Which is President Xi Jinping’s military doctrine and his “warfare rationale”?
With a view to well understanding the evolution of Chinese warfare studies to date, however, we need to study the tradition of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the vision that the Communist Party of China (CPC) had in the history of warfare doctrine.
Firstly, for China, the different terminologies used within NATO and, more generally, in Western military doctrines such as “global strategy”, “national security strategy” or “national defense strategy” are not separate concepts or ways of thinking, but are all subsumed in the Chinese general notion of “military strategy”.
Again in Chinese terminology, in simpler terms,the strategy “guidelines” are the political-military policy lines developed by the CPC leadership.
In these policy lines we can perceive the geopolitical threat that the CPCthinks to be closer and hence the likeliest type of future war that China must absolutely be ready to wage and fight.
The initial evaluations of the Chinese handbooks are the equivalent of the Western strategic assessment, while the analytical ones refer to the Chinese Armed Forces’ capabilities in relation to “present and future wars”.
According to China’s current strategic thinking, the science of military strategy is the study of warfarelaws and of the laws on the conduct of war, as well as the analysis of war predictions and the study of the most probable type of war in the future – all analyzed on the basis of past, present and future scenarios.
Our analysis, however, needs to begin at least with the military philosophy of Deng Xiaoping, who was the first Chinese leader to break with the philosophy of Maoist “people’s war”, in which the missing technology was replaced by the large dimension of masses in arms.
It is worth noting that, in Mao’s mind, all thiswas the policy line for being prepared to resist a nuclear attack with a subsequent invasion – a nuclear attack carried out, in all likelihood, by the USSR or the United States.
Indeed, the Two Worlds of Mao’s doctrine on foreign policy – the Third World was the world of Poor Countries, which were bound to be globally directed and led by Communist China.
Conversely, in Deng’s opinion, there was a shift from the primary perception of a global threat to the theory of local and “limited war” around China’s borders.
Deng Xiaoping’s “policy line” on war and defense envisaged above all land conflicts on the Northern and Eastern borders (the “Northern enemy”, namely the Soviet Russia, as Deng called it), but also sea clashes and surprise air attacks, with the subsequent necessary countermoves of the People’s Liberation Army.
What wasmissing in Deng’s military thinking – and that was Mao’s legacy – wasa specific doctrine of the nuclear weapon that – as Soviet Marshal Shaposhnikov also taught us – was “a weapon like the others”.
Jiang Zemin – after Deng – when the Four Modernizations (the last of which was exactly the military and technological one) redeveloped Deng Xiaoping’s model by envisaging “limited warfare under high-technology conditions”.
In that new context – the first real theoretical departure from “Mao’s policy line” on war – Jiang Zemin envisaged two primary intervention areas, the one near Taiwan and the one against all US networks in the Pacific, while the fall of the USSR made the traditional Chinese defense against the “Northern enemy” basically useless.
This was the first real maritime dimension of the Chinese doctrine, after Mao Zedonghad thought about an almost entirely terrestrial defense, on the basis of his Long March.
As early as the 1950s, however, the internal documents of the Central Committee identified the Philippines, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands and obviously Taiwan and even Japan, as future areas of Chinese invasion or hegemony.
Hence, in technological terms, Jiang Zemin’s new war meant a clash based on intercontinental missiles, fine electronics, multi-dimensional battlefields, sensors and intelligence.
The Central Military Commission, namely the highest Party’s body for defense matters, officially accepted Jiang Zemin’s policy line in 1992.
It is easy to imagine what the Chinese military decision-makers were observing and studying at thetime: the war in the Balkans; the first Gulf War of 1990-1991; the war in Rwanda; the “ten-daywar” between Slovenia and the Republic of Yugoslavia; the beginning of the Algerian jihadist insurgency; the outbreak of war in Somalia; the clashes in Georgia; the conflict on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan and some other minor conflicts.
The Chinese study of military doctrine always refers to concrete cases. In China’s traditional philosophy there is nothing resembling the Aristotle’s or Kant’s “categories”.
Hence, according to China and “Jiang’s policy line”, the war was bound to be won always by means of elite troops and preventive operations, although China has always refused to be the first to start a military clash- even a solely nuclear one.
The new local wars theorized and studied by Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin were supposed to be “quick battles to force quick resolutions”.
Instead of making the enemy enter deep into the Chinese territory – as Mao Zedong thought – and later holdingand gripping it as in a vice of masses in arms, Deng’s and Jiang’s new doctrine envisaged operations deep into the enemy’s territory.
