China to roll out the big guns
The People's Liberation Army (PLA) marked its 82nd birthday on August 1, with the Hu Jintao leadership having taken several major initiatives to raise the quality of its senior personnel. President and commander-in-chief Hu has also given a big boost to military modernization by pledging unprecedented civilian support for the PLA's ambitious goals "in the new century and under new historical circumstances".
Yet, China's defense establishment still suffers from enduring problems, ranging from an aging leadership to factionalism. Further, Hu's re-hoisting of the Maoist standard of junmin jiehe, or "the synthesis of the army and the people", could exacerbate the privileged "state-within-a-state" status of the armed forces - and further stoke fears about the "China threat".
The prediction that the year 2009 could become a watershed for the PLA is supported by growing evidence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership's eagerness to show off the troops' state-of-the-art weaponry. During the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PLA Navy back in April, authorities unveiled the first Chinese-made nuclear submarine to an audience that included military delegations from 30-odd countries.
More sophisticated hardware, including jetfighters and missiles, are set to dazzle the world at a gargantuan Tiananmen Square military parade scheduled for the People's Republic 60th birthday on October 1. There is intense speculation in Chinese online military forums that Hu and his generals want to take advantage of the Barack Obama administration's just-announced moratorium on the development of high-tech weapons to narrow the gap between the two nation's combat capabilities.
At a CCP Politburo Study Session last month, Hu, who has chaired the policy-setting Central Military Commission (CMC) since 2004, noted that the authorities would do more to attract "high-caliber talent from society" as well as "different types of talents" to military work. He also announced measures to ensure that the next generation of military chieftains would be full of "enthusiasm, initiative and creativity".
In senior-level reshuffles ongoing since early this year, Hu has broken new ground by moving more officers from the academies, research institutes and headquarters units to the frontline. According to the Southern Metropolitan Daily, the CMC has, since April, rotated 33 high-level officers among the four headquarter departments, the seven military commands, PLA academics and institutes, the People's Armed Police (PAP) as well as headquarters and grassroots units of the army, navy, air force and the Second Artillery or Missile Corps.
For example, nine generals from departments in the headquarters have been transferred to grassroots divisions and military academies, while seven generals from academic and research institutions have been posted to frontline service units. The official daily said this had the advantage of achieving a "synthesis between military theory and practice, and between officers from headquarters and those from the grassroots".
In an article released on the eve of Army Day, CMC vice chairman Guo Boxiong asserted that the PLA had been able to nurture a corps of officers who were "revolutionary, modernized and standardized". Guo saluted the rapid "intellectualization" of officers as well as rank and file cadres. He disclosed that 61% of PLA officers with the rank of "cadre" held college degrees or their equivalents.
Yet Hu and his military colleagues have yet to tackle two organizational problems within the barracks. One is that rejuvenation within the top brass has severely lagged behind that in party and government departments. The average age of the 10 CMC members is over 66; while that of the 14 heads - the commanders and political commissars - of the seven military regions is 61.
To bring in new blood, Hu has adopted unconventional methods such as elevating relatively junior officers to senior slots. For instance, the chief of staff of the Shenyang Military Region, Lieutenant-General Hou Shusen, was promoted last month to vice chief of the PLA General Staff Department (GSD). Normally, a regional chief of staff has to become a regional vice commander and then commander before being considered for this senior GSD post. Yet at 59, General Hou only has six more years of active service before reaching the mandatory retirement age.
An even more daunting challenge for military reform is cliquishness within the top ranks. The so-called Gang of Princelings - a reference to the sons and daughters of party elders - has occupied a sizeable portion of senior PLA slots. This is despite the fact that owing to negative public sentiments about "the revolutionary bloodline", the proportion of princeling cadres in the party-and-government apparatus has declined over the years.
One needs only to look at the background of the three PLA officers who were elevated to full generals last month: Political Commissar of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences Liu Yuan; Political Commissar of the Chengdu Military Region Zhang Haiyang; and vice chief of the General Staff Ma Xiaotian. They are the sons of former state president Liu Shaoqi, former politburo member and senior general Zhang Zhen, and former dean of the PLA Political Academy Ma Zaiyao, respectively.
