China’s Military Preps for a New Leader
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — The Oct. 18 appointment of Xi Jinping as vice chairman of China’s powerful Central Military Commission (CMC) places him in line to replace Chinese President Hu Jintao as chairman of the commission, and eventually as president of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
The decision to appoint Xi was made during the Fifth Plenary Session of the 17th Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee.
Hu was given the same job before becoming head of the party in 2002 and then president in 2003. Hu is expected to step down as head of the party in 2012 and then as president a year later, say observers in Beijing and the United States.
Roughly speaking, the CMC is like a combination of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Security Council and Office of the Secretary of Defense. It has total control over the two-million-strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Xi already wears many hats, including the vice president of the PRC, member of the Politburo Standing Committee, member of the Secretariat of the Central Committee and principal of the Central Party School. The vice chairmanship will allow him to become familiar with the PLA and to prepare to become the commission’s chairman.
“He will be the next leader of our party, our country and our army,” said Zhuang Jianzhong, vice director of Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Center for National Strategy Studies.
Some observers describe Xi as a reform-minded bureaucrat who has backed anti-corruption policies. There also are suggestions that Xi, who holds a doctorate, might be a modern leader who will improve relations with the United States.
But Zhuang said he is unlikely to attempt reforming the commission or the PLA for the time being.
Others caution that Xi will do nothing to anger the military as he pushes up the leadership ladder, and there is little or no evidence Xi will be conciliatory to the U.S. just because of his education.
“Chinese politics is far too opaque to draw any firm conclusions about what Xi Jinping’s elevation to the CMC means in policy terms, or what it says about China’s international outlook,” said Beijing-based Richard McGregor, author of the book, “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers.”
But Xi’s confirmation as the leading contender to ascend to the government’s top job indicates that the party has “seemingly institutionalized the kind of peaceful transition of power that it first managed to do in 2002,” when Hu became party secretary.
McGregor said the peaceful transition of power is “enormously important for an authoritarian power, as so many other such governments have foundered on how to transfer power to the next generation, without debilitating and sometimes bloody fights.”
The appointment is a sign of stability within the CPC and CMC, not a harbinger of change, said a Chinese defense scholar based in Beijing. “Xi would spend the first months and years of his first tenure to consolidate his standing in the party as well as the military,” he said.
Xi is not unfamiliar with the workings of the CMC. From 1979-82, he was a secretary for Geng Biao, vice premier and secretarygeneral of the CMC.
As he slowly takes power, Xi is expected to gradually promote those loyal to him in the military. His first task will be to secure the chairmanship of the CMC, then head of the party, then the presidency, the scholar said.
“Xi will continue Hu’s current policy of giving more support to building a more advanced military force,” he said. “I foresee more continuity and less of an abrupt break-up.”
Though Xi is widely expected to replace Hu in all positions of power, a critical test of a more institutionalized transition is whether Hu will stay as CMC chair as Xi takes over as CPC general secretary in 2012, said Nan Li, a China military specialist at the U.S. Naval War College’s Strategic Research Department.
Li noted that former party leader Jiang Zemin allowed Hu to succeed him as general secretary in 2002, but made him wait two more years to become CMC chair.
“There is a chance that Hu may not, which means Xi may become CMC chair in 2012,” Li said.
Li also said the next round of CMC personnel changes may have a service chief, from either the Air Force or Navy, promoted to hold one of the two uniformed CMC vice chair positions, “implying elevated importance of the non-army services in defending China’s newly emerging national interests.” Sources agree Xi will have to consolidate his power in the CMC and PLA before cracking down on PLA corruption and initiating reforms.
One area of complaints is that noncombat departments and personnel should be eliminated to optimize use of resources.