China's Commander in Chief Walks Tightrope With Army

Since the 1949 communist revolution, China has lived by the maxim "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun."

If the precept coined by Mao Zedong, the founder of the communist dynasty, still holds true, then any would-be leader must rule the Army if he hopes to head China.

After President Jiang Zemin became nominal chief of the world's largest Army in 1989, both ordinary Chinese and foreign scholars speculated whether he could succeed in keeping the post after the death of his patron, Deng Xiaoping.

Some foreign analysts had predicted Deng's demise could trigger power struggles in the Communist Party and Army that could lead to chaos in the corridors of power and on China's streets.

But so far, "there have no been no signs of disloyalty to Jiang in the military," says Robert Ross, a China scholar at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

Yet in the two weeks since Deng's passing, some questions have resurfaced about Mr. Jiang's future. "If Jiang succeeds in holding onto power without a major struggle, it would be the first time this century China has seen a transition of leaders not marked by violence or disorder," says a Chinese government worker in Beijing.

Deng lingered in the wings of power for seven years after appointing Jiang as chief of the Communist Party and Army. That extended period gave Jiang time to recast the leading actors on the political and military stage and to swell the Army's coffers to buy its allegiance.

Yet unlike supreme leaders Mao and Deng, whose military leadership spanned decades, Jiang did not command or even fight in the revolution.

During "Jiang's titular control of the Army, he has worked strenuously to cultivate networks of relationships," says Michael Swaine of the California-based Rand Corporation think tank.

Jiang has been able to ease some rivals from power "through promotions of younger officers and retirement of many elders," says Dr. Swaine, author of the "Military and Political Succession in China."

Yang Shangkun, long ranked second in command after Deng in the People's Liberation Army (PLA), and his half-brother, Yang Baibing, were both removed from the military high command for allegedly trying to create a "Yang family army." Yet both Yangs managed to be named to the all-important Deng Xiaoping funeral committee, a sign of their continued political power.

Yang Shangkun still commands enormous respect in the PLA, and there have been rumors he has been trying to form new political alliances to regain power.

"Jiang Zemin is still suspicious of the Yangs because they tried to ease him out of the Army's top post.... [Yet] Jiang doesn't want to alienate Yang Shangkun" because of his remaining influence with Army elders," Swaine says.

While most revolutionary leaders "have died off or receded into the background," Swaine says, "Deng's death could make them become more active."

Jiang has sought to cement his Army ties through budget increases. Beijing said this week defense spending for 1997 would increase by 12.7 percent to $9.73 billion, while a Western official said actual funding was "estimated at two to five times the published figure."

Yet Jiang still faces calls from within the PLA to give it greater influence in political decisionmaking and in foreign affairs.

The armed forces, always a major player in Chinese politics, have seen their power expand broadly since the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989. The Army has also created a pervasive business empire.

Both Chinese officials and Western scholars say the PLA has boosted its profile since the Taiwan Strait crisis last year.

When Taiwan held its first free presidential vote last March, China fired live missiles near the island. The United States responded by sending aircraft carriers into the area. China regards Taiwan as a renegade province whose separation from the mainland is a legacy of the cold war.

US sales of sophisticated weapons to Taiwan have fueled the flames of nationalism and strengthened the Army's role in China, a Chinese official says.

The military brass not only has pressured Jiang over Taiwan's future, Swaine says, but has also helped mold an impression of the US as China's primary strategic threat.

Although President Clinton has moved to improve both political and military ties with China, Washington's ongoing arms sales to Taiwan mean that a second cold war is still possible, say Chinese officials and US analysts. But they also suggest a full-fledged rapprochement between Beijing and Washington could give Jiang more room to maneuver.

If there are no major external threats to China in the post-Deng era, and the party leadership appears united, the Army may ease up on its campaign for increasing power, Swaine says.

And if that happens, Jiang could succeed in becoming the first civilian leader of the PLA by ruling through consensus, rather than the often-violent struggles of the past, and lead China into a post-revolutionary future.

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