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Xi shaping up to be an influential PLA commanderThe son of a revolutionary hero may have more chance than predecessors of winning the trust and political backing of the top brass, analysts sayCary Huang01 August 2013Mao Zedong once famously said that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”. Decades later, another Communist Party leader appears to be putting a modern spin on that old maxim.As China celebrates Army Day, marking the anniversary of the founding in 1927 of the People’s Liberation Army, President Xi Jinping is making his presence felt as commander in chief, earning favourable comparisons with his two predecessors for his handling of military matters.Indeed, analysts say Xi’s performance in his dual role as chairman of the party’s and its Central Military Commission has been more significant than the administrative changes he has introduced as president.Xi took over from Hu Jintao as chairman of the party’s top military decision-making body in November, at the same time as he became general secretary of the Communist Party and months before he replaced Hu as president.The fact Xi took over as military chief immediately - unlike Hu, who waited 21/2 years for Jiang Zemin to hand over the commission chairmanship, was taken as a sign of Xi’s firm grip on power.As he toured the Beijing military area command on Monday ahead of his first Army Day in office, Xi stressed that the 2.3 million-strong PLA must “strictly follow the party leadership” and be “absolutely loyal and reliable”.As with past top leaders in the post-Deng Xiaoping era, Xi is seeking to build a strong relationship with the armed forces, a relationship he sees as key to cementing his status as military and party chief. Within months, Xi has managed to inspect major military regions and visit the troops of all the PLA armed forces divisions, as well as armed police and maritime guards. Xi also visited an air force base deep in the Gobi desert and navy bases on islands in the South China Sea.During those visits, Xi wasted no time in assuring the officers and soldiers that strengthening the military is a centrepiece of his plan to realise the renaissance of the nation.“He has exhibited his strong command of the armed forces by conducting frequent inspections to almost all forces in such a short period,” said Ni Lexiong , director of the Sea Power and Defence Policy Research Institute at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.“Xi’s moves to consolidate his grip over the armed forces have been quick, frequent and resolute,” added David Tsui, a visiting professor at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou.Analysts say Xi, as the son of a revolutionary hero, might have greater clout than Jiang and Hu to win the trust of the top brass, and thus get the necessary political support to push for policy change.Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun , as a top general in the Red Army’s northwestern unit, fought in the civil war alongside Mao. The elder Xi also helped Deng push forward China’s capitalistic economic reform and opening up in the late 1970s.“This gives Xi a certain amount of respect among the top military brass, and thus helps win necessary political support for action to push forward changes; something Xi’s predecessors Jiang and Hu lacked,” said Tsui, a military affairs analyst who is also the son of a PLA general.Analysts also point out that Xi differs from his two immediate predecessors in that he inherited the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission at the same time he became chief of the ruling party.“Xi has moved more quickly than either Jiang or Hu because he has been able to assume the PLA commandership without a more senior leader, or party elder looking over his shoulder,” Ni said.Unlike his predecessors, Xi also had military experience. He served as personal secretary to defence minister and Central Military Commission secretary general Geng Biao , his father’s former subordinate, between 1979 and 1982.
Tsui said that experience gave Xi “some deeper knowledge of what military strategy means”, which had also helped him gain the respect of generals and professional soldiers.Analysts note that Xi has moved quickly to deal with three key problems in the armed forces: lax discipline, declining morale and rampant corruption.Ni said that as a “as second generation revolutionary Red”, Xi might have realised the seriousness of the problems within the army and the consequences of failing to get rid of them.Tsui said Xi’s strong line against ills within the army was certain to meet resistance, but that “such tough action also reflects Xi’s confidence in his authority over the army and his determination to clean up the rank and file”.PLA corruption has remained largely out of the spotlight, despite the belief it is as serious among the troops as it is in the civilian population.But reports last year said the deputy head of the logistics department, Lieutenant General Gu Junshan, had been placed under investigation, accused of selling land owned by the PLA to developers. The PLA has never officially confirmed the accusation.Xi has issued a series of orders to promote moral behaviour, bolster military training and advance the fight against graft and official extravagance that have been a hallmark of his civilian leadership.Tsui said he had learned from PLA sources that an unprecedented austerity programme was under way. Xi also ordered generals and officers to live and train as common soldiers at least for two weeks in a recent “mass line” campaign to promote morality and improve work methods.He also launched a campaign to clean up the notorious misuse of military licence plates, many of which adorn plush, luxury cars that their owners use to get away with breaking the law.Until recently, luxury cars with military plates owned by serving or retired officers and even their family members could be spotted everywhere, a high-profile manifestation of army corruption.Under the new rules, the use of military plates on some high-end brands - including new Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and BMW - has been banned. Tsui said he hadn’t seen any such luxury cars with military plates in cities he had visited recently, suggesting Xi’s campaign was paying off.Xi also ordered the PLA to increase its “real combat” awareness and demanded that the armed forces “be ready to fight and win battles at all times”.He has ordered more military exercises, involving operations mimicking real combat.Ni believes Xi is trying to build a PLA that is both militarily capable and politically loyal to the party leadership, an accomplishment that will prove tough.Professor Kerry Brown, director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, said Xi might achieve his political goal.“I do not know whether Xi can be said to have a military strategy but he wants to give the military prestige and to have them onside, of course. But the framework for civilian control of the military was put well in place by his predecessors,” said Brown, who also leads the Europe China Research and Advice Network funded by the European Union.“All Xi has to do is make sure the armed forces don’t hike up their budget requests so that their spending gets out of control. And he has to make sure they are able to maintain consensus and co-ordination over the current maritime border issues.“I think the military are there to be tamed, and this is a relatively easy thing for him to do.”
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