BEIJING — Along with China’s transition to new political rulers next month, sweeping change is also coming to the leadership of the People’s Liberation Army with the elevation of a new generation of commanders in the world’s largest military.
At a time when a rising China is increasingly pressing territorial claims against its neighbors, the Central Military Commission, which effectively runs the PLA, is expected to undergo dramatic turnover. As many as seven of its 10 military members, including two vice chairmen, are retiring, and many other top military positions are also slated to change hands.
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.
Most of the younger commanders were born after the Communist Party took power in China in 1949. Like Xi and other incoming political leaders, some of the generals moving up are members of the “red nobility,” or children of revolutionary heroes. These “princelings” were born into privilege and experienced the hardship of Mao Zedong’s 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, but they mostly know China as a rising power and economic titan over the past 30 years.
And unlike the older generation, most of the younger commanders have no combat experience. China’s last major conflict was a brief 29-day border war with Vietnam in 1979.
Little is known about what most of these new military leaders think. Only a few speak or write openly, and most never give interviews. But their worldview will largely determine whether China’s growing military power raises alarm in the region and beyond, and whether a future confrontation with its neighbors, or the United States, is inevitable.
China does not make its total military spending public, but experts around the world have estimated that it has risen from about $20 billion in 2002 to at least $120 billion last year. That is still just a fraction of U.S. military spending, but some analysts expect China to surpass the United States in total military spending by 2035.
The political leanings of the military’s new leaders might also determine whether the army continues to be the main support pillar for the Communist Party. Since being called in to suppress a popular pro-democracy uprising in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the PLA has worked to bolster the People’s Armed Police as a separate entity with riot control and domestic security capabilities, so the regular army can largely stick to its more pressing job of modernizing and becoming a professional force, instead of being used again as a tool of internal control.
“The military and the armed police should have their separate roles,” Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan said in a rare interview. “The armed police should control internal affairs, and the military should focus on defense.”
Dennis Blasko, a former U.S. military intelligence officer and former military attache in Beijing, said that after 1989, “the PLA understands that they hurt their reputation with the people and don’t want to go through that again.”
Officially, Chinese commanders are all committed to the doctrine they call “peaceful development,” meaning a China focused on improving the welfare of its own people and uninterested in meddling in the affairs of its neighbors. Current and retired officers, Chinese journalists and analysts stressed in interviews that China’s military leaders are all Communist Party stalwarts who value continuity and consensus decision-making above all.
“In China, the Communist Party is the only ruling party. So the policies implemented by each generation will show a lot of continuity,” said Luo, a member of the China Society of Military Science.
But, Luo said, “the new leaders will have different experiences, different qualities and different personalities than the last generation of leaders, and that will definitely affect their working style.” Among other attributes, the commanders born in the 1950s are more educated — many have advanced degrees — and most spent time working in the Chinese countryside during the Cultural Revolution, which means they understand “the grass roots,” Luo said.
Some outside analysts are concerned that the younger officers may be eager to prove their mettle.
“There’s real antagonism toward the U.S.,” said Dean Cheng, an analyst of China’s military with the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “The scary thing is, as you have this group of officers who think the U.S. is out to get them, they’ve also seen their military improve.”
Cheng added: “We are potentially looking at a military that is more self-confident, arguably more arrogant, and being pushed by a political leadership somewhat eager to show how much it has improved. . . . All you need is somebody doing something stupid.”
Others agreed that the real problem might come from something unintended, not calculated. For example, with more maritime forces operating in the South China and East China seas, Blasko said, “I am increasingly worried about something happening that leads to greater escalation.”
As important as the new commanders’ world outlook is their view on the need for reform of China’s hidebound Leninist political system. While much of their thinking remains a mystery, a few have given occasional hints of their beliefs.
Liu Yuan, a princeling son of Mao-era leader Liu Shaoqi, warned in a speech in January that corruption had become so deeply entrenched that it threatened the party and the military.
“I’d rather risk losing my position than refrain from fighting corruption to the end,” he told several hundred assembled officers. In a preface he wrote in 2010 to a book by a scholar friend, Liu accused past and current Chinese leaders of “betrayal” and urged China to embrace a form of “new democracy.”
Gen. Liu Yazhou, political commissar of the National Defense University and considered a princeling because of his famous father-in-law, Li Xiannian, raised eyebrows with a provocative 2010 essay in a Hong Kong magazine in which he seemed to advocate more democracy.
“If a system fails to let its citizens breathe freely and release their creativity to the maximum extent . . . it is certain to perish,” Liu wrote.
Those words might in another context be considered seditious. But Liu in the summer was promoted to full general — by Hu Jintao, who had been elevating his loyalists to the commission.