Jiang given a boost by the army big guns

Chinese succession: Would-be paramount leader woos military as Peking rations public grief

"Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun," said Chairman Mao, and to this day a top Chinese leader must be certain he has the support of the military. So a pledge of allegiance this weekend to President Jiang Zemin by the main branches of the armed forces was a message which China's current leader must hope is more than just a polite form of words.

The military has plenty of reasons these days for wanting a stable China, not least their own sprawling business and commercial empire, which encompasses everything from Baskin-Robbins ice cream, five- star hotels and futures trading to civilian nuclear technology, and more.

More than 10,000 enterprises in China are owned or linked to the People's Liberation Army (PLA), and the men in green have a huge financial stake in continued economic reform and political stability. Around 70 per cent of the military's industrial output is now civilian products, and the PLA knows any overt power struggle in the upper echelons of the party, or a lack of consensus about reform, would be bad for business.

All of which is good news for Mr Jiang, the Chinese President and Communist Party leader, who has since 1990 been head of the armed forces, and who hopes to be China's new paramount leader, following the death of Deng Xiaoping last week. Lacking any military credentials of his own, he knows he cannot take for granted the loyalty of the generals. Unlike Mr Deng, who was an authentic revolutionary hero and veteran of the Long March, Mr Jiang has had to work hard to build his support in the PLA. During the long years of Mr Deng's decline, Mr Jiang assiduously attended troop inspections, congratulating "model" soldiers, and chairing high-level military meetings. The President has also promoted his own chosen generals, including all seven military region commanders.

"The army will be one of the principal decision-makers in any argument about who is in charge," a Western military attache in Peking said. "Whatever leadership comes [after Deng] must at least have the acquiescence of the PLA. They will not dictate, but they will say: `We'll have influence at the highest levels. So help us modernise, increase our defence budget, listen to our advice.' And they will be listened to."

In a statement released at the weekend, the military pledged their support for Mr Jiang, who since 1993 has held all three top state, party and army positions. The leaders of the 3 million-strong People's Liberation Army "vowed to obey the leadership of the Communist Party Central Committee and the Central Military Commission (CMC) in a steadfast way and to ensure the army's unity," the official Xinhua news agency announced.

Mr Jiang must hope they mean what they say. In late 1992, Mr Deng moved swiftly against the "Yang family clique" in the PLA for allegedly plotting with other army leaders for the aftermath of his death. Yang Shangkun lost his job as president, and his half-brother Yang Baibing was removed from the CMC. Personnel changes swept through the armed forces, with professional soldiers and military technocrats promoted in favour of anyone with political ambitions. But Mr Yang, 89, a former Red Army revolutionary, is still fit, and popular with the top brass, and may emerge as one of the back- room power-brokers in any jockeying for position.

In Chinese political life, the identities of the party and the military still overlap at all levels. To keep defence chiefs contented, the younger generation of Chinese leaders has presided over a doubling in real terms of the official defence budget during the past seven years, despite no obvious external threats. The most visible demonstration of generals' impact on policy was seen last year, when China held big missile and military manoeuvres in the Taiwan Strait in the run-up to the island's presidential elections. Mr Jiang was forced to give in to the hawks after the military top brass had accused him of being too soft-handed.

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