Beijing's hawks down but not out

2002-03-19Asia Times

BEIJING - A common pattern in Chinese history since Liu Bang founded the Han dynasty in the 2nd century BC has been the passage of power from a military to a civil administration. Once a new dynasty is established, the generals who helped overthrow the previous regime and bring their leader to power become part of a ruling elite. In a matter of years, however, this military aristocracy is replaced by a civil administration selected on the basis of merit, and the generals, lacking any political hereditary right or privilege, fade into oblivion (see F W Mote, Imperial China, pages 4-9).

As many have suggested, the current rule of the Communist Party can be seen as a dynasty. Certainly many of its trappings and the icons of communist power are conscious copies of those of the past, starting with the residence of the top leadership.

As with past regimes, the "communist dynasty" came to power through a successful armed rebellion of peasants, and the top generals were the emperor's, ie Mao Zedong's, closest friends. In the party, even now people draw a difference between "whites" and "reds", the reds being the soldiers who fought in the countryside, and the whites being the underground organization in the cities.

The Great Leap Forward at the end of the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s are also remembered as chapters of the post-liberation struggle between whites and reds, the military versus the civil. Liu Shaoqi, who got the upper hand after the failure of the Great Leap Forward and was the most illustrious victim of the Cultural Revolution, was a white, and represented the effort to wrest power from the hands of the military. Liu failed in his quest because Mao used the military in the internal power struggle and eliminated Liu.

Deng Xiaoping's accession to power was also proof of the strength of the military. The military organized a coup, arrested the Gang of Four and restored Deng to power. They didn't promote Chen Yun, who was a white even though in 1957, before all the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, he was senior to Deng in the party hierarchy. The military instead trusted one of their own, Deng, who, like Mao, was a red, had been an army political commissar, and didn't work in the underground urban movement, as Chen Yun had done. The lingering strength of the military in decision-making was underscored by the fact that Deng was China's paramount leader simply by virtue of being the chairman of the military commission, ie, the top military commander.

In 1992, at the 14th Party Congress, for the first time a person without any field experience in the military was chosen to lead the military. Jiang Zemin, a purely civilian leader who had joined the party after 1949, headed the powerful military commission. But to bolster Jiang's position and guarantee his own, Deng retrieved from retirement Liu Huaqing as his right-hand man in the military commission, while forcing the withdrawal of the powerful Yang Shangkun.

Yet even then Jiang was not in full control of the military and thus of the nation, while Deng was still working behind the scenes with the help of Liu Shaoqi and of his longtime assistant Wang Ruilin. Not until the 15th Congress was the military aristocracy pushed officially out of the decision-making process. Then, for the first time in the history of the Chinese Communist Party, no one with active military experience sat in the party standing committee, China's top decision-making body.

And so, as had often occurred in the past, civil administrators were taking over the government. The political argument for this shift was that China now needed to emphasize "nation building" and "economic construction". The economy was the key to national security, a point driven home by the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Nations could be smashed, like Indonesia, millions could be driven to misery by the simple swift movement of currencies in the stock exchange. There was no need to fire a bullet to safeguard the motherland or attack other countries: careful financial management would do the trick. In other words, the economy was not simply necessary to have money to buy guns, finance had become a weapon in its own right.

At that point, with the ensuing threat against the Hong Kong dollar, Chinese leaders started mulling over the idea of establishing a National Security Council, in which representatives from economic, diplomatic, security and military departments would sit together and decide broad geostrategic and geopolitical issues. The military opposed the establishment of the council, which would further reduce their power. Up until then they had been the strongest voice in foreign policy, the ones who could ultimately determine the strategic threats to the motherland. They would summon diplomats for suggestions; but diplomats did choose the policy, the military had simply to implement it. The National Security Council would change everything in the internal balance of power, and entail a further decrease in military influence.

