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Editor's note: Gordon G. Chang is the author of "The Coming Collapse of China." He writes a weekly column at Forbes.com.
Does Beijing want to take over the world?
It definitely does, according to Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu of the People’s Liberation Army. “China’s big goal in the 21st century is to become world number one, the top power,” he writes in The China Dream, a book released in January but sold publicly only now. “If China in the 21st century cannot become world number one, cannot become the top power, then inevitably it will become a straggler that is cast aside.”
The words are strident and the thoughts sharp, but are they also shared by senior civilian leaders? “This book represents my personal views, but I think it also reflects a tide of thought,” Liu said to Reuters in an interview released Monday.
He appears to be telling the truth. Beijing’s civilians once referenced win-win concepts and spoke in soothing terms, but now their tone is one of assertion and even entitlement.
In any event, the book could not have been released without comprehensive reviews of its content by the all-powerful Central Military Commission and civilian censors. “Senior Colonel Liu’s view reflects the consensus in the Communist Party leadership,” writes John Tkacik, a Washington-based China watcher. “They see the achievement of preeminent global military and political power as the ratification of the Party regime’s legitimacy in the absence of either a coherent Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy that places the Party at the ‘vanguard of the Proletariat’ or the ‘consent of the governed.’ ”
China’s leaders have no choice but to listen to the increasingly bellicose statements of flag officers. Since the middle of this decade, the brass has been reversing a three-decade trend by gaining power within top Communist Party organs. There are various reasons for this, but two of them stand out. First, Hu Jintao, the current Party and state leader, has enlisted general-officer support in his ongoing political struggles with Jiang Zemin, his predecessor, who tried to linger in the limelight.
Second, the current civilian leadership team, led by Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao, appears to have been unnerved by the rising tide of discontent, especially in Tibet in 2008 and Xinjiang last year. Now, more than any time since the Tiananmen massacre of twenty years ago, the Party’s leaders rely on the troops of the People’s Liberation Army and the People’s Armed Police to maintain order—and keep themselves in power. Civilian weakness is translating into military strength.
So the PLA has gained power recently, especially when it comes to formulating budgets and setting foreign policy. With increased prominence has also come the ability to speak freely in public. The generals and admirals, always blunt, have become hostile in recent months. “This time China must punish the U.S.,” said Major General Yang Yi, quoted by London’s Times in February, referring to Washington’s recently announced arms sales to Taiwan. “We must make them hurt.” Colonel Meng Xianging argues that Beijing should force a confrontation “when we’re strong enough for a hand-to-hand fight with the U.S.”
Meng speaks of a 10-year timeframe, which seems to be widely accepted by senior officers. “I’m very pessimistic about the future,” writes Dai Xu, a Chinese colonel, in another recent book. “I believe China cannot escape the calamity of war, and this calamity may come in the not-too-distant future, at most in 10 to 20 years.”
Before that final confrontation—as the Chinese “sprint to become world number one” in the words of Liu Mingfu—China’s generals are thinking about how to use all aspects of their nation’s power to achieve their goals. “Our retaliation should not be restricted to merely military matters, and we should adopt a strategic package of counter-punches covering politics, military affairs, diplomacy and economics to treat both the symptoms and root cause of this disease,” said Major General Luo Yuan in connection with Taiwan arms sales. “For example, we could sanction them using economic means, such as dumping some U.S. government bonds.”
The essential point is that China’s flag officers are thinking big these days. They seek influence over instruments of national power currently—and traditionally— controlled by civilians. As Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu advises, “Turn some money bags into bullet holders.” Or as William Callahan of Manchester University puts it, the military now wants to beat plowshares into swords.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gordon G. Chang.