The PLA’s Rising Prominence


June 4 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on the pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square. Over the past quarter century, many theories that were offered on the course China would take have disappeared, and the country itself has undergone a vast transformation. I will review some of the theories that were once widely held.

One was the idea that economic development would be accompanied by modernization of politics. Another was that the freedom of association would inevitably be recognized as a logical consequence of economic development. For the development of the Chinese economy, it is necessary to raise value-added productivity. Raising value-added productivity requires more than fresh input of labor and capital; there must be enhanced sophistication of both human capital and the level of research and development.

For this, the freedom of association is indispensable. However, political modernization has been frozen since the Tiananmen crackdown, and prospects for greater freedoms are opaque at best. What was rejected during Tiananmen was more than a list of student demands; obviously, the crackdown squashed the basic building blocks of China’s future. 

Imperial Visit Amid a Shifting Paradigm

There are growing demands for political freedom in countries around the world. But in China, the Tiananmen crackdown narrowed the scope of political options for the Communist Party of China itself. 

Deng Xiaoping reportedly believed that China would come to ruin unless it took firm control of the situation, and the military was mobilized to forcibly disperse the students. At the time, few thought that members of the People’s Liberation Army would actually fire on their own compatriots. Comments have been made by soldiers themselves to this effect. With the party’s decision to turn the PLA against its own people, though, the CPC lost its legitimacy as the leaders of a people’s revolution.

No longer able to justify its political dictatorship on such grounds, CPC leaders opted to draw on the party’s irrefutable role in winning the “War of Resistance” against Japan. The post-Tiananmen period thus marked the start of an escalation in the anti-Japanese rhetoric taught at schools.

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko made a historic visit to China in 1992—just three years after Tiananmen. At a private gathering, I had an opportunity to ask Miyazawa Kiichi, who was prime minister at the time, why he approved the imperial visit despite lingering opposition to the visit, both domestically and internationally. “The opinion of China experts whom I repeatedly consulted regarding all possible scenarios was that Japan-China relations were likely to steadily worsen over time in five to ten years,” he told me. “It was a difficult decision, but the visit by the emperor, which was needed to put many of the outstanding bilateral issues behind us, had to be made in 1992, which marked the twentieth anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic ties.

Some commentators note that the visit was intended as a lifeline to China, which had become isolated from the international community, but as far as I know, the situation was not quite that simple. Already by then, the bilateral relationship had begun to shift from the friendship paradigm that marked the first 20 years since normalization to one of rising tensions, in which the two countries are still mired today. It is no doubt the case that the visit was made before further deterioration of bilateral relations would prevent Japan from making such a decision. 

Washington’s Misinterpretation

As the PLA went along with the party’s decision to fire on its own people, the CPC feels it owes them something. The PLA was created as a branch of the party and therefore, is not supposed to rebel against the party’s decisions. But the crackdown on Tiananmen Square drove a wedge between the two. While the change was clearly perceptible, many governments around the world failed to recognize it for years—most notably, Washington.

Premier Zhu Rongji was China’s chief negotiator when the country was seeking accession to the World Trade Organization in the late 1990s. On the US side, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin was lobbying members of Congress to secure their backing for China’s membership, but he was largely unsuccessful—primarily because Democratic lawmakers embraced the position of organized labor, their chief supporters, which insisted on including an escape clause to protect American workers from a sudden surge of Chinese imports. Not even President Bill Clinton could persuade lawmakers to compromise, so when Zhu visited the United States, he was essentially forced to return home empty-handed.

I spoke with Rubin soon after he stepped down as treasury secretary, and he seemed quite anxious about China. He was of the opinion that the CPC was divided into conservatives and reformists and that it was in America’s interests to work closely with the latter. He believed that sending Zhu home without Congressional blessing would weaken the hand of the reformists, and he wanted to hear my views.

In other words, the dominant view of China in Washington near the end of the 1990s, a decade following Tiananmen, was that there were two competing forces within the CPC and that US interests could be served by marginalizing the conservatives. The reality was, though, that by that time, a broad chasm had already emerged between the CPC and the PLA. This became much clearer during the presidency of Hu Jintao.

