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China guns for 'absolute obedience'

Publication Date : 19-07-2012


Chairman Mao Zedong's dictum that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun" and that "the party commands the gun" ranked among the Great Helmsman's most cited quotes both in China and abroad.

But in recent months, as China gears up for a major leadership handover this autumn, there seems to be fears that the gun itself has forgotten about it.

The organs of the Communist Party and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) have been relentlessly reminding soldiers that they have to remain loyal to their civilian leaders, on a scale which experts say has not been seen since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.

The latest came this week. China's second-highest ranking military officer, General Guo Boxiong, urged troops in restive Tibet to "stay absolutely loyal and reliable" to the central leadership.

"In the run-up to the party's 18th National Congress, more efforts should be made to ensure the army's absolute obedience, loyalty and reliability to the party, aside from high solidarity, security and stability among the troops," he told officers there, according to state Xinhua agency.

The propaganda exercise started in January, but intensified in the spring after Chongqing chief Bo Xilai was purged amid murder and abuse of power claims.

On March 23, for instance, just days after Bo was sacked, a commentary in the PLA Daily, the official newspaper of the military, urged soldiers to "oppose and eliminate" indiscipline.

Besides stressing loyalty, the campaign has also asked soldiers to reject the "erroneous views" of nationalising the PLA.

Unlike most major countries, China's military pledges loyalty to the ruling Communist Party and not the nation.

The intensity of the exhortations revives memories of the 1989 Tiananmen incident, where some in the military defied orders to shoot the protesters.

This led to a campaign that saw "loyalty oaths, several high-ranking officers removed, military salons that discussed controversial topics closed", recalled military expert June Teufel Dreyer from the University of Miami.

But the reason for the current campaign is more prosaic. It is largely related to the leadership transition this autumn and to rein in any dissenting voices within the military, say observers.

There are three main factors at play. First, it is to tame any attempts by the PLA for a larger voice in the new leadership, almost certainly to be led by current heir apparent Xi Jinping.

"There are elements in the armed forces who are determined to be central political players, not just contributors to national security and foreign policy," said Beijing-based analyst Russell Leigh Moses.

Second, it is related to President Hu Jintao summoning support for his continued role in the military. As Dr Moses observed: "While the leadership transition is well spelled out in the civilian sector of the political system, there is no clear indication as yet on when Hu will step down as head of the Central Military Commission."

It is believed that Hu is seeking to remain as chief of the commission, which in effect controls the military, for two more years after the congress.

It would follow the path of his predecessor Jiang Zemin, who also hung on to the all-important position after relinquishing his party and state roles.

Third, it is the Bo Xilai scandal. The former Chongqing leader was openly courting the PLA before his purge, even staging a military exercise in the mega south-western city.

It is critical for the party leadership to remind Bo's sympathisers in the military to fall in line.

But such a prolonged campaign can have its downside, said Hong Kong-based political analyst Willy Lam.

"It will give the outside world the impression that stability is wanting; that nobody has enough authority to keep the generals under control," he said.


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