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Xi called for building the People's Armed Forces into a 'Steel Great Wall'

Two vice premiers and the new defense minister have backgrounds in military linked industries

Focus on China

G Iuvinale

China's rubber-stamp parliament closed on Monday after appointing a new premier and four vice premiers – two of whom have close ties to the military-industrial complex – as Communist Party leader Xi Jinping called repeatedly for a “world-class” technological upgrade for the People’s Liberation Army.

Xi's speech comes after a government restructuring that will put control over China's people and resources more firmly in the hands of Xi and other top party leaders, a move that some analysts have suggested is part of ongoing preparations for a potential war.

China’s vice premiers Zhang Guoqing [left] and Liu Guozhong, shown at a March 13, 2023, news conference after the National People’s Congress, have held top-ranking positions in companies linked to the Chinese military. Credit: AFP

Two of China’s new vice premiers – Zhang Guoqing and Liu Guozhong – are former high-ranking personnel in military-linked companies, while incoming defense minister Li Shangfu is a current member of the party's Central Military Commission, the highest-level military command structure, who once worked in China's satellite program.

Li is currently under U.S. sanctions over the purchase of combat aircraft and equipment from Russia’s main arms exporter, Rosoboronexport.

“Without holding the status of state councilor or vice minister, it’s not always easy to get things done when dealing with the military,” Australia-based scholar Feng Tianben said. “It looks as if they are tightening control over the military, rather than relaxing it.”

Development of defense technology

Shen Ming-shih, acting deputy chief executive officer at Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a government think-tank, said Li’s appointment has effectively upgraded the defense minister’s job.

“Defense minister used to be a fake post with no real power, because all of the real power lay with the Central Military Commission,” Shen said. “So it’s very meaningful that he is getting this post -- it means [Xi] values the role and function of the post, as well as Li’s work.”

“The significance of his taking over as defense minister lies with his background in the defense industry ... which shows that Xi Jinping thinks the development of China’s military equipment and defense technology is extremely important,” Shen said.

Feng Tianben said the government seems far more concerned with integrating its leadership with the People’s Liberation Army than under previous administrations.

“The focus is on the military-industrial complex,” Feng said of the new appointments. “This is in line with the [overall strengthening] of the military.”

“This priority has now been reflected in the team-building at the highest level of leadership, and means they will be coordinating with the defense ministry, as well as coordinating production,” Feng said.

“If they’re going to build a third military superpower along the lines of the United States and Russia, they need to have the weaponry to back up their rhetoric,” he said.

According to publicly available information, Zhang started working for Norinco, which has close ties to the People's Liberation Army, as a project manager, serving for a while in the Middle East before rising to serve as vice president and deputy Communist Party secretary at the party-controlled company.

Building a ‘world-class army’

Another vice premier, Liu Guozhong, studied trigger fuse design and manufacture in the artillery shell department of the East China Institute of Engineering in 1978.

By 1982, he was an official in a China Ordnance Industry Corp. factory.

During his closing speech on Monday, Xi mentioned “strengthening the military” eight times, vowing to “accelerate the building of the People’s Liberation Army into a world-class army.”

The other two vice premiers are Xi loyalists who will be in charge of running the economy, with Ding Xuexiang seen as next in line for the premiership and He Lifeng to be charged with economic, financial and industrial affairs, according to senior journalist Wang Haiyan.

He said the moves look more like the militarization of government than enhanced political controls over the military, however.

“He Lifeng and the two vice premiers with the ordnance industry background are the ones who will actually do any work,” Wang said. “[This means that] half of the State Council has now been taken over by the military.”

Meanwhile, public security minister Wang Xiaohong has been promoted to a higher rank in the State Council, highlighting his role as the country’s top cop and “stability maintenance” czar, charged with protecting the party’s hold on power against domestic threats and political unrest.

According to a commentary on the Brookings Institution website, loyalty to Xi is a requirement for promotion, and many of the members of the newly sworn-in State Council have longstanding ties to him.

Li Qiang has worked with Xi for decades, acting as his top aide and chief of staff in the Zhejiang provincial party committee, with Ding Xuexiang playing a similar role when Xi was party chief in Shanghai.

Wang Xiaohong was a high-ranking member of the police bureau in Fuzhou when Xi was a top leader there, while He Lifeng’s relationship with Xi dates back four decades to when they worked together in Xiamen, the commentary said.

Looking toward Taiwan

Veteran journalist Zhao Wushun said few of the new appointees have much experience in government.

“Few of these people have substantial work experience,” Zhao said. “When they encounter problems at work, conflicts will arise.”

