Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 10

By Willy Lam

The standing of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)–and its commander-in-chief, Jiang Zemin–has taken a drubbing in the wake of China’s raging pneumonia epidemic and a recent submarine accident off the Bohai Sea.

Apart from the leaders of Guangdong Province, where Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) first erupted last November, the PLA is the main culprit in a series of coverups that has abetted the worldwide spread of the deadly disease.

It was not until April 20, when Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities decided to sack the health minister and the Beijing mayor for dereliction of duty, that military hospitals in the capital agreed to divulge facts and figures about their SARS patients.

However, the PLA General Logistics Department runs more than 200 medical facilities. And Western health experts suspect that military hospitals in many provinces and cities are still withholding crucial information from the World Health Organization and the world community. While more than 120 civilian officials nationwide have been penalized in connection with the epidemic, no military officers have yet been held to account.

More significantly, and owing largely to foot-dragging by Central Military Commission (CMC) Chairman Jiang, the PLA has refused to join enthusiastically in the nationwide anti-SARS crusade. It was not until April 28 that the army made its first significant contribution to battling the pandemic. As the Xinhua news agency reported that day, the PLA had “with the approval of Central Military Commission Chairman Jiang Zemin” sent 1,200 doctors and nurses to a new SARS hospital outside Beijing.

Moreover, the top brass kept mum about SARS for more than five months after its outbreak. It was only in early May that senior officers such as the two CMC vice-chairmen, Generals Guo Boxiong and Cao Gangchuan, started making SARS-related inspections trips. By contrast, the army played an early–and pivotal–role in helping civilian authorities grapple with the 1998 floods, to which SARS has often been compared in the Chinese media.

Party sources in Beijing said a major reason behind the PLA’s tardy involvement in anti-SARS efforts was Jiang’s refusal to give full support to President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. The two had dominated the media with their frequent visits to medical facilities in both cities and villages.

One of Jiang’s quarrels with Hu and Wen–neither of whom is a member of the patriarch’s Shanghai Faction–was that they had not linked fighting SARS with the ex-president’s “Theory of the Three Represents.” After all, the theory (which says the party should represent the foremost productivity, the most advanced culture, and the interests of the masses), was enshrined in the CCP Constitution last November as the party’s guiding doctrine. Hu was forced to sue for compromise when, at an April 28 meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the Fourth Generation leader agreed to the new slogan that the epidemic be fought under the direction of the “Three Represents Theory.”

The army’s participation in the anti-epidemic crusade has to some extent intensified since the PSC agreed to play up the relevance of the Three Represents Theory. However, quite a number of Jiang cronies have remained lethargic. Take for example, the heads of the two main “united front bodies,” the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), which are often used to mobilize the masses during political campaigns. Both the NPC and the CPPCC, which are headed respectively by Jiang confidantes Wu Bangguo and Qia Qinglin, have remained uncharacteristically quiet about the pandemic. It was not until a week or so ago that Wu made his first SARS-related trip to Inner Mongolia.

CMC chief Jiang probably wanted to improve both his own and the image of the PLA through the relatively speedy release of news about the submarine accident, which was believed to have taken place in mid-April. The Xinhua news agency ran a terse item on May 2 saying that “mechanical problems” had led to the death of all seventy crewmen on board the Ming-class, diesel-fueled Submarine 361. It was the first time ever that Chinese authorities had owned up to the loss of a submarine.

However, the less-than-full disclosure left a plethora of unanswered questions. The authorities did not reveal the date of the accident, or the precise causes. There are suspicions that the CMC’s reluctance to maintain strict discipline was one reason behind this secrecy. Western military analysts have pointed out that human errors–and lack of proper oversight by senior naval personnel–might have been responsible for the horrific accident. For example, while the Ming class submarine is licensed to carry fifty-odd crew members, seventy were on board.

Indeed, the civilian authorities’ decision to fire two ministerial-level cadres over SARS has only highlighted the CMC’s refusal to promote a comparable responsibility system in defense units. Despite having benefited from hefty budget boosts, the PLA navy has a record of mismanagement–and accidents and near-misses–over the past several years. For example, there are reports in the international media as well as on Chinese websites about naval personnel failing to do proper maintenance work on the expensive Kilo-class submarines that Beijing has bought from Russia since the late 1990s. Western military analysts have noted that a couple of Chinese subs in the past decade had simply vanished in deep waters–and that naval headquarters were unable to recover them.

The 73-year-old Jiang, however, is notorious for his hush-hush attitude toward the misdemeanors of PLA brass. Take, for instance, the bugging of the Boeing aircraft that was originally destined to become a Chinese-style Air Force One in late 2001. While some thirty PLA staffers, mostly from the General Logistics Department, were reportedly detained and court-martialed, the incident was never reported in the Chinese media.

Moreover, most of the officers in question were penalized in connection with taking kickbacks, not conniving at or abetting the grave security breach. No full-scale investigation relating to espionage is believed to have been launched by the CMC. Jiang and his CMC colleagues have also come under flak for failing to discipline the large number of military officers–notably those from the Navy and military intelligence units–who were implicated in the multi-billion yuan smuggling and corruption case that centered on the southeast seaport of Xiamen in the mid- to late-1990s.

Political analysts in Beijing said the SARS pandemic and the submarine disaster could hasten the full retirement of the ex-president. Jiang has repeatedly been criticized for hanging on to the CMC slot despite having given up all his other party and state positions late last year. At last March’s NPC, quite a few military delegates openly cast doubt on Jiang’s suitability for another five-year term as Chairman of the State CMC.

One PLA deputy to the Congress had the following to say in a small-group discussion: “We in the PLA are troubled by there being two centers of loyalty in the army,” the delegate indicated, referring to the “twin leadership cores” of Jiang and Hu. Then, playing on the Chinese characters for “center” as well as “loyalty,” the officer added: “If you put the characters ‘center’ and ‘loyalty’ together, you have the new word huan, meaning disaster.”

The political analysts said that, should the Hu-Wen team succeed in the coming weeks in containing the scope of SARS at least along the rich coast, then the prestige of the president and the premier might rise to the extent that they could be in a position to challenge Jiang’s fast-waning authority.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN’s Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.