Backstage Role of China's Army in Tibet Unrest Is a Contrast to 1989

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 13, 2008

BEIJING -- As Chinese security forces blanketed Tibet and other Tibetan-inhabited areas over the past month, the regular army remained discreetly in the background, under orders to let police take the lead in suppressing the unrest that exploded in Lhasa and quickly spread to adjoining provinces.

The backstage role played by the People's Liberation Army marked a sharp change from China's last big protests, in 1989. During that crisis, PLA troops using tanks and automatic weapons moved in to quell rioting in Tibet and crush pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unarmed civilians.

The decision to minimize military intervention this time suggested that the Communist Party leadership did not consider the Tibet crisis to be as serious as the 1989 protests, when China's entire ruling system was thought to be under challenge. Analysts here also saw the recent lower-key response as reflecting official concern over the reaction abroad if the army were to deploy massively against internal unrest as China prepares to host the Beijing Olympics in August.

The main task of restoring order was assigned to the Public Security Bureau and particularly the People's Armed Police, a paramilitary force of about 700,000 men and women with duties that include protecting embassies and putting down riots. The People's Armed Police has grown considerably in numbers, equipment and training in recent years. Commanded jointly by military and public security authorities, it has most often been called out by provincial party leaders facing unrest in their areas.

The failure of the People's Armed Police to swiftly bring rioting Tibetans under control March 14 in Lhasa, when 19 people were killed by official count at the beginning of the unrest, generated criticism from army officers whose units were told to stay in their barracks, according to reports circulating among Beijing political analysts. But the carping was more a symptom of routine interservice rivalry than a serious rift, the reports said.

Neither the Defense Ministry nor the civilian security apparatus, headed by Zhou Yongkang on the Politburo's Standing Committee, would comment on deployments of recent weeks. Jiang Yu, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said no soldiers were deployed in Lhasa but declined to comment on other Tibetan areas. Reporters who visited Tibet and the other areas where unrest broke out said they saw People's Armed Police, sometimes carrying automatic rifles and dressed in military-style camouflage fatigues, but mostly armed with crowd-control batons.

The shift in approach by President Hu Jintao and his Communist Party lieutenants reflected political sensitivities that still surround memories of 1989, when public esteem for the army suffered after it moved against its own people.

The party Propaganda Bureau has worked tirelessly since then to restore the military's image and portray it as devoted to China's 1.3 billion inhabitants. The effort was particularly visible during this past winter's ice storms, when state-controlled media inundated Chinese with photos of smiling soldiers clearing snow and grateful citizens handing them snacks and hot tea.

Hu and his premier, Wen Jiabao, both had prominent roles in the 1989 resort to the military, which may be coloring their attitudes now. Hu was party secretary in Tibet during the crackdown and imposed martial law there to give soldiers a freer hand. Wen, a rising star in 1989, was photographed just behind a senior party leader, Zhao Ziyang, as Zhao tried in vain to persuade students to leave Tiananmen Square before the army attacked.

"The decision to primarily, if not exclusively, rely on the PAP is one consequence of the 1989 Tiananmen crisis," said David L. Shambaugh, who heads the China Policy Program at George Washington University and just finished a book on the Chinese Communist Party. "That is, neither the party leadership nor the PLA itself wanted to put the military into the position of riot suppression."

In addition, the Chinese government is in the midst of a long-term program to improve the 2.2 million-member military, including making it more professional and capable of waging modern, electronics-based warfare. Spending, which rose more than 15 percent in each of the past two years, has brought in new weaponry but also financed training and education to enable soldiers to use the more sophisticated equipment.

The Chinese military's mission has long focused strongly on Taiwan, the self-ruled island just off southern China, and on China's growing need as a major regional power to project strength around the Pacific. Riot suppression fits poorly into either mission, analysts pointed out, and so the People's Armed Police has been expanded and improved to take care of internal security needs.

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