HONG KONG – In 1938, in the midst of a long campaign to bring China under Communist Party rule, revolutionary leader Mao Zedong wrote: “Whoever has an army has power.”
Xi Jinping, Mao’s latest successor, has taken that dictum to heart.
He has donned camouflage fatigues, installed himself as commander-in-chief and taken control of the 2 million-strong Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army. It is the biggest overhaul of the PLA since Mao led it to victory in the nation’s civil war and founded the People’s Republic in 1949.
Xi has accelerated the PLA’s shift to naval power from a traditionally land-based force. He has broken up its vast, Maoist-era military bureaucracy. A new chain of command leads directly to Xi as chairman of the Central Military Commission, China’s top military decision-making body. Operational leadership of naval, missile, air, ground and cyber forces has been separated from administration and training — a structure that Chinese and Western defense analysts say borrows from U.S. military organization.
The Chinese leader isn’t just revolutionizing the PLA. Xi is making a series of moves that are transforming both China and the global order. He has abandoned reform architect Deng Xiaoping’s injunction that China should hide its strength and bide its time. The waiting game is over. Xi’s speeches are peppered with references to his “Chinese dream,” where an ancient nation recovers from the humiliation of foreign invasion and retakes its rightful place as the dominant power in Asia.
The effort includes signature shows of soft power: Xi’s multibillion-dollar “Belt and Road” program to build a global trade and infrastructure network with China at its center, and his “Made in China 2025” plan to turn the country into a high-tech manufacturing giant.