Key issue for Deng's successors is political control of military To succeed, Jiang Zemin must rule over vast army

February 23, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BEIJING -- On the seventh day after he took up the title of commander in chief of China's armed forces in November 1989, President Jiang Zemin went to the far western province of Xinjiang to inspect a frigid frontier post. There he demanded to know why the soldiers were sleeping with only one blanket. "Aren't they cold at night?" he said.

There in the barracks, like George Washington looking after the men of Valley Forge, he admonished the officers, "Our cadres must care for each and every soldier and be concerned with their livelihood."

Every few months during the past five years, China's state-run propaganda apparatus has added a new page to the legend of Jiang's "paternal care" for China's soldiers. Once, when sailors lined up for review on the deck of a ship in the scorching sun, Jiang was reported to have seen the sweat running down their faces and "quickened his steps" so they could stand down. In 1995, he climbed 77 stairs -- someone actually counted them -- to meet sentries on the Russian border, even though it was raining and his clothes were soaked through.

The critical issue

Of all the issues facing China's younger leaders after the death of Deng Xiaoping last week, none is more critical than political control over China's vast military, whose scientists gave China the atomic bomb and whose soldiers defeated Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists and fought the United States to a standstill in Korea.

The military has its own representative at the inner sanctum of the ruling Politburo and takes part in all important political and foreign-policy decisions. Thus, Jiang's success in becoming China's pre-eminent leader in the coming years hinges on his ability to dominate this all-important institution.

But unlike Mao and Deng Xiaoping before him, Jiang has no military background, he did not fight in the Communist revolution and he has never worn the uniform of the People's Liberation Army, which remains the country's most powerful and enduring institution.

Despite the extensive image-building that Jiang's publicists have salted through the Chinese media organizations in recent years, there remain fundamental concerns among Chinese and Western officials about whether Jiang will be able to withstand rising pressure to finance ever-larger military budgets even while the civilian economy is straining for money, and whether he can walk China back from its aggressive posture toward Taiwan.

And most important, if Jiang proves unable to match Deng's success in charting a course of growth and prosperity for the Chinese people, he risks internal deadlock and civil strife that could prompt a military intervention into China's internal politics.

When Deng died last week, he bequeathed to Jiang unrivaled control of the world's largest standing army, whose antiquated weapons and equipment are in the midst of a costly

modernization and whose nuclear arsenal is the size of France's.

Rising demands

Former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger, who held extensive discussions with Chinese military leaders last fall, said Jiang "can never satisfy the demand" in the military for "more rapid modernization" and will have to balance the pressure from his uniformed chiefs with countervailing pressures from provincial leaders to concentrate on developing the civilian economy, which was Deng's priority.

Some of the more nationalistic military leaders he must control would like to disrupt the structure of security alliances that the United States erected in the Pacific, particularly with Japan and South Korea, during the Cold War.

But intervention is not a role that the Chinese military relishes.

Jonathan Pollack, a China specialist at the Rand Corp. in California, said, "Jiang Zemin will not be subject to a major challenge provided there is no major screw-up. The tradition of the PLA is that they get involved when things go awry, and that means they play a role that others can't, and so their intervention can only severely diminish Jiang's authority."

For this reason, perhaps, Jiang has seemed anxious to make over the top of the military. But to consolidate his power, Jiang must secure the retirement of the most senior military men Deng put in place five years ago, Adm. Liu Huaqing, 80, and Gen. Zhang Zhen, 82, the principal vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission that Jiang chairs.

In Chinese culture and that of the Communist Party, they are elders to Jiang, and their seniority of service to the Communist cause puts them in a position to criticize his actions in a way that military leaders contemporary to Jiang might not. By all accounts, Jiang, 70, would like to replace the older pair with Gen. Zhang Wannian, 68, and Defense Minister Chi Haotian, 68. One test of Jiang's influence over the military will be whether he ++ can force the retirement of the two older men this fall at the 15th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.

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