Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) nerves were likely stretched to breaking point over the Lunar New Year period: There were jitters over China’s financial system and tension over the possible outbreak of war. The latter is the most hair-raising of possibilities for Xi, since a war would cause international capital to flee to the relative safety of the US dollar and set off another catastrophic fall to the value of the yuan. Luckily, all remains calm.
On Feb. 7, Chinese-language news agency Bowen Press, quoting a source in Zhongnanhai, reported that Xi issued orders that the seven members of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Politburo Standing Committee were not allowed to take time off over the Lunar New Year period.
Further, for the first time in his role as chairman of the Military Commission, Xi signed the first order to put the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on a war alert following recent military reforms. The PLA’s central military area has since Feb. 7 entered a “level two” state of battle readiness. This is the first time that the PLA has been on a war footing since Xi initiated a sweeping program of reforms to the Chinese military.
The purpose is to send a clear message to hostile nations: China is bolstering its defenses, so do not try to launch a surprise attack. The central military area is the most secure, since it is surrounded and protected by military areas. Therefore, Beijing has been moved from the northern area to the central area. At present, the north, south, east and west military areas have not been raised to battle readiness; only the central area has.
This psychological warfare is aimed at the US. Beijing is sending a message to Washington that it is ready for the eventuality of a US bombardment of its capital.
During the Lunar New Year, China comes together in a nationwide celebration.
Xi was apparently worried the US would make use of a period when China’s defenses were down to launch a surprise attack and inflict heavy losses on the PLA, whose internal units are in a state of disarray due to the ongoing military reform process. To deter an attack, the newly formed ballistic missile division conducted a rare live firing exercise during the holiday period.
On China’s national day in 1969, during the Cultural Revolution, Beijing was in a similar state of battle readiness. In April that year, the CCP held its Ninth National Congress. To effect a temporary respite to the civil war brought about by the Cultural Revolution, the party leadership had engineered a conflict with the USSR over Damansky Island (Zhenbao Island, 珍寶島) in March to unite Chinese against a common foe.
However, the move strained relations with the USSR to the point where, in August that year, the Soviet Army completely annihilated a PLA patrol unit on the Xinjiang border.
Chinese leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東), concerned that the USSR would invade China, issued a directive that the nation should “prepare for war.”
It was for this reason that Mao entered into an alliance with the US to defeat the USSR, which later led to then-US president Richard Nixon’s visit to China.
It was Mao’s designated successor, General Lin Biao (林彪), who issued “Order No. 1” to put the PLA on a war footing in case of an attack by the USSR, although Lin was subsequently accused by Mao of plotting a coup against the government. Detailed information on this incident can be found in the article “Lin Biao’s emergency directive, the full story” (林彪「緊急指示」前后), published last year in the November edition of the Chinese-language journal China Through the Ages (炎黃春秋).
The 1969 national day celebration coincided with the 20th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
At the time of the inspection of the troops in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace, Lin had already personally deployed troops to the north, northeastern and northwestern military regions of the country to prepare for war. A special guard had been stationed outside a lift in the Gate of Heavenly Peace to ensure that Mao and the politburo leaders could be swiftly evacuated. In addition, a helicopter was on standby inside the Forbidden City, on a stretch of open ground adjacent to the Meridian Gate.
The purpose of these preparations was to ensure that the leaders could be whisked away in seven to nine minutes, since it was estimated that it is how long it would take for a missile fired from the nearest military base in the USSR to reach Beijing.
Moving back to the present, two unusual events took place during this year’s Lunar New Year holiday.
First, on Feb. 7, North Korea launched a long-range rocket, officially termed an “Earth observation satellite,” but widely suspected to be cover for the testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the US.
Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun conjectured the US would launch an attack on North Korean military installations.
North Korea is used by Beijing as a proxy to resist the US, but will it continue to defend North Korea against the US?
The other incident over the New Year period was Hong Kong’s so-called “fishball revolution.” Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (梁振英) has been creating a lot of problems for Xi of late, but this one, at least, is unlikely to blow up into a war.
Paul Lin is a political commentator.
Translated by Edward Jones
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