Therefore emphasis was laid on very advanced technological preparation and on the elite troops’ abilities, as against the great masses of Mao’s time, as well as on undercover operations, the tactical and strategic element of surprise and deep combined actions.
Beyond the myth of all-out nuclear war -in which also Mao believed and which, however, was a paper tiger – Jiang Zemin’s new military policy line focused on the maximum lethality of weapons, on tactical precision and on the encirclement and tacit overcoming of the enemy, as well as penetration beyond the lines.
Later the CPC’s military and strategic thinking focused on the Revolution in Military Affairs, which the United States had developed in the early 1990s.
It should be recalled, however, that the first theory of Revolution in Military Affairs had been developed by Marshal Ogarkov in the Soviet Union, by laying emphasis on the robotization of the battlefield and the increasingly important role played by space technology and satellites as weapons in themselves and for tactical and strategic intelligence.
Jiang Zemin revised those Western and Soviet concepts and added a series of considerations on the political and social dimension of the conflict, but always in a framework of “regional war under conditions of high-technology and computerization”.
After China had studied the war in Kosovo, the specific doctrinal concept was developed in 2004.
Chinahad also well studied the theories of “non-violent warfare” developed by Gene Sharp in the United States and later implemented them thoroughly in the “color revolutions” of Georgia and Ukraine, as well as in the case of OTPOR! in Serbia.
Specific emphasisis laid – although not explicitly – onpsychological warfare in the current Chinese military doctrines.
As clearly stated in the 2004 White Paper, China’s IT and cyber warfare consists mainly in “inflicting a heavy toll on the enemy, even the conventionally superior one, through a variety of tools ranging from the destruction of its satellites and missile systems to the use of electromagnetic pulse weapons to hit enemy ships or aircraft and even its civilian IT networks”.
At the time, the idea of Chinese political and military decision-makers was the shift from “mechanization to ICTs and computerization” leading to multiple asymmetric, non-contiguous and non-linear wars in the strategic clash region.
If we consider the provincialism characterising many “White Books” of the European Armed Forces at the time, what stands out is the vitality of the Chinese strategic thinking, certainly devoid of semantic ambiguities or pacifist concerns.
Conversely mechanization was the specific aim of the 2008 White Paper, when the CPC’s central power still supported the idea of training the best military elites on the field and also acquiring the Command, Control and Intelligence (CCI) IT networks,in addition to acquiring the weapon systems most suitable for the 2008 new doctrine, which followed the doctrine of the official documents of 2004 and subsequent years.
According to the Chinese decision-makers, ICTs and computerization werethe Achilles’ heel of the weapon and command systems of Westerners or anyway of China’s possible enemies.
The “web” was supposed to be the PLA’s first attack frontin a situation of limited warfare or global confrontation.
Therefore, the Chinese decision-makers did not only seek an efficient network for the Chinese CCI, but also a specific doctrine for the “electronic warfare” and the signs that it would be greatly developed in the following years.
Many of you may remember that, in those years, the Western interestin the Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW) emerged.
In the Chinese official doctrines from 2007 to 2010, we could note that specific attention was paid to the role that the Chinese Armed Forces could play in assisting the Chinese economy and society and in supporting the population during natural disasters.
In this regard, we cannot certainly forget the role played by the PLA against sabotage, internal subversion and factionalism with respect to the Party and the Chinese nation.
Hence we can envisage an internal military role of the Armed Forces which is far subtler and more careful than the usual one prevailing in Western countries – a role which is also predictive and proactive, not just ex post.
As you may have realized, all these considerations show that there is very clear submission of the PLA to the Party, but also the creation of a specific political role for the Chinese Armed Forces.
A role that is played through the Central Military Commission which,since 1990,has increased its importance within the CPC hierarchy.
It is in this political and strategic context that the global threats to the Chinese status quo really change: the USSR collapsed in 1991 – hence there is no longer the danger of a great invasion from the North, as the CPC’s leadership had feared during the clashes on the UssuriRiver in 1968.
The Ussuri River war broke out when, a year before, the “Red Guards” had besieged the USSR Embassy in Beijing and hence the USSR attacked the Chinese border guards right on the Ussuri River.
The USSR threatened the use of nuclear weapons against China, but the United States threatened heavy repercussions against the Soviet Union if this happened.
