Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 19

President and Central Military Commission (CMC) Chairman Hu Jintao has moved swiftly to tighten his grip over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The emphasis that the new commander-in-chief has put on flexing the nation’s fast-growing military muscle has fed speculation that he will be taking a more hard-line stance on relations with the U.S. and with Taiwan. However, it is unlikely that the predominant Hu-Wen Faction – a reference to the leadership team under Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao – will unveil too many major initiatives until it has consolidated its control over the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the government and the army.

Military affairs dominated the activities of Hu the first week after the much-awaited retirement of ex-president Jiang Zemin from the post of CMC chief on September 19. While Hu was made CMC First Vice-Chairman in 1999, he was largely kept out of high-level military decision-making by Jiang, the head of the powerful Shanghai Faction. Moreover, a minority of commission members had supported the 78-year-old Jiang’s staying on as military chief until the 17th CCP Congress in late 2007. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the first military commission meeting that he chaired on September 20, Hu played up the long-standing tradition of the party maintaining total control over the gun. “Our army is a revolutionary force under the absolute leadership of the party,” said Hu, also the CCP’s General Secretary.

At the same time, Hu elevated two newly inducted CMC members – Navy Commander Zhang Dingfa and Commander of the Missile Forces Qing Zhiyuan – to full general rank. While Hu has never been a professional soldier, he understands that at the very least, he could follow the example of ex-president Jiang and win over members of the top brass through promotions, raising their salaries and perks, as well as boosting the military budget. It is significant that during Jiang’s 15-year tenure as CMC chairman, he bestowed the rank of full general on 79 military officers. It is expected that the pace of rejuvenation and reshuffles will be equally brisk under Hu, who is also anxious to build up a cadre of generals loyal to himself.

Last weekend, the PLA invited 60 senior foreign officers to watch a military exercise in inland Henan Province code-named Iron Fist 2004. The war game, which featured a mechanized infantry division using the latest hi-tech weaponry, was deemed by the official media as “the largest-scale military exercise open to foreign observers [since 1949].” A day later, Hu and all ten other CMC members watched a PLA musical opera that glorified, in the words of the Xinhua news agency, the “lofty spirit and grand airs” of the modern soldier. In an address to the performers, Hu said: “the PLA led by the CCP can smash even the mightiest resistance – and be victorious in all battles.”

Diplomatic analysts in Beijing said that having helped put together an enlarged CMC, Hu would be playing up the new team’s expertise particularly regarding possible “liberation warfare” against Taiwan – and ways to combat likely American interference in Beijing’s reunification efforts. The analysts said CMC stalwarts such as Vice-Chairman General Guo Boxiong and Chief of Staff General Liang Guanglie, as well as newly inducted members Generals Chen Bingde and Jing Zhiyuan had ample experience either serving in the “frontline” Nanjing Military Region – which covers the Taiwan Strait – or conducting war games in this area. Moreover, commission members such as Generals Cao Gangchuan, Li Zinai and Jing Zhiyan are experts in missiles, considered the PLA’s “trump card” in a military confrontation with the self-ruled island.

The analysts said while ex-president Jiang had by and large won over the officers through boosting their salaries, food rations as well as retirement benefits, the former commander-in-chief was faulted by many generals for being too “soft” on Taiwan. “A good proportion of the top brass is also unhappy with Jiang’s excessively heavy reliance on the U.S. to help rein in the pro-independence moves of [Taiwan President] Chen Shui-bian,” said a Beijing source close to the military. Despite Hu’s new-found status as supremo, the sources said he would face a lot of pressure from PLA officers to take a more hawkish posture on Taiwan – and on Washington – should the latter continue to frustrate Beijing’s “great reunification enterprise.”

At the same time, Hu must put an end to the sloppy management of the PLA in the past dozen-odd years, which have manifested itself in several defections of senior officers to the U.S. as well as corruption scandals such as that involving the Boeing aircraft that Jiang bought from a U.S. company in 2001 to serve as his “Air Force One.” The reconstituted CMC also has to persevere with unpopular restructuring and streamlining exercises begun last year. High on the agenda is the abolition of at least half of the nation’s seven military regions, which are widely seen as a holdover from the days of Chairman Mao Zedong. And further demobilization of the 2.5 million-strong troops, particularly among the ground forces and non-combative units, is also in the pipeline.

With Premier Wen running the economy and the central government, Hu will continue to focus on party affairs as well as the foreign and military portfolios. Party insiders say given fast-shifting changes in Asia-Pacific geopolitics, particularly the re-deployment of U.S. forces in Asia and President Chen Shui-bian’s aggressive “creeping independence” gambit, Hu is giving top priority to handling the country’s relations with the U.S. and Taiwan. Hu’s “summit” with President George W. Bush on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Chile in November will give a good indication of the thinking of China’s new paramount leader. However, how soon the Hu-Wen team can roll out major initiatives on the foreign and reunification policies as well as other fronts depends on two factors. One is whether the CCP leadership can defuse ever-worsening destabilizing factors such as anti-government demonstrations and riots by unemployed or destitute workers and peasants.

The other factor to consider is whether, with the help of Premier Wen and other allies, Hu can consolidate his power in the coming year further undercutting the influence of the Shanghai Faction. A source close to the Hu-Wen camp said while the 17th CCP Congress was still three years away, Hu and his advisers had started work on the “division of the spoils,” a reference to the apportionment of Central Committee, Politburo, and Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) posts among the different factions and power blocs within the party, government and army. “If Hu’s political fortune continues to rise, it is possible that all four Shanghai-faction affiliates in the PSC will have to retire by 2007,” the source said. These four Jiang cronies are Vice-President Zeng Qinghong, National People’s Congress Chairman Wu Bangguo, Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Chairman Jia Qinglin, and Executive Vice-Premier Huang Ju. And to stress rejuvenation, it is possible that apart from Hu and Wen, both born in 1942, only one other PSC incumbent, Li Changchun, born in 1944, would remain on the topmost body after the 17th Congress.

Another preoccupation of the Hu-Wen team is to break up the tradition of “Shanghai people running Shanghai.” With few exceptions since 1949, the Shanghai municipal party committee as well as government have been dominated by native sons. Given the ferocity with which Shanghai “warlords” have resisted on-going macro-economic policies devised by Premier Wen to cool down overheated areas such as real estate, infrastructure and “prestige projects,” the Hu-Wen leadership is set to redouble efforts to name non-Shanghai cadres to fill senior positions in the East China metropolis. Political observers in Beijing see an interesting parallel to how ex-president Jiang had fairly successfully tamed the Guangdong Faction. For almost two decades after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the Guangdong provincial administration was dominated by locals, particularly cadres close to Marshal Ye Jianying, who played a key role in overthrowing the Gang of Four. However, Jiang dealt a body blow to the Guangdong Clique by appointing northerner Li Changchun to be Guangdong party chief in 1997. With help from the Shanghai Faction-dominated party leadership, Li subsequently fired, retired, or incarcerated a sizeable number of Guangdong Faction affiliates on charges of corruption and other economic crimes.

In less than two years after the 16th CCP Congress, Hu and Wen – who appear in the eyes of Chinese and foreigner observers as humble, moderate cadres – have displayed a flair for Machiavellian infighting and bureaucratic back-stabbing, which has enabled them to edge out the once-predominant Shanghai Faction. Now these Fourth Generation leaders most prove to the world that they are as sagacious and vigorous in not only scaring the out-gunned Taiwanese but also pushing long-delayed reforms, particularly political liberalization.