a few thousand men; Russia, less.
It is important to note that the PLA’s clockwork performance is on display in a major relief operation, which is a far cry from a war contingency. When its lessons are applied to the requirements of modern combat, certain deficiencies come to light, as cited here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military experts:
1. A dearth of weather satellites
China launched its first weather satellite for the Olympic Games last December. But it took Beijing 15 days from the onset of the massive earthquake to place a second satellite in orbit capable of accurate weather forecasting in the stricken areas of Bechuan county.
The new-generation Fengyun-3 was finally launched on May 27 by a Long March-4C rocket from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in the northern Shanxi province.
It carries three-dimensional sensors for monitoring Earth’s atmosphere and climate change to help China forecast natural disasters and respond to climate change during the recovery work in areas hit by the May 12 earthquake.
Chinese officials originally plotted the launch for the Summer Olympics in Bejing.
However, all the army had available were 15 navigation satellites. They did not provide the high command with enough accurate real-time data on aftershocks and conditions in the worst-hit areas for the timely deployment of the troops where they were most needed. Precious hours were wasted.
Last week, Beijing asked European commercial satellite firms to monitor conditions in the quake-stricken area.
The request was withdrawn shortly thereafter.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources assume that the MSS vehemently resisted exposing Chinese secret military installations and troop movements to alien imaging agencies (although American spy satellites no doubt gather this information all the time)
2. Under-protected military nuclear sites
On May 23, eleven days after the 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck western China, vice environment minister Wu Xiaoqing first disclosed that 50 hazardous radioactive sources had been located. He said 35 were recovered and controlled, “three more buried in rubble and 12 unreachable in dangerous buildings.”
Soon after the quake struck, Chinese soldiers were sent to protect nuclear sites and preparations made for an environmental emergency, the minister reported. Their top priority was to ensure clean water and sanitation, Wu said, but admitted that “Environmental supervision capacity in the area is badly below what is needed.”
According to American and French sources, the town of Mianyang housed China’s secret nuclear weapons design facility, while a plutonium processing facility was located in Guangyuan. Both towns are close to the quake’s epicenter and could not have escaped extreme damage.
According to DEBKA-net-Weekly’s military sources, several nuclear reactors, at least one military, are also located in the quake-hit region. No information on how they were affected has been offered by the Chinese government, the extent of leaked radiation or how it was controlled. American nuclear experts believe this silence conceals extreme devastation and radiation hazards.
According to the Beijing government’s official Web site, nuclear facilities and “radioactive sources” including power plants, reactors, scientific research labs and medical treatment facilities, a big concentration of which are located in the worst hit areas.” But there was no word on how they were secured against environmental disaster.
3. Shortage of transport and logistic support
After the Chinese military expedition to Tibet, the US Pentagon made this assessment to Congress: “China’s military is improving its capacity to conduct long-range missions.” The PLA “is pursuing a comprehensive transformation from a mass army designed for protracted wars of attrition on its territory to one capable of fighting and winning short-duration wars along its periphery against high-tech adversaries.”
This transformation may be in progress in the army, but the rescue operations in May showed that the PLA’s Air Force and armored infantry divisions have not caught up. They are badly short of heavy duty transport helicopters for moving large forces from Point A to Point B. Prof. Joffe told DEBKA-Net-Weekly that the Chinese do not have the heavy duty helicopters the Americans and Russians use and are therefore unable to organize an express ferry line of heavy military cargoes.
The official Xinhua agency reported that, by the morning of May 15, only seven helicopters were making relief drops.
This resource was glaringly deficient in the PLA’s relief work.
The Chinese Liberation Army’s daily reported Wednesday, May 28:
“The project of excavating a spillway tunnel through the dam of a barrier lake in Beichuan for torrent discharge has been progressing smoothly from noon of May 26 to 20:00 of May 27. A lion’s share of the credit should go to the 26 bulldozers and backhoe shovels ferried in by helicopters, which were put to use in four operating areas stretching 700 meters long and moved an earthwork of 20,000 cubic meters in total.”
Airdrops of provisions miss targets
The Tangjiashan barrier lake formed from the powerful aftershock which blocked the Tongkou River with more than 20 million cubic meters of earth and stones. Some 145 million cubic meters of water formed into a pool, which threatened to flood an entire valley. The army needed to dig a channel to divert the flood waters, a task which was calculated to take a week or more.
This task could have been substantially cut down had the PLA enough heavy duty helicopters to fly in more equipment and manpower. And many more lives could have been saved.
Due to the transport shortage, deliveries of water, food and help had still not reached some of the remote quake-hit areas by Thursday, May 29.
Another weakness marked in the air force operations in the disaster zone was the inaccuracy of the airdrops. Quake victims were sometimes forced to walk for miles to pick up the provisions and bring it to those in need.
Wednesday, May 28, the Chinese government finally appealed to Japan for relief materials and “transport means,” including military manpower from the Japanese Army, which is called “Self-Defense Forces.”
The Kyodo news agency, quoting the Japanese foreign ministry spokesman, said China had sounded out Tokyo about sending military planes to the quake-stricken area.
This will be the first time Japanese soldiers have been deployed in China since the bitter days of World War Two, although relations have been on the mend in recent months.
4. Basic tools in short supply
Military rescue troops took 110,000 pieces of equipment with them; another 250,000 had to be delivered by air, rail, road and river, according to Ma Gaihe, a senior colonel in charge of operational logistic support. Some were delayed due to the horrendous weather and the aftershocks, landslides and danger of floods.
The Chinese army showed great resourcefulness in getting heavy military engineering equipment to location. But the soldiers on the ground were short of the most elementary tools for shifting rubble like shovels and picks. In some places, the bulldozers went to work watched by thousands of soldiers forced to be idle by the lack of tools.
5. No telephone lines
The entire operation was hampered by a dearth of military telephone lines. Communications were further stalled when the units which did have phone lines found them incompatible with the systems of other units. One outfit gave up and resorted to personal mobile phones.
The People’s Army performs with flying colors
Despite all these impediments, the Chinese armed forces came out of a daunting earthquake disaster covered in honors. They must be credited above all with two outstanding achievements.
First, the PLA undoubtedly saved the Olympic Games for Beijing.
If the Chinese government and armed forces had failed to rise to the occasion, the calamity would have had serious repercussions on the country at large, possibly even sparking riots and disorders in the cities, including the capital.
In those circumstances, the games would have been cancelled.
Now they can go forward, albeit in a country in mourning for tens of thousands of dead, hundreds of thousands injured, millions of homeless and whole towns wiped off the face of the earth.
The other PLA feat will have a longer-lasting effect:
Coping with the unforeseen exigencies of this vast natural disaster appears to have taught the People’s Army valuable lessons in how to improve their weak ground force leadership, combined operations capabilities and poor morale.
Most of all, it has raised the rank and file’s self-esteem and brought forth a surge of patriotic admiration among the grass-roots citizenry for their uniformed rescuers.
As one observer put it, “For the domestic population, the taint of Tianamen is gone and the PLA is now a source of great national pride.”