Marching to a different beat?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 April, 2012, 12:00am
 

Because of his supposedly strong links with the army, the downfall of powerful Communist Party leader Bo Xilai has generated a level of speculation rarely seen in recent years.

Despite the military's repeated declarations of allegiance to the top ruling body of the party over the past weeks, some overseas analysts remain sceptical as to whether the army is truly of one mind with top leaders in the handling of Bo's case. A few even speculated about the possibility of a military coup.

In reality, there is little chance of that happening. While Bo remains popular in some quarters of the military and is well connected, the army as a whole remains tightly under the control of the party's leaders.

Bo's prestige and influence in the military is not strong enough to test the army's loyalty - which has always been the most jealously guarded source of power among the top leaders. But rumours about Bo and his alleged allies in the top echelon of the People's Liberation Army persist.

In fact, a spate of editorials in the PLA Daily urging the rank and file of the military to rally behind the central leadership has only raised more suspicions. The last time people saw this type of action was after the June 4 crackdown on the pro-democracy movement.

Bo's downfall touches a raw nerve in China - that of the role of the military in politics.

Parallels have been drawn between Bo's humiliation and that of former Beijing mayor Chen Xitong in 1995 and former Shanghai party chief Chen Liangyu in 2006. Like Bo, both Chens were members of the Politburo - the inner circle of the party - and they were well positioned to join its all-powerful standing committee until their sudden demise. But there is one major difference: neither of the Chens enjoyed anywhere near Bo's level of support from the army.

Fears of a coup diminished after media affiliated to the PLA and some senior military personnel pledged their support to the party and vowed that they would not be distracted by rumours.

In a rare response to the downfall of senior officials, one of these high-profile displays of loyalty occurred on April 14 when the state-run news agency, Xinhua, reported that General Guo Boxiong , vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, visited the Chengdu Military Command, which oversees Chongqing , Sichuan , Yunnan , Guizhou and the Tibet Autonomous Region , and called on the military to 'rally behind the party's central leadership led by Comrade Hu Jintao'.

Although observers said a coup was now unlikely, responses such as Guo's reflect the fear with which the central leadership regarded Bo's close ties with the military that date back to the founding role his father Bo Yibo played in the PLA.

Such connections made President Hu Jintao, who does not have close military ties 'a bit nervous', according to June Teufel Dreyer, a political science professor and China watcher at the University of Miami.

Bo's apparent willingness to seek the support of the PLA was quickly made clear after his former right-hand man, Wang Lijun, sought refuge in the US consulate in Chengdu on February 6 and thereby triggered the events that led to the expulsions and arrest on April 10 of Bo and his wife.

On February 7 Bo visited the 14th Group Army, which was founded by his father. Other signs of Bo's military ties include his sojourn in a PLA garrison in Chengdu during the early stages of his crackdown on organised crime in Chongqing, when he feared for his safety.

Lin Chong-pin, a former deputy defence minister in Taiwan, said that Bo became acquainted with senior military officials and their 'princeling' offspring when he was a young student in Beijing.

These officials include Liu Yuan, political commissar of the PLA's General Logistics Department and the son of revolutionary Liu Shaoqi ; Zhang Haiyang, political commissar of the PLA's Second Artillery Corps and son of former Central Military Commission member Zhang Zhen; and Ma Xiaotian, deputy head of the PLA general staff department.

Liu Yuan and Zhang Haiyang continued making public appearances after Bo's downfall. Zhang led a delegation of 10 PLA officers to visit Finland and Hungary on April 15, the PLA Daily reported last week. On April 12, Liu attended the meeting of a Beijing planning commission.

'These people are still serving in the army,' Lin said. 'When Bo was in Chongqing, he paid close attention to the needs of the military, making sure he could maintain his ties with the military.'

But analysts said Bo's campaign to promote red songs and ultra-conservative ideology in Chongqing, along with his tactics to cover up the wrongdoings of the PLA, also played a crucial role in cementing his military connections.

The red songs are appealing in the army, especially to those in the leftist camp. When Bo was in Beijing last year with a Chongqing delegation to promote red songs, Zhang allowed him to stage the first of such shows at the base of the Second Artillery Corps.

'No one knows whether Bo truly believes in the ultra-conservative ideologies, but he certainly uses them as a tactic to maintain his popularity in the military,' said Lin Wen-cheng, a professor at the Institute of China and Asia-Pacific Studies at National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan.

He also believed that some PLA officers supported Bo for their own personal ambitions and out of frustration that they had been sidelined since the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping began his opening-up reforms and modernising of the army in the 1980s.

'The influence of leftists in the country and the military has been limited since the reforms, and some military personnel resent the reforms,' Lin said. 'So when Bo was promoting the conservative ideas, some leftist military people regarded him as a kind of leader who might back them up.'

In the 1980s, Deng appointed young officers to commanding posts, replacing some leftist officers who had doubts about his reforms. They feared that the country would deviate from communism.

When Jiang Zemin, who did not have close ties with the military, came to power he continued downsizing the army, but also increased military spending and allowed the military to express opinions on China's diplomacy and policies towards Taiwan.

Lin said Hu and Wen's ties with the military were not as close as those of their predecessors and that made Bo more favourable to the army's conservatives.

'Obviously, some military figures do not trust leaders with no military background and connections. To them, Bo is an energetic, capable person,' he said. 'His princeling background and Politburo standing also helped him gain the military's trust.'

Lin Chong-pin said he believed that Bo had covered up scandals within the PLA.

After Bo's downfall, a Chengdu property developer, Li Jun, said he was involved in a dispute with Zhang but was arrested by Bo and tortured during interrogation.

'Bo certainly treasures his military ties and does not want to give them up,' Lin said.

With Bo's hopes of joining the Politburo Standing Committee all but over, some analysts believe the central authority will investigate the military and purge it of Bo's supporters, particularly in the Chengdu Military Command and the 14th Group Army.

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