Last week, the new Chinese defense minister, General Cao Ganghchuan, visited Washington for the first time. He came at the head of a delegation of 12 senior officers.
The most senior was the Deputy Chief of Staff and military intelligence chief, Lt. General Xiong Guangkai, a familiar figure in Washington from dozens of previous visits. General Xiong stands out because he is one of the few Chinese army men who have fluent English.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in the US capital, the American hosts were most curious to find out what was happening at the decision-making level of the Chinese military since Jiang Zemin handed the presidency over to Hu Jintao last March, leaving himself in the Chair of the key Chinese Communist Party’s Military Commission. They wanted to know if the arrangement was working harmoniously or if the two men were at odds, a contest that would be bound to percolate through to every part of the armed forces.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington report that, in the formal part of his visit, Cao gave no clue to the true state of affairs. However, in less formal conversations between Chinese generals and American army officers and members of the national security council – especially when attended by defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and adviser Condoleezza Rice – some of the Chinese guests were a little less discreet. From a hint here and there, it was possible to deduce that a quiet power struggle is in progress between the new and former Chinese presidents.
Jiang, when he retired earlier this year, would have chosen to retain a different position, but the only slot allowed him by the Chinese constitution was chairman of the military committee.
The result has been an unprecedented impasse in the corridors of power in Beijing.
For the first time, the party secretary is not ex officio head of the army. He may not make policy decisions without prior consent from the ex-president.
This places the new Chinese ruler in the invidious position of deputy to his predecessor in military affairs but Jiang Zemin’s superior in every other respect.
The anomaly has an unfortunate impact on the efficient functioning of the regime as a whole. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report that for the first time, Chinese military leaders are deprived of access to the ruling echelons which make national policy and assign budgets. This would normally be the task of defense minister Cao. But he, like the rest of the military establishment, is wary of stepping on toes in the power struggle, even at the expense of reducing his own standing.
One sign of the rivalry at the top emerged in an incident in which some of the visiting officers spoke of the first manned Chinese space mission last month. Some eagerly praised President Hu’s active contribution to the mission’s success and the welcome he extended to the first Chinese man in space Yang Liwei. They omitted any mention of Jiang in this context.
A second group of officers moved away and shifted uncomfortably when their comrades sang the president’s praises.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Chinese experts interpret this occurrence as indicating that Hu Jintao is pulling ahead in the leadership tug-of-war over the armed forces and gathering a following in the party and armed forces which is gradually sidelining the former president. President Hu is beginning to embrace the prominence due to the paramount ruler of China. In the ceremonies surrounding the space launch, he stepped forward with easy authority while Jiang was nowhere to be seen. It is therefore only a matter of time before the new president loosens his retired predecessor’s grip on the armed forces and assumes full control himself.