The National Defence Law, to be passed at the on-going National People's Congress in Beijing, will enshrine the status of the People's Liberation Army as a 'state within a state'. It also confirms the theory that the army is the biggest beneficiary of political uncertainty at the beginning of the post-Deng Xiaoping era. The controversial statute, expected to be endorsed with minimal amendments, will also enable president and party chief Jiang Zemin to mobilise army support for his claim to be the next helmsman. First and foremost, the principle of the Chinese Communist Party's 'absolute leadership' over the PLA will be codified. 'The armed forces of the People's Republic of China accepts the leadership of the CCP,' the final draft of the law says. Since Mr Jiang is the 'leadership core' of the party and chairman of the party's Central Military Commission (CMC), the law has fuelled criticism that the PLA is becoming a Jiang army. It is no accident that, in the past few days, the top brass has redoubled its avowals of obeisance to 'core' Jiang. The senior generals compared the president's 'military thoughts' to those of Chairman Mao Zedong and Deng, both of whom headed the party's CMC. Liberal academics and legislators, however, have questioned the constitutional basis of the 'party leadership' clause. Nowhere does the Chinese constitution say that the PLA is the party's preserve. The charter points out that the armed forces 'belong' to the people. It indicates that the army is led by the PRC or the state Central Military Commission, which reports to the National People's Congress. And, although the state CMC has always been a ceremonial body - it is the party CMC which calls the shots - NPC chairman Qiao Shi has always insisted that the NPC's prerogatives include 'leadership of the armed forces'. An NPC insider said it was precisely because of concerns about unconstitutionality that down the drafting of the defence law, which began five years ago, had been bogged down. He added that military authorities had made tell-tale adjustments to earlier versions of the draft. For example, the mid-1996 version said the PLA 'obeys' CCP leadership. The word 'accepts' is used in the final version. It seems somewhat more neutral - and less of a blatant violation of the spirit of the constitution. The drafters have also used sleight of hand in an apparent effort to fudge the distinction between the party and the state CMC. The final draft states that the 'Central Military Commission leads the country's armed forces', without pinpointing whether it is the party or the state commission. In any case, the codification of the 'party-commands-the-gun' principle has torpedoed efforts by reformers in the mid-1980s to wean the army from the party - and to put it under the control of the government and the legislature. After all, Deng's decision in the early 1980s to establish the state CMC was precisely in order to shift some of the responsibilities of looking after the army from the party to state organs. In return for the PLA's support, the Jiang administration has enshrined the army's special privileges in legislation. The new law stipulates that the army budget would increase at a rate 'commensurate with the needs of national defence and the development level of the national economy'. Army representatives to the NPC seemed unperturbed by the fact that this principle had gone against Deng's doctrine of the gradual curtailment of army expenditure. Indeed, the theme of PLA-affiliated parliamentarians this year was that the just announced budgetary boost of 12.7 per cent, or 6.6 per cent above inflation, was far from enough. The head of the defence industry establishment, General Cao Gangchuan , said last weekend that, given this year's allocations of 80.57 billion yuan (about HK$75.2 billion), the PLA had no choice but to postpone many research and development projects. 'We have to feed and clothe three million-odd soldiers,' he added. 'What's left after that?' What General Cao forgot to mention was that outlays for research and development, as well as general procurement, come from undisclosed channels. Given the rise in the political clout of the generals, such secret funding is tipped to escalate. Even more important than a bigger share of the economic pie, however, is the aggrandisement of the PLA's stature. And this goes beyond stipulations in the National Defence Law that soldiers are entitled to society's 'respect and priority treatment'. One of Deng's key contributions to military modernisation was to subsume 'army construction' to the nation's economic endeavours. Particularly since the June 4 crackdown, however, the increasingly assertive generals have claimed that, without the Great Wall of Steel erected by the PLA, economic development will come to nought. In his preamble to the draft law, Defence Minister General Chi Haotian highlighted the fact that 'national defence is a security guarantee for the nation's survival and development'. General Chi has vastly expanded the frame of reference of army work. Apart from repelling foreign aggression, the PLA would play a key role in combatting internal rebellion, 'armed turmoil' and 'splittist' activities perpetrated by pro-independence elements in Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. More significantly, the new code indicates that it has legal competence over 'activities in the political, economic, diplomatic, technology and education areas that are related to military affairs'. The defence law has thus served to legitimise the PLA's bid to extend its tentacles to civilian life. Few will forget that, at the height of the confrontation with Taiwan in late-1995 and early 1996, the generals had a big say in policy towards the United States and Japan - as well as the allocation of resources along the 'front-line provinces'. The special treatment accorded the PLA was attested to by premier Li Peng's Government Work Report last Saturday. Mr Li called on all levels of government to 'render support and co-ordination' to PLA requirements. These included helping money-losing PLA enterprises get rid of their red ink. Mr Li also revived the Maoist precept of 'the unification of peace and war, and the union of the army and the citizenry', whose spirit runs through what could be the 8th NPC's most conservative statute.