Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Third Plenum and the People's Liberation Army

After holding a 4 day-conclave from November 9 to 12, the Third Plenum of the 18th CPC Central Committee has delivered 2 new Leading Groups: one on reforms (it was expected) and more surprisingly, a National Security Committee (NSC).
The new leadership in Beijing issued a statement at the end of the meet to explain: “The general objective of the approved reforms is to improve and develop socialism with Chinese characteristics …development is still the key to solving all problems in China.”
Economic reforms are fine, but Xi Jinping and his colleagues have understood that there is a more serious danger looming in the Middle Kingdom’s sky: the Emperors have to act fast to avoid the doom of the former Soviet Union (where the internal security apparatus had become weak, corrupt and ineffective). If effective reforms are not introduced at once, the days of the Communist Party are counted.
The Third Plenum admitted that the present reforms would decide the destiny of modern China. The statement concluded with “the need to deepen reforms in order to build a moderately prosperous society, and a strong and democratic country, as well as realize the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation.”
It might remain a dream, though Sinocism, an excellent newsletter, which analyses the current events in China, commented: “The decision is impressive and shows that the leadership is both aware of and committed to deep reforms. …the truly hard part is not the drafting but the implementation of changes that will affect interests throughout society. But at least Xi has clearly articulated [his] resolve and vision for reform.”
Amongst the sectors to be reformed, the 204-member Central Committee discussed building a more impartial and sustainable social security system; encompassing an improved housing guarantee; strengthening the protection of intellectual property rights; encouraging innovation, etc. It further decided to allow more non-state-owned capital into the market to develop a ‘mixed-ownership economy’; to accelerate the reform of the ‘hukou’ system (household registration) in order to help farmers become urban residents and to promote market-oriented reform in state-owned enterprises by breaking monopolies and introducing competition.
Though the decision to move forward can be considered a positive step, the implementation of the reforms won’t be easy.
A host of other measures have been taken ‘to ensure that the authority of the constitution and laws is upheld’. Only the future (the 9 coming years) will tell us if the Communist system is reformable, or if it is condemned to follow the Soviet Union’s model.
But there is a more important factor which needs to be monitored by Beijing; it is called ‘stability’ in Communist jargon. According to Xi Jinping, the new economic policies can only be implemented if China is stable: "State security and social stability are preconditions for reform and development", said the President, adding that only when the nation is safe and society is stable, could reform and development constantly advance.
This seems the justification for the creation of the NSC which will deal with internal as well external issues: “China is facing two pressures: internationally, the country needs to safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interests; domestically, political security and social stability should be ensured”, explained Xi, adding: “The variety of predictable and unpredictable risks has been increasing remarkably, and the system has not yet met the needs of safeguarding state security.”
Reuters said that it “will enable the government to speak with a single voice when it comes to dealing with crises at home and abroad.”
‘Internal’ security has traditionally meant muzzling the opposition to the regime. It will continue. It was reported that a sophisticated new system allowing tracking of messages in the languages of all mainland's ethnic groups has recently been introduced in China. The report added: “The system is aimed at local authorities in areas such as Xinjiang and Tibet, where security officials do not know the local language.”
Tibet and Xinjiang are two of the ‘internal’ threats which will be dealt with by the new body. Recently, the repression has increased in both restive regions. The self-immolations in Tibet have been the most visible consequence of the stiffening of the security apparatus.
While actively popularizing the Internet, the Plenum decided to ‘reinforce its overall administration over cyberspace in accordance with the law and accelerate formation of a sound Internet management system”. Isn’t it ominous?
Though analysts believe that the NSC is based on the National Security Council of the United States, it will have snooping facilities like the infamous National Security Agency of the US. Reuters says that the NSC “would increase coordination among the various wings of China's security bureaucracy, split now among the police, military, intelligence and diplomatic services”.
Importantly for India and other China’s neighbours, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) will also be ‘reformed’.
In the wake of the Plenum, military schools will have to review their curriculums ‘to boost real combat abilities’, as a PLA publication put it.
According to an official statement, “the reform will also unify teaching materials, innovate in teaching methods for combat command and hone a performance-based reward and penalty mechanism for students.”
The military academies and universities should thereafter “foster talent in accordance with the goals of strengthening the army and boosting students' ideological and political quality, adopting a combat-oriented educational system”, adding “concrete efforts should be made to cultivate high-quality military talents that are capable of participating in and winning a war."
The new NSC will overview and monitor these ‘reform’ programs.
It is also said that the PLA should “better co-ordinate the work of its different military and geographical branches”.
Does it mean that the Central Military Commission will change the army's command structure to enhance its capacity to ‘win modern wars’?
The South China Morning Post quoted military officials and experts saying that the PLA was keen on innovation, but was unlikely to build a chain of united commands like the US Pacific Command, which co-ordinates regional military, terrorism and crime-fighting.
Xu Guangyu, a former PLA major general who is now a senior researcher at the Beijing-based China Arms Control and Disarmament Association told the Hong Kong newspaper: “The PLA will definitely make reforms, but its steps cannot be too big. …All foreign countries' military systems could be a reference, but it doesn't mean the PLA will copy any one of them. Past experience shows us that the current system still works. It just needs some improvement.”
The leadership can’t go too fast with the vested interests in the PLA.
Kevin McCauley wrote for the Jamestown Foundation: “Many of the reform areas announced by the Third Plenary Session have been a focus of discussion in PLA publications. ...The development of an integrated command information system and creation of a joint command structure are required to support these theoretical developments.”
The Plenum also decided to optimize the PLA’s size and structure and also adjust and improve the proportion between various troops, and reduce non-combat institutions and personnel.
The Central Committee further called for “innovation in military theory, strengthening military leadership, improving military strategy in the new era, and building a modern military power system with Chinese characteristics.” All this means a centralization of the power of the Central Military Commission (CMC) whose role will be ‘optimized’.
Interestingly, ‘quality privately-owned enterprises will be allowed to join defence industry’. Can India study these reforms and learn from them?
Another question is, will China defend more aggressive postures?
Recently, the Chinese military's National Defense University, the General Political Security and General Staff Departments, the Chinese Academy of Social Science and the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations jointly released a documentary titled ‘Silent Contest’; though widely circulated from June to October, it was later blocked by the authorities.
The movie, which is pure anti-American propaganda, asserts that the United States has used 5 methods to subvert China: 1) Political Infiltration, 2) Cultural infiltration, 3) Ideological infiltration, 4) Organizational infiltration, and 5) Political interference and social penetration.
Washington’s ‘conspiracy’ is said to be at the root of all evils in the Middle Kingdom: social conflicts, officials' corruption, human rights protests, spread of Christianity and advocacy of a ‘constitutional government’.
This type of propaganda does not fit with the oft-repeated Peaceful Rise of China’s theory. In the months to come, Beijing will have to choose between its aggressive attitude towards its neighbours (and the US) or the continuation of its peaceful growth.
Lex Zhao, a professor of economics at Kobe University in Japan wrote an op-ed (‘China must make friends, not foes, to thrive’) in The South China Morning Post arguing: “In this age of globalisation, no country can become a superpower or even regional power without followers and friends. For China to rise, the co-operation of Japan and other neighbours is vital, without which the so-called ‘Chinese Dream’ will never become reality.”
Will the new Emperors understand this?
We shall have to wait some time to know. In the meantime Delhi should definitely be alert as the NSC will also be responsible for the Sino-Indian border issue and incidents similar to the Depsang Plain episode in Ladakh in April could occur again and this time, there will be no ‘lack of coordination’ on the Chinese side.

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