The debate over diplomacy and economics versus military persuasion centered on Taiwan. Since 1995, the influential Chinese journal Strategy and Management had carried articles arguing the need to use economic means to draw Taiwan closer to the mainland, rather than using military threats. However, hawks in the party trusted more the use of military threats and even wanted to impose a deadline for Taiwan to accept the principle of "one China". As it turned out, the use of threats on two occasions proved helpful to the staunchest anti-Beijing candidate in Taiwan's presidential elections: the re-election of Lee Teng-hui in 1996 and in 2000 with the election of Chen Shui-bian.

Meanwhile, a new law that at the beginning of 2000 favored Taiwanese business in the mainland greatly increased investment from Taipei and further linked its business with the fate of Beijing. Last year, Taiwan had an US$18 billion trade surplus with the mainland, and despite that, the island suffered negative growth in gross domestic product. The largest and possibly most anti-communist corporation of Taiwan, Formosa Plastics, in that same year pledged a large investment on the mainland to manufacture computer chips, arguably the island's most sensitive technology. In a way, that deal clinched the support of the influential Taiwanese tycoons to a process of reunification with the mainland. This constituency, and the growing dependency of Taiwan's well-being on trade with the mainland, strengthened the position of the Chinese doves and weakened the voice of the military with proof that saber-rattling was counterproductive.

This has put an important spin on domestic politics just ahead of the 16th Party Congress due this autumn. As Taiwan was the strongest argument for the military to maintain an unchallenged profile in Chinese foreign affairs, the apparent solution of the Taiwan issue by economic means further supported the creation of a National Security Council in which the weight of the military would be the same as that of the Foreign Ministry or of the economic ministries.

So China is developing along the lines of the past - the military is giving way to civil administration. However, this trend is not certain to continue and the presence or lack of external military threats can slow down or speed up this process.

Recent developments on Taiwan could fuel the arguments of the hawks in these crucial months when positions must be hammered out before the 16th Congress. The United States last week for the first time since 1979 granted a visa to Taiwan's Minister of Defense, Tang Yao-ming. Furthermore, a group of Taiwanese legislators is scheduled make a one-week visit to Washington early next month to attend the founding ceremony of the Taiwan Caucus, a group that aims at constructing a regular and formal Congressional communication channel between the United States and Taiwan.

China protested against these actions, but what is taking place behind closed doors is even more important. The hawks can now argue that the economic dependence of Taiwan on the mainland may not alter the strong political sentiment to move the island further away from the mainland. In fact some may even argue that Beijing's massive imports from Taiwan are a blank check used by the pro-independence faction on the island to turn the tables against Beijing. The doves may counter that pro-independence action can be dismissed as empty rhetoric to feed the domestic audience, while the bond with the mainland is in fact becoming stronger.

Being money-minded, Marxist mainlanders would tend to believe more in the power of economics than that of diplomacy. However, the current diplomatic success of Taiwan with the US will contribute to keeping the influence of the military in the future political scenery.

Therefore, as has happened many times in Chinese politics, the extremes use each other against the people in the middle. The actions of Taiwan's politicians abroad will most likely not advance the cause of Taiwan's independence. In the early 1990s, when Taiwan's economy was booming and China's was still faltering, the financial clout of Taipei and the appeal of its newborn democracy were swaying politicians and businessmen worldwide to consider independence an issue. Yet despite much blabber not much happened. Now, with Taiwan's economy heavily dependent on Beijing's goodwill, and Taipei's democracy tainted by scandals, suspicion of corruption and rowdy parliamentary wrangles, these actions are even less likely to bring results.

However, one result they might very well produce is to feed the argument of their fiercest enemies, the Beijing hawks. These believe that the military should have a paramount say in China and that the Taiwan issue should be closed with a major shove, which could also have positive implications for the growing chaotic domestic situation full of cults and criminal organizations.

This lingering role of the military could also be an element to consider if, as is possible, at the Party Congress Jiang Zemin retains the post of chairman of the military commission. The military, although not as powerful as it was 10 or 20 years ago, could thus still be extremely important, keeping Jiang still as China's paramount leader. (2002-03-19 Asia Times)


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