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.
In that vein, Hu recently told senior People's Armed Police officers that their mission of providing internal security was the top priority for a successful Beijing Olympics, according to the force's official newspaper.
Hu and other party leaders also are eager to avoid being seen as turning to the military for help, a Beijing-based analyst said, because that could create a political debt to the military leadership. "This is more than just image," the analyst added, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Hu, who was too young to be part of the 1930s and 1940s military struggle that brought the party to power, has taken over as head of the party's decision-making Central Military Commission but is still cementing his position as commander in chief. He has named a number of new generals, making them beholden to his leadership, but is still surrounded on the 11-member commission by officers and others whose experience dates to the previous presidency of Jiang Zemin.
Although Hu has taken to being photographed in a green uniform at military events to underline his command role, the analyst said, he would be reluctant to allow his party leadership to be seen as depending on the military for national stability.
The army has played an important political role in China since the Communist Party took over in 1949. Mao Zedong's victory over Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces was attained through conventional war, not an underground sedition campaign, giving the military a platform for strong influence. In addition, after Mao's death in 1976, the military leadership stepped in to save the country from chaos provoked by the renegade Communist leaders known as the Gang of Four.
Andrei Chang, an analyst who runs the Toronto-based Kanwa Defense Review, said in a recent study that the party increasingly has sought to assert civilian leadership despite the military tradition. Nonetheless, he noted, PLA officers account for 20 percent of the 204 Central Committee members installed at the 17th National Congress in October.
Chang and other analysts said that the PLA was not entirely absent in the recent security operations in Tibet. They cited photographs circulating on the Internet that they said show a small number of PLA troops in armored personnel carriers in Lhasa after the March 14 riots. The armored vehicles, some tracked, others wheeled, had their identifying insignia covered with paper or cloth, they noted, suggesting the military was trying to obscure whatever role it played in the Tibetan capital.
Another qualified military analyst, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the army troops may have been called out to be on hand in case rioting escalated, to intimidate protesters by making the armored vehicles visible and to ferry People's Armed Police personnel safely into neighborhoods where Tibetans were throwing stones.
Townspeople in Zhongdian, a Tibetan-inhabited region of Yunnan province, reported seeing PLA trucks pass through carrying soldiers, apparently on the way to reinforce regular garrisons in Tibet. But security forces in their own town, they said, were all People's Armed Police and regular Public Security Bureau police.
Similarly, about 200 People's Armed Police personnel in camouflage fatigues and military helmets were seen protecting Princess Bridge on the edge of Kangding, in the Tibetan-inhabited hills of central Sichuan province, but no regular troops were spotted.