Of particular significance to factional dynamics within the CCP is the fact that Vice President Xi Jinping - himself a princeling - has a reasonably good chance of being named CMC vice chairman at the CCP Fourth Plenary Session scheduled for September. Since Xi is a probable successor to Hu upon the latter's expected retirement from the politburo at the 18th CCP Congress of 2012, it is in accordance with party tradition that the 56-year-old Fifth-Generation leader be inducted into the CMC at least a couple of years before his elevation to the party chief position.
Due largely to recommendation by his father, former vice premier Xi Zhongxun, Xi worked for three years as a secretary at the CMC General Office right after graduation from Tsinghua University in 1979. Moreover, it is well known that Xi has kept up intimate ties with fellow PLA princelings. Given that Hu and Xi are heads of respectively the Communist Youth League Clique and the Gang of Princelings, Hu has a vested interest in ensuring that there will be at least a rough balance of power between the two power blocs even after his retirement. An exacerbation of the princelings' grip over the PLA, however, would upset this delicate balance.
At the same time, Hu has sought to bolster his support among the top brass by promising extra civilian support in areas such as research and development of weapons and infrastructure, especially transport and communications. These massive resources are on top of the 15% or so budget boosts that have been granted the PLA for the past decade.
The CMC chairman said last month that army development in China would be marked by "the synthesis of the military and civilian [sectors], and of [the requirements] of peace and war". "The concepts of a rich country and a strong military should be unified," said Hu. "We will uphold the principle of joint military-civilian development, and push forward the benevolent interplay between national defense construction and economic construction."
This means, for example, that the planning of new civilian airports, highways, and ports should take military requirements and applications into consideration. And the fact that much of the research and development expenditure for military hardware comes from the budgets of civilian government departments is behind the widespread perception that the publicized PLA budget only represents up to one-third of the actual outlay for China's defense forces.
While the so-called pingzhan heyi ("synthesis of war and peace") dictum was enunciated by chairman Mao Zedong when he invented guerrilla warfare in rural China in the 1930s, Hu is the first military chief to have revived this ideal in the age of reform.
Critics of the theory of "army-civilian fusion", however, have pointed out that this will tend to make the Chinese military even more of a "state within a state". They point to the fact that, compared with the situation in almost all other countries, the PLA has enjoyed a disproportionately large share of political and economic resources. In a Liberation Army Daily article dated August 2, CMC vice chairman Guo again saluted the principle of "the party's absolute leadership over the army".
"We shall resolutely abide by the instructions of the party Central Committee and the Central Military Commission," Guo wrote. "We shall resolutely complete all the tasks mandated by the party." Among the nine-man Politburo Standing Committee, however, only Hu has the requisite authority to influence day-to-day military operations.
As the Sichuan earthquake demonstrated, even such a senior cadre as Premier Wen Jiabao had difficulty soliciting the full support of PLA and PAP divisions in emergency situations. This perhaps explains why immediately after the horrendous riots in Urumqi, Xinjiang on July 5, Hu had to drop out of the Group of Eight meeting in Italy to hurry back to Beijing in order to direct military operations against the "Uighur splittists".
The CCP leadership's less-than-stringent control over the top brass - and the relentless aggrandizement of the PLA's clout - could engender concern particularly among China's neighbors that hawkish elements within the defense establishment could prod the nation into adopting an aggressive foreign policy. Influential PLA theorists including National Defense University Professor Jin Yinan - who was one of two experts to brief the Politburo last month on global strategies - have noted that the PLA would play a pivotal role in China's emergence as a world power.
Jin noted that "China's rise can never be accomplished in the midst of nightingale songs and swallow dances" - a reference to the placid pleasures of peacetime. Other military officers have urged tougher steps to resolve the country's sovereignty disputes with Southeast Asian nations including Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.
The upside of the Hu leadership's support for fast-track military modernization is that this could generate national pride among Chinese and boost socio-political cohesiveness. The downside, however, is that a corps of generals that is not subject to institutional checks and balances could have an undue impact on the nation's foreign and even domestic policies. In conclusion, even if CMC chairman Hu is successful in raising the caliber of the top brass, the latter's preponderance in Chinese politics could worsen already serious tensions between China and its neighbors.
Dr Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation. He has worked in senior editorial positions in international media including Asiaweek newsmagazine, South China Morning Post and the Asia-Pacific Headquarters of CNN. He is the author of five books on China, including the recently published Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era: New Leaders, New Challenges. Lam is an Adjunct Professor of China studies at Akita International University, Japan, and at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
(This article first appeared in The Jamestown Foundation. Used with permission.)
(Copyright 2009 The Jamestown Foundation.)