October 14, 2016 7:00 pm JST
China up close

A beleaguered Xi Jinping turns to brass for help

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer

DF-21D ballistic missiles are shown during a military parade in Beijing on Sept. 3, 2015.

TOKYO -- Chinese President Xi Jinping has conducted an unusual flurry of inspections recently at units of the People's Liberation Army, as he struggles to weather a political storm.

Xi kicked off the inspections several days before he left Beijing on Sept. 3 for the Group of 20 Summit, held this year in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, on Sept. 4-5. On Aug. 29, Xi visited the Strategic Support Force, one of the PLA's new units established as part of his military reform drive. The force differs from conventional combat units and is said to be "a future force."

The Strategic Support Force consists of three units: cyber, space and electronic warfare, according to a number of sources, including the Global Times, a newspaper affiliated with the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.

The cyberwarfare unit is made up of computer experts responsible for offensive and defensive action. The space warfare unit oversees China's spy satellites and the Beidou Navigation Satellite System, the Chinese equivalent of the U.S. Global Positioning System. The electronic warfare unit is responsible for jamming and disrupting enemy radar systems and communications.

The cyber, space and electronic warfare units are expected to play important roles in China's confrontation with the U.S. in the South China Sea and possible clashes in areas surrounding China.

On Sept. 13, Xi attended a ceremony marking the establishment of the Joint Logistic Support Force, a new suborgan of the Central Military Commission, the top military body that supervises the PLA.

The Joint Logistic Support Force supersedes the General Logistics Department, one of the army's four former general departments that had a long history.

The General Logistics Department was a breeding ground for corruption. Gu Junshan, a former deputy director of the department, has already been given a suspended death sentence for taking bribes and other misconduct. The General Logistics Department was reorganized, becoming the Logistic Support Department, as part of Xi's overhaul of the military. The Joint Logistic Support Force forms the core of the new department.

The force handles logistic support for the entire Chinese military. In addition to supplying food and deploying troops, the force will reportedly also be involved in operating the Beidou Navigation Satellite System.

On Sept. 26, Xi also inspected the newly established Rocket Force, successor to the Second Artillery Corps. The Rocket Force will play a leading role in modern warfare. It will also be key to its space warfare, along with the Strategic Support Force. The Rocket Force was created after the Second Artillery Corps, China's strategic and tactical missile force, was upgraded and put on par, organizationally, with the army, navy and air force.

The PLA Daily, the Chinese military's official newspaper, ran a front-page story in its Tuesday edition on a meeting involving all branches of the military in Beijing on Monday. The newspaper reported that the meeting was attended by party chiefs of all military units and Central Military Commission departments. President Xi did not attend, but the newspaper said he had approved it as the commission's chairman.

Xi came to power as the Communist Party's general secretary at the party's previous national congress in the autumn of 2012. When Xi took the helm of the party, he also became chairman of the Central Military Commission.

The theme of the Monday meeting was rooting out lingering corruption involving two former vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission, Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou. The two top officials had already been punished. Xu died of cancer in March 2015.

Lessons from Mao

So what was behind all the inspections and the Monday meeting? One of Mao Zedong's best known dictums, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun," helps answer the question. Xi finds himself in a difficult political position and is apparently trying to demonstrate that he has the backing of China's powerful military.

Xi boasts a long military background. After graduating from Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University, he worked at the Central Military Commission as secretary to Geng Biao when the latter was defense minister.

As chairman of the Central Military Commission, Xi orchestrated the reshuffle of the military earlier this year. The new military units, such as the Strategic Support Force and the Rocket Force, will play vital roles in ensuring China's national security. Xi apparently wants to claim credit for sweeping military reforms and overcome political resistance to his program ahead of the Communist Party's next national congress in the autumn of 2017.

The congress is crucial as the Politburo Standing Committee, the party's top decision-making body, led by President Xi, is to be reshuffled. Five of the seven committee members are expected to retire because of age. Xi and Premier Li Keqiang will remain on the committee.

It is not easy for any Chinese leader to take full control of the PLA. Despite his military reform drive, Xi has yet to fully cement his grip on the armed forces. Since his inauguration, Xi has been using an anti-corruption campaign to wage a political battle against his foes and consolidate power.

Guo Boxiong, a former vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, and Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee who once served as China's security czar, were both sentenced to life in prison for corruption. But many former subordinates and other supporters of Guo and Zhou are still in the military and police. For the moment they are lying low, but passively resisting Xi's instructions.

Reality of resistance

In addition to military and police officials, many bureaucrats are also digging in their heels, although they have come under increased scrutiny in Xi's anti-corruption drive.

One incident illustrates the bureaucratic opposition to Xi: A prominent Chinese scholar on international politics made a splash recently by frankly analyzing the country's domestic politics during a lecture he gave to a small audience. Based on the lecture, a writer published a sensational article titled "Xi Jinping is facing soft resistance." The article quickly went viral on official Chinese websites.

According to the article, Xi won the hearts and minds of many ordinary citizens by launching a fierce anti-corruption crusade after coming to power in 2012. Xi was so popular that disgruntled bureaucrats had no choice but to come to heel, the article said.

But the situation changed drastically in 2015. Xi's directives, including those related to his anti-corruption campaign, now fall on deaf ears. As the bureaucrats slack off, the Chinese economy continues to deteriorate, the article said.

Within hours of its publication, the article was deleted by Chinese authorities monitoring the internet and social media. The authorities took the action, apparently fearing that Xi's political difficulties might become widely known to the public.

Lonely at the top

For Xi, it is clear he has faced an uphill battle in the political arena over the past two or three years. Despite his bold steps, such as the anti-corruption campaign and reorganization of the military, he remains on the hook, with tough new political challenges looming large.

Xi cannot afford to let his guard down ahead of the Communist Party's next congress as he faces bureaucratic inertia, growing economic uncertainty and outspoken party elders, among other challenges. Xi's recent visits to the military units seem to reflect his desire to shore up his position in the face of these difficulties.

The tug-of-war is expected to intensify behind the scenes between Xi and his adversaries over the makeup of the new leadership to be chosen at the party's next national congress. The big question is whether he will be able to form the team he wants.

Xi needs the support of the military to help him in his power struggle. This may translate to China taking a harder line on foreign policy and security issues, raising the stakes for the rest of the world. 

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