Party animals - Monocolumn | Monocle


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29 September 2009

Beijing will play host to an emphatic demonstration of China’s growing military power on Thursday when a panoply of new military hardware is unveiled at this year’s National Day parade, marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic.

The general in charge of the celebrations has said that a remarkable 52 new weapon systems will be seen publicly for the first time, making it a rare bonanza for foreign analysts of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), for whom long-lens images of aeroplanes heavily camouflaged by China’s signature smog usually pass for good intelligence.

The reason for this uncharacteristic mass disclosure of military prowess is that even the instinctively cryptic Chinese government recognises that some secrets are just too good to keep: it finds it useful once in a while to demonstrate to the West – and its own people – how powerful it is. The message to both: don’t mess with us.

Beijing’s boulevards have been rumbling for weeks now with practice fly-pasts and twirling tank formations, resulting in pictures of new amphibious assault vehicles, armoured personnel carriers and, most impressively, land-attack cruise missiles making it past the Great Firewall into the public domain. Not featuring in the drills, but expected on the day, is a new intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking Washington and another missile system that will arm China’s new generation of nuclear submarines.

China is often criticised for the lack of transparency that shrouds its military affairs. The United States, looking over its shoulder at China’s rising military power, often accuses Beijing of spending two or three times more on defence than it openly admits to and asks what manner of advanced weaponry Chinese technicians are developing and why.

The Chinese routinely reply that their army is purely for self-defence and invite the West to keep its outsized conk out of their affairs.

Nobody seriously thinks that Beijing’s military build-up is part of any sinister grand plan; but at the same time it’s never easy to take a one-party dictatorship purely at its word. And so countries such as the US, India and Japan, for whom China’s rise is most discomfiting, find themselves in a slightly ridiculous position: they lecture Beijing about the need for openness, only to wring their hands even more when they see China’s new war machines being driven in full view around Tiananmen Square, and its leaders waving glibly from their turrets.

The sense of unease goes beyond the arsenal that will be on show; more worrying is the wizardry believed to be progressing behind the scenes, such as China’s first aircraft carrier and a ballistic anti-ship missile designed to keep US warships away from Taiwan.

It’s not even the weapons themselves – plenty of countries have similar, even better, military kit; it’s the murkiness of the political system that controls it all that makes the rest of us feel nervous. The PLA’s ultimate mission is not to defend China – it’s to defend the Communist Party and to keep it in power. This skews its motivation in potentially unpredictable and dangerous ways.

As if to illustrate the point there came last week, out of this elitist murk, an eerie throwback to the country’s past: Mao Xinyu, Chairman Mao’s grandson, was being promoted to the rank of major general, the army announced.

Mao Xinyu’s blog is an unreconstructed paean to Maoist ideology that the Gang of Four might have told him to rein in a bit; and his considerable fatness – well known to a sniggering Chinese public – makes him an uneasy role model for the nation’s new, fighting-fit army. The fact that this man made major general at just 39 suggests, at least to me, that the development of China’s arcane and nepotistic political-military apparatus has not kept pace with that of the increasingly cutting-edge arsenal at these people’s fingertips.

So expect to feel impressed by China’s partying troops on Thursday – but also slightly afraid.


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