Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He has spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize for international reporting.
TOKYO -- Chinese President Xi Jinping has begun talking about a new 100-year anniversary: the year 2027, which marks the centennial of the founding of the People's Liberation Army.
At a recent key meeting of the Chinese Communist Party, the milestone abruptly appeared, marked as a year toward which military development should be targeted. Many in China believe the political meaning is significant.
China has long had two centennial goals.
The party came into being in 1921, and in 1949 a Communist-led country, the People's Republic of China, was established. To mark the 100th anniversaries of these two dates, the party has set goals to be met by 2021 and 2049.
By 2021, the goal is to "build a moderately prosperous society in all respects." This means, according to the official Xinhua News Agency, making sure China's development improves the lives of all its people, particularly those who are below or near the country's poverty line.
By 2049, the goal is to "build a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious." In Xi Jinping's parlance, that roughly translates to the time China returns to its rightful status as the center of the world, after over a century of bowing to the demands of Western powers.
More recently, many of the goals China had envisioned for 2049 have been brought forward to 2035. Some had thought Xi was intending to stay in office until then, when he would be 82.
But 2035 is still a long way off. Therefore, the 2027 anniversary may have emerged as a midway point, and a more practical goal.
To put that into perspective, 2027 is three years after the next U.S. presidential election.
Political systems in the democratic world do not allow governments to plan for such distant futures. But China's political system favors incumbent leaders.
What is notable is that the goal came from the military. The military has always been a tool for Xi to strengthen his hold on the country.
Xi's abrupt 2027 proposal is reminiscent of two events that took place three years ago, which in hindsight, turned out to be turning points to major political maneuvers.
On June 30, 2017, Xi was in Hong Kong. He inspected over 3,000 Chinese troops belonging to the PLA Garrison based there.
"Salute to you, comrades!" Xi said, through microphones set on his open-roof camouflage jeep. "Comrades, thanks for your hard work," he said.
The troops responded in unison: "Hail to you, chairman!"
It was an unmistakable departure from party protocol. The troops traditionally respond by saying, "Hail to you, commander!"
It was a prelude to a larger military parade held in Inner Mongolia one month later to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the PLA's establishment.
Xi, dressed in a combat uniform, reviewed 12,000 troops on the vast plain. "Comrades, you have worked hard!" he called. "Hello, chairman!" they replied.
Commander is ambiguous and generally used. Chairman, on the other hand, is a title used to refer to the top leader of the state and military.
Since the days of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, who initiated the country's "reform and opening-up" policy in 1978, China had been intentionally using commander and not chairman. This was meant to avoid the type of dictatorship that allowed Mao Zedong to steam ahead, unchecked, with disastrous policies like the Cultural Revolution.
The use of "chairman" at the military parade signaled the collapse of the Deng model.
By having troops address him as chairman, Xi was, in effect, making the PLA pledge allegiance to him alone.
What followed was a quick bulldozing of the checks on power Deng had put in place.
In the autumn of 2017, Xi had his eponymous ideology enshrined in the party's constitution at the party's national congress.
The following spring, he pushed through a revision of the national constitution, scrapping the limit of two five-year terms for presidents that Deng had installed in 1982.
Gradually, party officials and state media began to refer to Xi as the "people's leader," another title reserved for Mao.
Earlier this month, Xi attended a conference on ideological and political education work in the military. It was positioned as the first important meeting since the centennial goal of military development toward 2027 was set.
The PLA Daily, the mouthpiece of the military, published a commentary praising Xi. The article referred to him as "the people's leader" who commands the military forces. It stressed the importance of the party's absolute leadership over the armed forces and the practice of the chairman of the Central Military Commission, currently Xi, assuming full responsibility for military affairs.
Earlier, there was strong resistance to the use of "the people's leader" from some party quarters. It is only recently that the title has begun to frequently appear in Chinese media.
What kind of military advancement does China envision by 2027?
The Ministry of National Defense seems to be unsatisfied with the current status of the military. The ministry has said that while China's economy has become the world's second-biggest, its military is not commensurate to the nation's economic power.
With the 100th anniversary in sight, Xi is planning a new strategy.
Attending a military training meeting of the Central Military Commission on Nov. 25, Xi ordered the armed forces to strengthen training under real combat conditions and raise their capability of winning wars.
He urged that the establishment of a new-type military training system be expedited and cited a need to develop the armed forces into a "world-class military."
China had been looking at 2035 and toward the middle of the 21st century for realizing the goal of possessing a world-class military. Xi's latest remarks, however, suggest the military modernization plan will be brought forward by a considerable number of years.
China's 2019 defense white paper calls for a mechanized and informationized military with greatly improved strategic capabilities.
To achieve this, China will make full use of the policy of "military-civilian integration" that was debated at the party's national congress in 2017.
In China, the party oversees all private companies. Furthermore, laws such as the National Defense Mobilization Law and the National Intelligence Law, enable the military to suck up technologies, including from abroad, through the private sector.
Who then, will declare in 2027, that the modernization goal has been achieved? All signals point to Xi remaining in the top military post on Aug. 1, 2027, the 100th anniversary of the PLA's establishment.
Watching over a military parade most likely to be held that day, Xi could say he has successfully overseen two centennial goals, those of 2021 and 2027, and call on the people to prepare for the next big year, 2035.
Several months after that parade would come the party's 21st national congress. Xi is already looking past the next national congress, in 2022, and to the one after that.
As China's military modernizes, the U.S.-China tug-of-war in the Pacific, the South China Sea, waters around Taiwan and elsewhere will also inevitably escalate.
As long as Xi is at the helm of a long-term administration, established policies will be adhered to.
So while President-elect Joe Biden has been establishing a personal relationship with Xi since 2011, the two leaders will be on the opposite end of that power struggle.