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A young Turk in China's establishment
The military writings of Liu Yazhou
Alfred Chan, The Jamestown Foundation
Liu Yazhou, a 53 year-old PLA general, erstwhile novelist, and rising political star, has published a series of frequent and provocative essays in China over the last few years to considerable acclaim—and controversy. In a regime where political expression is strictly limited, and where discussion of political issues may be construed as “revealing state secrets,” for someone to speak with establishment credentials and without censorship can be a startling indication of policy discussion and change.
Liu’s essays violate many taboos and restrictions, covering a wide range of topics such as strategy, geopolitics, the nature of war and conflict, and China’s relations with Taiwan, Japan, and the United States. His underlying theme is unvarnished distress with corruption and conformity, and a plea for accelerated political reform to remedy China’s ills. While laced with reverent quotations from top Chinese leaders, Liu’s writings can be construed as indirect and direct criticisms of their policies. These arguments have dazzled as well as upset his readers; supporters praise his boldness and insight, and detractors condemn his alleged militarism and demagoguery.
A son-in-law of the late Chinese president Li Xiannian, Liu is a “princeling” (privileged offspring of a high official) who was promoted quickly and is now Deputy Political Commissar and a Lieutenant General in the PLA Air Force. He has traveled extensively overseas, including a term as a visiting professor at Stanford University, and is one of the few PLA officials to have visited Taiwan.
Liu’s first big splash was an essay on the October 1949 Jinmen battle circulated on the Internet last year, when tensions between China and Taiwan prompted hawks in Beijing to urge a military showdown, putting enormous pressure on the civilian leadership . Liu reviewed the lessons of the Jinmen debacle, in which a PLA invasion was routed by Guomindang forces, with the loss of more than 9,000 troops. He attributes the devastating loss to complacency, along with poor planning and command.
According to Liu, history threatened to repeat itself in the late 1990s when hardline officials argued that Taiwan must be fought and that victory was certain. Disclosing a previously unseen Jiang Zemin quote—“A war in the Taiwan Strait is inevitable” (“Lessons of the Jinmen Battle”)—without providing the context, he argues that the lessons of Jinmen must be heeded, especially because the Taiwan issue is now internationalized and considerably more complicated.
In an essay entitled “The Grand National Strategy,” likely written in 2001, Liu repudiates the idea of taking advantage of the September 11 aftermath to conquer Taiwan with an overpowering attack . Taiwan should not be the focus of China’s strategy: the more the Chinese fixate on it, he argues, the more they will be manipulated by the U.S. and Taiwan. This obsession has provided Washington with undue leverage over Beijing for the last half century.
In the same essay, Liu privileges diplomacy over fighting, and suggests that China can effectively engage Taiwan by exploiting Taiwan’s multi-party system. China can deal with not only with the Democratic Progressive Party, but also with other political forces, a view that may have contributed to Hu Jintao’s decision to invite Guomindang leader Lin Chan and James Soong of the People First Party to visit China in April/May of this year.
His appeals for moderation notwithstanding, Liu’s discourses on strategy reveal that he is a nationalist as well as a realist. His ‘dream’ is to have a strong army and country. “The sole purpose of power is to pursue even greater power,” and “national interest should forever be the highest principle of our action,” he writes in “Faith and Morality.”  Balance-of-power and divide-and-rule tactics seem to be his guiding principles.
The projection of Chinese influence in international affairs should be specifically calibrated to the West in general and United States in particular, Liu argues. Citing Huntington’s thesis on the clash of civilizations, Liu views the alleged clash between the West and the Muslim world as a great opportunity. He argues in “The Grand National Strategy” that China’s improved relations with Muslim countries are an excellent move, since China “should do what the West fears.” In a moment of great exuberance, Liu maintains that China should have an outlet to the Indian Ocean, what he terms “China’s new boundary.”
Liu is more ambivalent about Sino-U.S. relations. While he acknowledges that the United States, as the world’s dominant power, will inevitably pursue policies that antagonize China, he believes America realizes that the forces for bilateral cooperation are greater than conflict. U.S. leaders would never instigate a full-fledged military confrontation. The United States is to be regarded as neither a wholesale enemy nor an ally.
