In a growing sign of how twitchy the Chinese government is as the Communist Party prepares for its leadership transition this year, the country’s military has been warned to prepare for an “ideological struggle.”
A commentary in the top official military newspaper, Liberation Army Daily, said the People’s Liberation Army must “resolutely resist the incursion of all kinds of erroneous ideas, not be disturbed by noise, not be affected by rumors, and not be drawn by undercurrents, and ensure that at all times and under all circumstances the military absolutely obeys the command of the Party central leadership, the Central Military Commission and Chairman Hu,” Reuters notes.
The call comes as the government struggles to tamp down persistent rumors of instability, or even a violent power struggle, at the very top of government. Last month, the Internet in China lit up with rumors of a coup, as stories ricocheted around social media sites like Sina Weibo that tanks and armored cars had taken to the streets in Beijing and other major cities.
These claims came after the high-profile sacking of Chongqing Party Chief Bo Xilai, a populist politician seen as a rising star in the Communist Party, and who had been predicted by many as likely to take a seat on the Politburo’s Standing Committee – the top decision making organ in China. Vice President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, is expected to succeed President Hu Jintao in the autumn, but if that goes according to plan it would mark only the second peaceful leadership transition in the history of communist China.
The government has responded to all this by closing down social media sites seen as facilitating the spread of the rumors. According to the official Xinhua News Agency, police in Beijing have questioned a number of Internet users, detaining six people for “fabricating or spreading” online rumors. The government has also shuttered 16 websites, including two microblogs that have more than 250 million users.
“Civil-military relations are an especially touchy subject for China, which basically rejects even the limited form of military autonomy from politics with which we're familiar in the West. The Party must control the gun and not the other way around,” James Holmes, Flashpoints contributor and a professor at the U.S. Naval War College told me.
“A certain amount of daylight between the political and military institutions has started appearing as the PLA remakes itself an increasingly professional high-tech force. Also, the sad fact from the Party's standpoint is that the Long March generation of political leadership has exited the scene. Current and future leaders simply don't carry the street cred of a Mao or Deng with the armed forces. They know this, and are bound to be edgy until the transition is over. Hence all the exhortations.”
So, is a military coup a genuine possibility in China?
“I have a hard time imagining it,” Holmes said. “But then the nature of Black Swan events is that they're hard to imagine before they occur.”