PLA's Growing Power in China; More Aggressive Foreign Policy Likely in Coming Years

Article excerpt


Power transition rarely has occurred without bloodshed and chaos in Chinese history. From the first Shang dynasty, political change is usually violent, with force also being employed to retain power. Chinese analyst Xiao Han has called this the ax gang tradition - the ax has been the symbol of power since ancient times. In modern times, as Mao Zedong once famously said, political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.

The People's Republic of China - born in blood in 1949 - has pursued endless domestic witch hunts and political purges. Mao and Deng Xiaoping between them got rid of at least five anointed successors who were discarded abruptly, or died mysteriously or under detention.

The first leadership transition without turmoil or bloodshed was in 2002, when Jiang Zemin stepped down in favor of Hu Jintao. This year, Mr. Xi's ascension was preceded by a vicious power struggle that led to the ouster and disappearance of a rising star, Bo Xilai, and the swift conviction of his wife for the murder of a British national in what probably ranks as the mother of all orchestrated trials.

Power in China today may not flow from the barrel of a gun to the extent it did under Mao - who was responsible for the deaths of countless millions - but it is significant that Mr. Xi has risen to the top with close military ties and support. In fact, what sets Mr. Xi apart from China's other civilian leaders is his strong relationship with the military, which regards him as its own man.

As Mr. Xi rose through the Communist Party ranks, he forged close ties with the military as a reservist, assuming leadership of a provincial garrison and serving as a senior aide to the defense minister. His wife, Peng Liyuan, is also linked to the military, having served as a civilian member of the army's musical troupe.

The real winner from the appointment of the conservative-dominated, seven-member Politburo Standing Committee is the military, whose rising clout in policy already has created an increasingly assertive China. The party has ceased to be a rigid monolith obedient to a single leader. Instead, it has become dependent on the military for its political legitimacy and to ensure domestic order. With rural protests increasing officially by more than 10 percent a year, and separatist unrest growing in the sprawling Tibetan plateau, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, China is now the only important country whose annual internal security budget surpasses its national defense spending. …