When President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) assumed the chairmanship of China's central military commission in September, he quickly demonstrated the incisive managerial style that has distinguished him from his predecessor, Jiang Zemin (江澤民).
But as is often the case in the People's Republic of China, impressive external appearances may have served to conceal internal weakness.
After only five days at the helm, Hu set out a tough policy for dealing with Taiwan's "splittists." The People's Liberation Army (PLA), he said, must "strive for negotiation, prepare for war, and have no fear of Taiwan's procrastination."
This business-like mantra was typical of Hu and a new, savvier generation of Communist Party technocrats.
"Hu is an intellectual. He's not a charismatic leader like Mao or Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平). There's a more collective leadership these days. But he is a tougher opponent than Jiang," a senior Taipei security source said.
Craftier, too, suggest seasoned China watchers. For in taking his stand on Taiwan, Hu, unlike Jiang, avoided any mention of a unification deadline or timetable that might prove unachievable.
While his words sounded powerful and urgent, they committed him to nothing and distanced him from possible failure. According to Andrew Yang (楊念祖), of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei, this sort of creative ambiguity has become a necessity for a Chinese leadership less in charge of events at home than the outside world supposes.
"The Chinese regime is approaching a major turning point. It will continue with economic development, it has no choice. But it has to change itself, too, and it knows it," Yang said. "The domestic problems of the central government are so huge, they are really beyond its control. China really is too big a country to manage."
Growing disparity of incomes, north-south disputes, the widening rural-urban split, unemployment, particularly of demobilized PLA troops, unchecked corruption and regional ethnic unrest were all straining Beijing's capacities.
Far from hoping for a Chinese meltdown, most Taiwanese fear an economic crash and political upheaval on the mainland almost as much as a PLA invasion.
Taiwanese entrepreneurs have invested about US$100 billion in China; and despite the political stand-off, human and cultural ties remain strong. According to the Straits Exchange Foundation, 600,000 Taiwanese live and work in China.
"There are many hidden tensions and strains and an undercurrent of social turmoil inside China," said Anne Hsiao (
According to the security source, democracy in China is in retreat. Harassment, including arrests, of academics, journalists and other dissenters has grown since Hu took power. Millions have been spent on perfecting Internet censorship.
"Hu has less tolerance for critics -- he can't afford it," the source said.
Escalating energy demand and frequent area power cuts, meanwhile, were handicapping growth, the source said.
"Energy is a huge issue. By 2010, imports will be 50 percent. That's why they're scraping and digging all around the East China Sea," the source said.
"On the whole the Chinese military is still pretty backward. They have sizeable land forces but they're outdated. They can barely protect themselves ... China's navy has never been considered a `blue water' navy. It mostly does coastal defense," Yang said.
The government's medium-term focus remained the securing of China's peripheral boundaries, including Taiwan, and its offshore exclusive economic zones.
Some experts say greater autonomy or a form of devolution, especially in wealthier southern and eastern coastal provinces, could ease Beijing's control problems -- and might help stabilize occupied Tibet and China's Muslim west.
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