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Zhu's threats will win Hu's favor
Paul Lin

Comments by Major General Zhu Chenghu, dean of the Defense Affairs Institute at China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) National Defense University, on the use of nuclear weapons against the US have created a strong backlash in Washington. It will be interesting to see whether this will result in any changes to US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's plans to visit China for the first time later this year.

There have been some attempts to tone down Zhu's statements, with officials saying that he was simply expressing his own opinions. However, the hawkish faction in China is so vociferous that if Zhu hadn't said what he did, someone else would have. This is because of the way power is distributed within the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) leadership.

According to information provided by CNN's China specialist Willy Wo Lap Lam, President Hu Jintao has completed the personnel arrangements for the CCP's 17th National Congress in 2007. He is said to have become immediately enamored with power after becoming leader, and is now planning to maintain his hold on power until 2017. That would mean that he plans to retire at the party's 19th National Congress, when he is 74 -- which would still be younger than his predecessor Jiang Zemin, who retired at 78.

If Hu wants to show the determination and boldness of a leader, the best area to do so would be in foreign policy. If Jiang pursued great nation diplomacy, then Hu is taking the attitude of "power diplomacy." Academics both in China and abroad are pushing for the abandonment of Deng Xiaoping's policy of keeping a low profile.

As a result, the hawkish faction is rising, and Zhu's threat was just one expression of the views of China's military. There have been others. Prior to Zhu's statement, Zhang Xushan, former deputy commander of the navy, when answering questions from Chinese citizens online on the SINA Web site, said that if Japan insists on claiming the Diaoyutais, he believes that a war is likely.

If the Chinese armed forces regard the past use of a military threat against Taiwan as a "civil war," its threats against the US and Japan can be seen as preparation for a "foreign war," and one step further toward a nation achieving territorial expansion.

On PLA Day on Aug. 1, Hu is planning to promote six naval officers to the rank of admiral. This personnel change will be made less than a year after Hu promoted two admirals on Sept. 19 last year, a week after he became head of the military. These actions make clear Hu's ambition to have complete control over the armed forces.

He is seeking, on the one hand, to eliminate Jiang's influence within the military and, on the other, is to ingratiate himself with the military to win their support. Given this situation, it is only natural that the PLA should seek to do itself credit by putting on a bellicose demeanor.

Before Hu took control of the Central Military Commission last September, He Chongyuan, then editor-in-chief of the Global Times, was promoted to vice president of the People's Daily. Hu's recognition of He was due to the Global Times' close relationship with the armed forces and its pugnacious commentaries.

Therefore, China's willingness to pay a high price to acquire the US energy firm Unocal Corp at this juncture is not simply an economic issue. Rather, it is a political and military acquisition, and is regarded as a benchmark for China's prosperity and military expansion. When China threatens the US, how can the US ignore it?

In reality, China's belligerence is not limited to military issues. Beijing recently restated a prohibition barring TV stations from launching joint ventures with outside investors, lest such ventures break its news blockade.

The same concerns have also been applied to the field of education. At the end of last month, Chongqing Normal University passed a regulation stipulating that promiscuous students would be expelled. This regulation was thought to be an independent incident, but in fact, the same guidelines, proposed by the government, will be adopted by all schools beginning on Sept. 1.

As soon as Hu became president, he paid homage to Mao Zedong, a move which heralded his increasingly hard-line policies.

The only area in which regulations have been relaxed is the financial sector: Foreign financial institutions can now invest in state-owned banks, though they cannot have a controlling interest. In other words, these institutions do not have the power or right to make decisions, but they still have to assume all the investment risk. This is no different from demanding that foreign-invested banks remain on the "socialist" bandwagon.

After Deng's death on Feb. 19, 1997, Jiang launched military exercises to display the great power in his hands. At that time, the armed forces also put on airs. General Xiong Guangkai also threatened to use nuclear weapons against Los Angeles, which earned him promotion the following year to deputy chief of general staff of the PLA -- from an assistant of the chief of general staff -- and then to full general in 2000.

Xiong's example has become an incentive for military personnel to get involved in politics. Whether Zhu's threats represented his own opinion or Hu's will determine whether he holds onto his job. Given the past leadership shuffles by Hu in order to gain power, it is likely that Zhu will walk Xiong's path, despite being a bit more "precocious."

Paul Lin is a freelance writer based in New York.

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