Militarily, he urges Chinese leaders to learn from U.S. innovations in the military and its recruitment system. China’s military strategy is obsolete, he says in “Faith and Morality,” as its experts today still strategize of a “people’s war” of “luring the enemy into a trap.” It is a ‘tragedy’ that in China, from the top to the bottom, “those who are intelligent do not make policy, those who make policy are not intelligent.”
Indeed, as a Lieutenant General with a primarily civilian background, Liu emphasizes the important role of the military. Intervention during the Tiananmen crisis of 1989 stabilized the regime, he asserts in “Faith and Morality,” and the Sino-Vietnam war of 1979 contributed greatly to reforms. Deng Xiaoping used the war to consolidate his authority vis-à-vis the leftist remnants in the party. In the same article, Liu contends that China, by invading Vietnam, signaled the abandonment of “phoney” socialism, and also “avenged and vindicated” (chuqi) the U.S. experience in Southeast Asia.
In return, China’s reforms benefited from subsequent U.S. investment and economic, military, scientific, and technological assistance in a decade-long “honeymoon,” thus ensuring that China would stand firm, even after the worldwide collapse of communism. As in other developing countries, the Chinese military is a force for reform, and modernization without the participation of the military is inconceivable, although Liu does not explain why this should be so.
Toward the Japanese Liu is a nationalist. While his essays paint Japan as a “fierce” neighbor, he argues that a strong, independent Japan apart from an alliance with the United States would be easier to deal with. In such a case, Japan could act as a buffer, and to that end China would do well to support Japan’s membership as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
Last April, however, Liu was angered by Japan’s announcement to begin drilling for oil in disputed areas of the East China Sea. His attempt to convene a conference on Sino-Japanese relations was reportedly prohibited by Hu Jintao. Liu then published an angry manifesto on the Internet, “Military Forum,” co-signed by nine military colleagues bluntly denouncing the Japanese for being haughty, provocative, and bullying . It urged annulment of all treaties that renounced reparations—using a referendum if necessary—and immediate reopening of talks for reparations covering issues such as war crimes, the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, and the textbook and Yasakuni shrine controversies (“Military Forum”).
Liu’s most daring ideas are those championing political reform and decrying corruption, censorship, and China’s “backward” political system. The strategic threat to national security, he argues in “The Grand National Strategy,” comes from within rather than from without. To strengthen the country, it is imperative that China’s leaders introduce political reform, especially when the dynamism of economic growth begins to slow. In an apparent dig at ruling elites, he warns that upholding stability as a primary goal and maintaining the status quo was the root cause of Soviet dissolution. Political reform for Liu requires a democratic yielding of power, a transformation of the people as their own masters, and rigorous methods to make the country prosperous, although, bowing to official orthodoxy, he is careful to concede that reform should include the “consolidation of the CCP’s ruling position” as well.
Democracy, he argues in “Conversation with a Secretary of a County Party Committee,” is a demand, a way of expression, an exchange process, and a way to resolve problems . Rules, fairness, and citizen consciousness, the prerequisites of democracy, all have to be cultivated. Rampant corruption is the greatest political challenge and a dictatorial system based on the monopoly of power is itself fertile ground for corruption. In contrast to Asia’s other rising power, Liu notes that China’s poor are not only deprived of adequate food and clothing but they do not even have the vote.
The oppressed peasantry, Liu continues, which poses the greatest challenge to communist orthodoxy, must be thoroughly liberated and turned into citizens able to engage in active political participation. If political reform is further delayed, revolution from below may occur, he warns in “Conversation.”
As a military officer Liu Yazhou’s free airing of provocative views on both foreign and domestic issues, especially his calls for political reform and the freedom of expression, is unprecedented. Though a realist, a nationalist and a hardliner against Japan, Liu’s moderate views contrast sharply with those who still preach “people’s war” or the use of nuclear weapons. In his calls for new thinking and introspection, Liu represents military young Turks dissatisfied with the civilian leadership’s inability to deal with corruption and social crises. Fears of praetorian intervention in civilian politics may be exaggerated, but the issues Liu raises are real indeed.
Alfred L. Chan is an associate professor of political science at Huron University College, University of Western Ontario, Canada. He thanks Don Hickerson for editing the manuscript.
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