Page 1 of 2 The PLA raises its voice
By Peter J Brown
A growing number of senior officers in the different branches of the Chinese
People's Liberation Army (PLA) are becoming outspoken. But why they have chosen
now to raise their voices is subject to debate.
Following the recent decision by the United States to sell arms to Taiwan,
three senior PLA officers from China's National Defense University and Academy
of Military Sciences - Major General Zhu Chenghu, Major General Luo Yuan and
Senior Colonel Ke Chunqiao - told Xinhua News Agency that China should be
selling off US debt, and that China needed to increase defense spending and
expand its deployments of military forces. 
Then the retired PLA Navy (PLAN) Rear Admiral Yin Zhou said that the growing
number of submarines operated by members of
the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) could pose a threat to
"If this continues at the current rate, in several years the ASEAN countries
will create powerful naval forces," said Yin Zhou in February. "This is
naturally becoming a challenge to neighboring countries, including China." 
Yin Zhou has also called for China to build a naval base in the Middle East,
which prompted China's Ministry of Defense to respond that, "China has no plans
for an overseas naval base." 
A new book by PLA Air Force (PLAAF) Colonel Dai Xu also paints a very dark
picture of the future. "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,"
writes Dai Xu, according to Reuters. "If the US can light a fire in China's
backyard, we can also light a fire in their backyard." 
Dai Xu is a widely quoted military analyst who comments frequently about
Chinese defense-related matters.
"In recent years, some parts of the Chinese media have become more
commercialized. This has led some publishers to focus on publishing
sensationalist and nationalistic views that can attract a mass audience," said
Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International
Studies in Washington, DC.
"Academics and PLA officers have seized this opportunity to write books
advocating controversial positions in order to make money. Several PLA officers
appear as pundits on Chinese TV programs and write for newspapers, viewing this
as a means to promote their hardline views, but also to supplement their
Glaser said that Luo Yuan and Rear-Admiral Yang Yi, an expert with the
Institute of Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, were
excellent examples of outspoken senior Chinese officers.
Abraham Denmark, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security in
Washington, DC, added China's former chief of military intelligence, General
Xiong Guangkai, to this list. After his retirement in 2005, Xiong took charge
of China's Institute for International Strategic Studies.
"He was very outspoken and rose to the rank of deputy chief of the general
staff," said Denmark.
Xiong made huge headlines 15 years ago. At the end of a meeting in 1995 with
former US ambassador Chas Freeman - news of the meeting would not be made
public until early 1996 and even then Xiong's identity was not revealed - he
reportedly said, "And finally, you do not have the strategic leverage that you
had in the 1950s when you threatened nuclear strikes on us. You were able to do
that because we could not hit back. But if you hit us now, we can hit back. So
you will not make those threats. In the end you care more about Los Angeles
than you do about Taipei."
Freeman would admit years later that he did not interpret these words as a
However, Xiong's comments in 1995 were not spontaneous or off-script, according
to Bhaskar Roy, a strategic analyst and consultant with New Delhi-based South
Asia Analysis Group.
"This was a message to the US from China's Central Military Commission [CMC],
headed then by Jiang Zemin," said Roy. "On many military and strategic issues,
the top echelon use military officials to float proposals either openly or in
print, or surreptitiously to pry out reactions."
China does not rely on the PLA exclusively to get the word out. China
threatened a military response to the perceived separatist statements of former
Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui - "If the Taiwan authorities think the mainland
can only launch a propaganda or psychological war, they are mistaken" - in an
August 1999 editorial in China's Global Times magazine.
In that article, Global Times even took aim directly at US aircraft carriers by
declaring that China's neutron bombs were more than enough to handle them.
This appeared just as China was preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of
Communist Party rule, and just a few months after the US had bombed the Chinese
Embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese civilians in the process. So it is
safe to say that the sense of Chinese national pride as well as the sense of
collective outrage was running at fever pitch that year, and that the tone of
these comments in Global Times probably reflected Chinese sentiments at the
"Over the past 10 years a clear pattern has emerged whereby Chinese military
officers are allowed to be more outspoken - especially in response to US
actions and decisions - whenever tensions over Taiwan are mounting. However,
what we are seeing today is much milder than what we saw in 1999, for example,"
said Rodger Baker, director of East Asia analysis at Stratfor, a Texas-based
global intelligence firm.
"Yang Yi and Luo Yuan have both been outspoken in reaction to the Taiwan arms
sale. Note that both are now retired. PLA officers caution that those
individuals do not speak for the PLA," said Glaser. "The Chinese government
does not encourage any such outspoken rhetoric, but they also do not discourage
"It is likely that allowing such views to be aired in the media serves their
interests. It is a way of letting those frustrated with the US vent their
anger. It may stimulate others to echo those views, but it also causes others
to challenge those views," said Glaser. "And allowing such a debate in the
media is increasingly tolerated by the government/party/military. Debates over
North Korea's nuclear test and how China should respond is another example in
which this has occurred."
Rather than being outspoken, Roy described these PLA officers as merely
reflecting China's growing military and economic power - which is "leading to
"Military exercises such as 'Strike - 09' and the military parade commemorating
the 60th anniversary of the PRC [People's Republic of China] last year were
meant to demonstrate that China had arrived at the global table. All statements
of national importance made by military officers are cleared by the CMC, if not
also by a member of the politburo standing committee. Articles written by
[military officials] also have clearance from the appropriate higher
authorities," said Roy, who described Yang Yi as "one of the leading spokesmen
for the CMC".
"[At the time of the 60th anniversary celebration], Yang Yi described this show
as China's strategy of a 'rich nation and strong military' and 'active defense
embodying the power to control a crisis situation in the neighborhood for a
favorable security environment'. The Active Defense doctrine is China's right
to intervene beyond its borders [land, sea and air]," said Roy.
Because the PLA is engaging in debates on its long-term direction and future
roles and missions, PLA officers may have a bit more leeway to express opinions
openly, according to Denmark. However, the range of views they are allowed to
express is still very much constrained.
"I would disagree that PLA officers are becoming more outspoken," said