In a speech made during his visit to Washington in May last year, Chief of General Staff General Chen Bingde (陳炳德) accused the US of a lack of respect for China’s “core interests” and named “three major obstacles” that harm Sino-US relations: continued US arms sales to Taiwan, close-in US military and surveillance operations against China and a ban on the export of US high-tech goods to China. In the semi-annual Sino-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue, PLA participants tend to set the tone and speak for the Chinese delegation; they take a tougher stance not only on bilateral relations and the Taiwan issue, but also on regional issues such as North Korea and sanctions against Iran and Syria.
On the eve of the 17th Party Congress in October 2007, Hu convened a conference of CCP, PLA and government leaders and nominated his protege, then-Liaoning Province party chief Li Keqiang (李克強), to succeed him as party leader after the 18th Party Congress this year, but his choice was vetoed.
In a unprecedented “straw vote,” China’s leadership elites, especially the PLA leaders, opted for the election of Xi Jinping (習近平), then the party chief of Shanghai and the son of a revolutionary veteran, to succeed Hu. Xi was highly popular with most of China’s power holders, but the overwhelming PLA support was decisive in his elevation.
The 18th Party Congress started today, with the PLA expected to send 251 delegates — three times more than those from Henan, China’s most populous province — a very good measure of its political clout. Xi has maintained close relations with the PLA, and his public and informal remarks on China’s foreign policy and Sino-US relations echo the tough line of the PLA.
Has Xi been politically “hijacked?” Will he continue to follow the PLA’s hard line on foreign and security policy? Or, after he assumes the mantle of party general secretary, can he rule and command “the gun?”
This is an interesting and important question which cannot be answered with any certainty. A period of time must pass before it can be judged if Xi is truly in power and capable of ruling and leading China.
Parris Chang, professor emeritus of political science at Penn State University, is chair professor of general studies at Toko University.