Thwarting a Peaceful Rise

Hu Jintao began efforts, both at home and abroad, to revamp China’s international relations soon after taking over the helm in 2004. The ideologues in his administration repeatedly expressed China’s intentions to pursue a peaceful rise. This was influenced by Washington’s strong desire that the Hu regime adopt a reformist—that is, internationally cooperative—stance.

US leaders invited one such ideologue to Washington based on the recognition that he was one of Hu’s most important backers. While the invitation was made by a private think tank, rather than the White House, he nonetheless met one key official after another while in town. On the way home, he stopped over in Tokyo, where I had an opportunity to speak with him at a private function. He seemed visibly elated in telling me that his US visit was highly successful. “The Americans were all eager to tell me that China would be afforded a respectable position in the international community,” he told me. “They said, ‘Historically speaking, international relations have become unstable whenever a country that had limited influence emerges as a rising power. This was the case with Germany and Japan, which were not given commensurate positions in the international community, a factor behind the outbreak of World War II. We’re not going to repeat that mistake. Giving China its proper place in the global order would be a natural endeavor, but this will require that China seriously pursue a course of international cooperation.’” 

Quite naturally, upon his return to Beijing, this ideologue began asserting China’s intentions to rise peacefully, undoubtedly with the endorsement of the leadership of the Hu Jintao regime. 

The “peaceful rise” scenario envisioned that China would attain a position of international prominence, not through violence or military conflict but on the strength of its growing economic clout. The scenario did not survive long as national policy, owing to pressure from the PLA. 

The army was concerned about the implications of a peaceful rise for cross-strait relations. If Taiwan declared independence, for instance, the “peaceful rise” policy could prevent Beijing from intervening militarily. One could easily imagine that the PLA grilled the party over the issue. In fact, I have been privy to insider information on such moves. The phrase subsequently disappeared from the lexicon of the Hu administration, which also gradually did away with a reformist course. 

Changes in US Attitudes

Soon after Xi Jinping took office, many commentators began voicing the idea of a Group of Two, under which the United States and China would divide the main responsibilities for maintaining the global order. China overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy in 2011, but can the international community really be led under a G2 framework?

As questions of trust began to emerge in the context of its future relations with Beijing, Washington has focused on two key issues, primarily from a military perspective. One is cyber espionage. A 2013 report by Mandiant, an American information security firm, claimed that PLA hackers had not only stolen the blueprints of a stealth bomber from a US firm but had acquired huge volumes of data from various private organizations, including those regarding their decision-making processes. Such extremely important management information was passed on to Chinese businesses, implying that the PLA must have been handsomely rewarded for its cyber theft. 

This revelation had a decisive impact on American opinion. While US businesses continue to be attracted to the lucrative Chinese market, they now have second thoughts about working with partners who may not be playing by established economic rules. Skepticism toward China has not been limited to the defense sector but has taken root in all segments of American society, and such concerns have even been on the rise. 

Not Interested in Being Good Neighbors

The second security concern for Washington is China’s relations with its neighbors, particularly in view of the growing rift between the CPC and the PLA, as evidenced by the process by which China recently established new air-defense identification zones that overlap areas claimed by other countries. Questions remain as to whether the ADIZ decision was spearheaded by the party or the army and whether China is sincerely interested in building relationships of trust with its neighbors. 

The close unity between the CPC and PLA, seen in the wake of China’s victory in the “War of Resistance” against Japan, has apparently undergone a dramatic change . The Tiananmen crackdown a quarter century ago triggered a sweeping transformation of Chinese society and system of rule. And it is necessary to continue closely monitoring which direction China is heading.

(Banner photo: Then President Hu Jintao inspects the Liaoning during a handover ceremony in September 2012. © Photo shot/Jiji Press Photo.)

China Deng Xiaoping Taiwan Hu Jintao Xi Jinping democratization CPC Miyazawa Kiichi PLA Tiananmen incident twenty-fifth anniversary CPC-PLA ties G2 Clinton administration Obama administration peaceful rise imperial visit to China Japan-China diplomatic normalization cyber security