After years of modernization, the armed forces have become an increasingly powerful player driving China’s engagement with the world. Some outspoken generals have publicly pushed for a tougher diplomatic line against China’s Asian neighbors and the United States, trying to usurp what was once exclusively the role of the Foreign Ministry.
But the military commission’s secretive promotion process appears to have been disrupted by the sacking this year of former Communist Party provincial chief Bo Xilai, who sought to cultivate personal loyalties within the armed forces. At least two generals who were once heavily favored to join the commission — Liu Yuan, political commissar of the Academy of Military Science, and Zhang Haiyang, political commissar of the Second Artillery Corps — are now considered likely to be bypassed because of their close links to Bo.
In the wake of the Bo scandal, other commanders rushed last spring to make unusual professions of loyalty to the party and its secretary general, Hu Jintao, who is also China’s president.
The military transition has also become uncertain after public hints in September that Hu might seek to stay on as chairman of the commission after relinquishing his other top posts. Such a move was seen here as a brazen attempt by Hu to extend his influence, and would undermine his designated successor, Vice President Xi Jinping, the current vice chairman of the commission, who would become chairman if Hu steps down. (When Hu first took over, former president Jiang Zemin retained the chairmanship of China’s military for two years into Hu’s presidency.)
Hu’s efforts prompted a rare backlash from the military. “When it’s time for a person to retire, he should retire,” said one retired major general, who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive issues in Chinese politics with a foreign reporter. “I don’t think someone should use this way to extend his term. Plus, the succession will be less independent. . . . Everyone needs his own team.”
Xi, the son of revolutionary hero Xi Zhongxun, has far deeper ties to the military than Hu and knows many of the younger crop of officers. From the mid-1970s until 1982, Xi donned a uniform as an active service member and worked as the secretary to Geng Biao, a onetime PLA commander, defense minister and secretary general of the Central Military Commission. Xi accompanied Geng on visits by official military delegations to Europe, and in 1980 to the United States. In eastern China, where Xi was a top provincial official, he also took the job heading the provincial defense commission, in charge of the local garrison, which was unusual for a party chief.