Monday, April 13, 2009

Article - PLA shoots down talk of loyalty shift


By Peh Shing Huei, China Bureau Chief ST April 13, 2009

BEIJING: - More than a week before its most spectacular naval display, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is already making waves in the newspapers, magazines and even cyberspace.

While the PLA Navy prepares for a grand maritime parade next Thursday to mark the 60th anniversary of its founding, a separate ideological battle has been waged on land. Two articles have been published recently by the military, stressing that the PLA must remain loyal first to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), rather than the state.

'The Chinese Communist Party is the leadership core of the cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and maintaining the party's absolute leadership is our military's political priority,' wrote General Li Jinai, director of the PLA General Political Department, in the April issue of the CCP journal Seeking Truth.

'Resolutely resist 'de-Partyising or de-politicising the military' or 'nationalising the military' and other mistaken thoughts and influences,' added Gen Li, a member of the Central Military Commission, the top decision-making body of the Chinese military.

Last Tuesday, the PLA Daily's front page was almost entirely devoted to the same argument, with two long articles extolling the importance, and virtues, of the military following the command of the party.

One of the articles wrote that the modern Chinese soldier belongs to a military that 'is different from any other armed forces in the world', adding that since the birth of the people's army, it has 'resolutely stood under the banner of the party'.

At the heart of the debate is the peculiar nature of the PLA, one of the world's largest military forces. While other major armed forces pledge, at least on paper, their loyalty to the state, the PLA's allegiance is primarily to the CCP. This is because the PLA was born out of the Red Army, a peasant force built by the CCP in 1927, leading the communists to victory in the Chinese civil war in 1949.

'The PLA is fundamentally the armed forces of the CCP, which is why the PLA could never be truly modernised in its truest sense unless it answers to a democratically elected civilian authority,' said Professor Yu Maochun of the United States Naval Academy. That also explains why the PLA will inevitably become more of 'an internal security forces' often asked to perform missions such as the Tiananmen crackdown on pro-democracy protesters and curbing unrest in Tibet or Xinjiang, Prof Yu added.

For years, this 'party controls the gun' phenomenon has been a target of those pushing for political reforms in China. It resurfaced in the last few months with Charter 08, an online petition issued last December to push for democratisation. Besides calling for free elections, the Charter, which has since been signed by some 8,000 signatories online, also advocated the removal of CCP control of the military.

It is unclear why the PLA waited until now to respond, but it could be timed to quell any dissenting voices ahead of next week's naval display - a prestigious event with more than 40 foreign navy ships from 15 countries, including the United States.

There is also the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown on June 4. The 1989 incident remains the biggest stain on the PLA's reputation, marking the first instance it opened fire on its own people.

The PLA Daily response last week could also be a result of two threads over the weekend on the online forum of state news agency Xinhua. They argued that the military should belong to the state and not any political group; and also that the 'nationalisation' of the military is an indicator of a major power as that is the norm for big powers.

Singapore-based international relations expert Li Mingjiang said that while it is understandable for the PLA to be controlled in the past by the CCP because of the historical relationship, communist China has changed so much since its founding in 1949. 'It's been almost 60 years since the founding of the PRC. Now China is so different. And this is so egregious compared to all other major countries in the world,' said Assistant Professor Li of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University.

But while the recent articles by the PLA suggest that this issue is of significant concern to its top leaders, there is little chance that the force could be 'nationalised' in the short term.

In the PLA Daily, the military reiterated the 'Three Ensures' called for by Chinese President Hu Jintao. It is to ensure party control over military, ensure the use of science and technology to build up national defence and ensure that the military carries out its mission in the 21st century.

Prof Li agreed that there is 'no chance' of the PLA switching its allegiance to the state any time soon. 'Party controlling the gun is an integral part of the political system. Since the CCP is not willing to push for substantive political reforms, this proposal will continue to be suppressed. Nationalisation of the military will significantly weaken the CCP political ruling position.'

Added Prof Yu: 'The demand for such within the PLA has always been more subterranean than explicit because it is an absolute heresy to even contemplate.'

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