Obituary: Qin Jiwei

For much of his life, Qin Jiwei was a close ally of China's elder statesman Deng Xiaoping. He played an important role in the implementation of Deng's wish to turn the faction-ridden, ill-equipped and demoralised military that emerged from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution into a modernised, trimmed down and professional force. In 1989, when Deng decided to use the army to suppress the Tiananmen Square protests, questions arose about the degree of Qin's support for his mentor's strategy, but in public at least he voiced full support for the crackdown.

Qin's death marks the severance of yet another link between China's current leadership and the old generation of revolutionaries who took part in the epic Long March of 1934 and 1935. This generation, including Deng and Mao Tse-tung, owed much of their authority to their role in that famous episode in Chinese history when Communist troops broke through an encirclement of nationalist forces and marched some 7,000 miles to a new sanctuary in Yanan.

During the civil war of the 1940s, Qin served under Deng in the Second Field Army. Their close military relationship was tacitly acknowledged in a documentary series about the elder statesman broadcast on Chinese state-run television in January. The series included footage of Deng accompanied by Qin Jiwei, then Defence Minister, meeting Second Field Army veterans, in November 1989.

In the early 1950s, Qin served as a top commander in the Korean War against the US-led forces of the United Nations. He was promoted to lieutenant- general in 1955, but his ties with Deng proved his undoing during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, when Qin and others associated with Deng were purged by Mao and his radical allies.

After Deng's emergence in 1978 as China's paramount leader, Qin achieved rapid promotion. He became commander of the Peking Military Region, a post of key military importance because of its responsibility for the protection of the capital and its frontline role in China's cold war with the Soviet Union. In 1987, Qin joined the Politburo and the following year he was named as defence minister, in which role he served during the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989.

During the Tiananmen Square protests, some Western diplomats in Peking speculated that Qin was opposed to the use of force to crush the demonstrations. Although Qin had relinquished his command of the Peking Military Region by then, the apparent reluctance of at least some elements of the Peking command to impose marital law fuelled rumours that Qin was distancing himself from Deng. The Peking Military Region took longer than the other six military commands to express explicit support for the crackdown and Qin adopted a relatively low profile during and after the military operation.

But the wild speculation among Western analysts about impending civil war after the bloodshed in Peking underscored how little is known about the workings of the Chinese military. The restriction of contacts between Western armies and the Chinese military after Tiananmen made access to information all the more difficult. It is thus impossible to do more than guess at Qin's real attitude. Statements attributed to him by the official Chinese media during and after the crackdown suggest nothing but wholehearted support for the military action.

On 1 August 1989, Qin used the anniversary of the founding of the Communist army to praise the role of the military. He described the decision to send in the troops as "correct". He also noted what he called the "important role" played by Deng in the operation. He said that thanks to the support of the people, the soldiers had "fulfilled the glorious tasks entrusted to them by the party and the people, and defended the capital and the socialist people's republic in a remarkable manner".

Qin stepped down from the Politburo in 1992 as part of a reshuffle which brought mostly young leaders to the fore. When he died, his only official role was as deputy chairman of the National People's Congress, the Communist Party-controlled parliament. His death is unlikely to have any significant impact on the balance of power in Peking. It remains a matter of considerable doubt, however, whether the man named as Deng's successor, the president and party leader Jiang Zemin, would have the ability and authority to prevent open conflict within the military should another Tiananmen ever occur.

Qin Jiwei, army officer: born Hongan, China 1914; Commander, Peking Military Region, People's Liberation Army 1977-87; member, Politburo 13th Central Committee, Chinese Communist Party 1987-92; Minister of National Defence 1988-92; died Peking 2 February 1997.

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