Xi, who was recently sworn in for a precedent-breaking third term as president, also told National People’s Congress delegates that the party would “implement the party’s overall strategy for resolving the Taiwan issue ... and unswervingly advance the process of reunification of the motherland,” in a reference to China’s territorial claim on democratic Taiwan, which has rejected the claim, having never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party nor formed part of the 73-year-old People’s Republic of China.

Premier Li Qiang’s inaugural news conference suggested Beijing would be employing both hard and soft power initiatives to strengthen Beijing’s influence in Taiwan, whose 23 million residents have repeatedly rejected the idea of Chinese rule under the “one country, two systems” framework used to take back control of Hong Kong and Macau.

“We share an unbreakable bond of blood and kinship [with people in Taiwan],” Li said. “We will ... encourage more Taiwan compatriots and businesses to come to [China].”

“We hope they will be willing not just to come [here], but to integrate into local communities,” he said, pledging to work for the “restoration of normal exchanges and regular cooperation” with Taiwan, in the wake of growing tension with Washington and intensified Chinese military exercises around Taiwan in recent months.

Xi’s speech came after party ideologue Wang Huning, a member of the seven-member all-powerful Politburo standing committee and a close Xi ally, took the chair of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference national committee on Friday, with a call for political “struggle.”

He told the advisory body, which works closely with the party’s outreach and influence arm, the United Front Work Department, to “carry forward the spirit of struggle,” strengthen its “fighting skills,” and “take a clear stance on matters of right and wrong.”

Wang is also expected to head the Taiwan Work Leading Group, responsible for formulating actual Taiwan policy and for United Front work relating to the island, which has constantly been targeted by Chinese psychological and influence operations in recent years.

Li told the news conference on Sunday that his administration would “unswervingly deepen reform and opening up” despite a string of recent moves favoring the state sector over private enterprise under his boss Xi Jinping in recent years.

But he warned that a 5% economic growth rate for this year wouldn't be easy to achieve.

President Xi on Monday stressed solid efforts in advancing the practice of One Country, Two Systems, and the cause of national reunification.

Brief reflection

For China, having a world-class PLA means reaching the parity of strength and prestige with the other main world armies, in particular with that of the United States. Beijing has learned a lot from military success US in the 1991 Gulf War and the military offset strategy adopted by the United States in the 1970s to face the Soviet challenge. For counter the technological advantage of the US military, China has developed its own offsetting strategy to realize its goals in the first island chain extending from Japan to Taiwan, from northern Philippines to northern Borneo to the Malay peninsula.

Senior officials Department of Defense have warned that the United States can no longer take its military superiority in East Asia for granted.
Yesterday Xi demanded efforts to advancemodernization of national defense and armed forces on all fronts, and build the people's armed forces into a "Great Wall of steel."

In remarks delivered before the 19th National Congress of the CPC in October 2017, Xi Jinping pledged to transform the PLA into a force of “world class” by the middle of the 21st century. He added that the army would become a fully mechanized force with a significant increase in “strategic capabilities” by 2020 and an army “substantially modern” by 2035.

Its ambitious goal is to complete a transformation of the PLA and the People's Armed Police into a “world-class force by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the PRC.

Beijing continues to devote large financial resources to military modernization. Since 2002, its defense budget is second only to that of the United States, with overall spending increasing nearly eightfold over the last two decades.

The PLA is the largest permanent ground force in the world, with approx 915,000 active duty military personnel in combat units.

Aircraft carrier Fujian

The Navy of the People's Liberation Army (PLAN) is the most largest navy in the world, with about 350 surface ships and submarines, including 3 aircraft carriers (the last one inaugurated in June 2022).

The People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and PLAN Aviation together they constitute the largest air force in the Indo-Pacific and the third largest in the world, with over 2,500 total aircraft.

Under Xi Jinping, the defense industry has demonstrated a significant ability to rapidly produce large amphibious assault ships.

China hasembarked on a massive shipbuilding campaign, which in 2019 alone it produced more civilian and military ships than those produced by the United States during the four years of World War II.

Beijing sees the future "One China" mission to unify Taiwan as a continuation of the unfinished civil war of 1949. According to the Pentagon, Beijing presents a significant cyber espionage and attack threat and persistent for an adversary's critical and military infrastructure.

Beijing uses economic strategies to extend its military presence beyond the border. The BRI, for example, has emerged as the organizing concept clearer explanation behind the expansion of the PLA's overseas presence.

According to a well-known company that conducts intelligence analysis, the capabilities shipping bases, potential overseas base sites, and strategic objectives suggest that China will mainly rely on logistics support overseas military until 2030.

Xi Jinping said: "Focus on war preparations and wars."
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