China shakes up its military
This story originally appeared in The Straits Times on Sept 7, 2012.
POSTED in a military barracks is this poster: "We pledge our lives to protect the Party's 18th National Congress." That slogan speaks volumes of how vulnerable the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) perceives itself to be - to the extent that the country's military has to throw its full weight behind a party congress.
The poster reflected what transpired at a meeting between General Guo Boxiong, vice-chairman of the CCP's all-powerful Central Military Commission (CMC), and a group of senior military officials at the National Defence University on July 17.
At the meeting, Gen Guo stressed that "maintaining stability prior to the party's 18th congress is a major political task of the military". In the event of an emergency, "the military has to ensure that once the order is given, it could act swiftly and resolutely to deliver its task".
The second remark showed clearly that the CCP anticipated emergency situations before or during the party congress that required prompt and effective intervention by the military.
Gen Guo's urging of preparedness of the military was indicative of the damage to the party's stability brought about by the Bo Xilai incident.
The Chongqing party boss was purged in March for alleged abuse of power and his wife, Gu Kailai, was convicted of murder last month.
President Hu Jintao and Vice-President Xi Jinping had to factor in Mr Bo's links with the military to ensure that his removal from power did not backfire.
And Mr Bo and his wife, Gu, had strong connections with the military.
Mr Bo's father, the late Bo Yibo, was founder of the present-day 14th Group Army stationed in Kunming.
Gu's father, the late Gu Jingshen, had been commander of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Brigade, a military outfit based in the north-west.
These family connections allowed the couple to enjoy support in the Great Military Regions (GMR) of Chengdu and Lanzhou.
Currently, China has seven GMRs, each covering several provinces. Chongqing and Kunming belong to the Chengdu GMR, while Xinjiang the Lanzhou GMR.
Mr Bo was known to have cultivated good relations with both GMRs. Last year, he made unspecified "generous donations" to the Xinjiang Brigade. Last November, the Chengdu GMR organised a military exercise on national mobilisation in Chongqing hosted by Mr Bo.
Apart from the GMRs, Mr Bo's supporters in the military included fellow princelings such as General Liu Yuan, son of former state president Liu Shaoqiu, and General Zhang Haiyang, son of former CMC vice-chairman Zhang Zhen.
Gen Liu and Gen Zhang are political commissars of the General Logistics Department and of the Second Artillery, China's strategic missile forces, respectively.
Another reason Mr Hu and Mr Xi dared not take chances was the possibility of a coup by Mr Bo's supporters.
However remote, this possibility could not be entirely ruled out. For, according to information divulged by former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun to the Americans, Mr Zhou Yongkang, a member of the Politburo standing committee who commanded the nation's police force, was colluding with Mr Bo to thwart Mr Xi's rise.
Following Mr Bo's fall from grace in mid-March, there was a "rumour" of a military coup in Beijing on March 19.
Whether it was true or false outsiders would never know.
But subsequent developments suggested that something unusual had taken place:
- The heads of all branches in the military came out one by one to pledge personal allegiance to CMC chairman Hu Jintao;
- The People's Liberation Army (PLA) Daily, the official mouthpiece of the military, warned its rank and file not to believe in rumours, let alone spread them;
- All the provincial police chiefs, who were under Mr Zhou's command, were ordered to swop their positions nationwide;
- All the Political and Legal Committees, also under Mr Zhou's control and which command the provincial police forces, were downgraded. The heads of these committees used to be members of the standing committees of the provincial party committees. They are now no longer so.
It was against this backdrop that President Hu ordered a major reshuffle within the military in recent months.
From July until mid-August, a total of 17 senior military officials (six chiefs and 11 deputy chiefs) in the GMRs and in the army, navy and air forces were removed or transferred, or promoted.
While not all the reshuffling had to do with the Bo crisis, half of them took place in the GMRs of Chengdu and Lanzhou, suggesting that they were related to Mr Bo.
The reshuffling reflected Mr Hu's strategy in minimising the damage to the party by stressing that the Bo incident was but an isolated and individual case.
Hence, known Bo supporters in the military, like Gen Liu and Gen Zhang, were not touched at all. Instead, they were elected as PLA delegates to the upcoming national congress.
Mr Zhou Xiaozhou, chief of the 14th Group Army, was promoted to head of the Staff Department of Chengdu GMR.
The message was clear: Even Mr Bo's staunch supporters would not be implicated.
In this way, Mr Hu reduced the extent of the purge, and therefore the likelihood of a backlash, to the minimum.
The reshuffling reflected Mr Hu's strategy in minimising the damage to the party by stressing that the Bo incident was but an isolated and individual case. Hence, known Bo supporters in the military like Gen Liu and Gen Zhang were not touched at all.