After the jump, excerpts from two email messages I received from Westerners who have recently lived in or visited China.
Obviously they would not say, nor would I, that the casual/ragtag aspect of Chinese soldiers as encountered in normal urban life is representative of the whole Chinese military, indicates that China does not have advanced weapons or a growing navy, puts to rest all questions about China's ambitions, or so on. But this anecdotal exposure has an effect -- it's pretty much the opposite of the impression one gets from brief exposure to the US military -- and I bet that most foreign residents of China would say that these reports ring true. Certainly they do to me.
I am 60, a former officer in the USMC reserve, and I am an amateur military historian. In November, I spent two weeks in Beijing. One of my stops -- naturally -- was the Museum of the Peoples Liberation Army. It had two sides --one translated into English, the other Mandarin only. The non-English side less friendly.
Outside the Museum, the guards were huddled under an umbrella, as it was wet and cold. You can't make this up --the umbrella had an advertisement for McDonalds!
I saw many members of the Chinese military. They are a distinctly sloppy lot. I really did not sense any zeal for actual fighting. No "OORAH" here. And the ordinary people I observed by taking subways everywhere, and walking about constantly in non-tourist areas, seemed only interested in commerce, and not at all anti-American.
Report #2, from "Chris":
Technically, it's a police state, but they really don't care about a lot of things... Yes, the military is huge, but I've seen college freshmen doing their compulsory military training. I'm not worried. Their military could use some modernization. I've also heard that everyone down to the security guards at the mall are "military". The PLA isn't just the army, they own businesses and factories.
"Communism" or "socialism" is just a label for "the kind of government China has". ...
Nobody can make China do anything, just like nobody can make the US do anything. The PRC can be influenced, but only if they're treated as equals, and with respect. That said, just caving in to any hint of Chinese displeasure is a really bad idea.
Chinese people love Americans. They don't like Bush, but a lot of that is "he's not Clinton"... China isn't our enemy, they're a rival - a good one, too. Competition is good, conflict is NOT good.