Thiscurrently well-known data coming from the US archives make us imagine how natural was for China at the time to accept the US proposal for a new opening towards the United States to clearly oppose the Soviet Union.
It should also be noted that Mao’s famous theory “on the correct handling of contradictions among the people” was, in fact, an appeal to compromise with the Soviets, who supported the “Parliamentary way” – as also the Parties depending on the USSR did – while China wanted a greater “anti-imperialist” and anti-colonialist struggle.
Other military resultswere also achieved between China and the Soviet Union in that political and ideological juncture: Khrushchev refused to actively respond to the US Marines’ operations in the Lebanon, besides refusing to support China when it began bombing the island of Quemoy still occupied by Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang, and later making it clear to everyone that the Soviet Union would never grant a nuclear bomb prototype to China.
This is the real military plot of a now very famous discussion – apparently scholastic and obscure – between the two Marxist powers of the world.
Therefore in 1991, the “Northern enemy”, namely the USSR, no longer existed and the fear of the great invasion had waned.
However, as the Chinese decision-makers rightly thought, the no longer bipolar world increased – and certainly not diminished – the likelihood of regional conflicts.
Nothing to do with the pacifist dreams or delusions not only of the unaware public, but also of Western decision-makers.
The sanctions imposed on China by the United States after the Tiananmen Square events; the ongoing Anglo-American controversy on human rights in China; the US support to Taiwan during the 1996 crisis, when the United States sent two aircraft carriers to the Formosa Strait, and the Tibet issue – as well as the Xinjiang issue, which is currently mounting between the US and European media influencers – and finally the commercial tensions between the United States and China, are all factors which made us think – in those years, but also at a later stage – that China’s “far enemy”, namely the United States, would remain – in fact – the only real enemy.
It was the US technology show in the two Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003which definitely convinced the Chinese decision-makers of the new IT turn and direction the CPC’s National Armed Forces had to take.
Nevertheless the moment of truth came for China when the United States created the casus belli in Kosovo. For the Party’s and PLA’s decision-makers that proved how the United States wascapable of creating difficult situations by manipulating both diplomacy and the military equilibria of a wholeregion.
But what is President Xi Jinping’s current political-military vision?
In the official documents,Xi Jinping’s “policy line” regards not so much the analysis of new threats or the most abstract doctrinal issues, but rather the list of things that the PLA must absolutely accomplish in a short lapse of time:
- a) to improve the ability of simultaneously coping with a wide range of internal emergencies and tactical or non-tactical military threats, which could endanger China’s sovereignty at terrestrial, sea and air levels;
- b) to support the harsh and specific protection of the unification of the Motherland – an essential factor for achieving the great Belt and Road Initiative;
- c) to ensure China’s security “in new contexts” – and here reference is obviously made to the protection of the financialand industrial system, besides the political one;
- d) to ensure the protection of China’s interest overseas – the truly new strategic asset of China as global economic power;
- e) to improve the efficiency of strategic nuclear and cyber deterrence, as well as the PLA’s possibility of successfully launching a quick and highly dissuasive nuclear counterattack;
- f) to increase the PLA’s participation in international peace-keeping operations – a full recognition of China’s role also at military level;
- g) to strengthen the protection of the Chinese homeland against separatism and terrorism;
- h) to improve the PLA’s ability to fully carry out its tasks during environmental and health crises – as was the case with the bird flu crisis in 2003 and in the following years.
Hence, with a view to winning a cyber regional war – the PLA’s first political and strategic goal – the utmost protection of strategic surprise is needed, also on the part of the CPC itself – in addition to the protection of China’s interest overseas, another primary goal of the Chinese leadership.
Moreover, the defense of interests “in other fields” refers to China’s expansion at the maritime, space and cyber levels.
An expansion going well beyond the territorial limits of China and of the areas such as Hong Kong and Macao.
In fact, China is currently looking for new military bases abroad, namely Chongjin in North Korea; Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea; Sihanoukville in Cambodia;Koh Lanta in Thailand;Sittwe in Myanmar; Dhaka in Bangladesh; Gwadar in Pakistan; Hambantotaportin Sri Lanka; the Maldives and the Seychelles islands; Djibouti; Lagos in Nigeria; Mombasa in Kenya; Dar es Salaam in Tanzania; Luanda in Angola and Walvis Bay in Namibia.
Certainly this program of military expansion and strategic repositioning under President Xi Jinping implies a series of anti-corruption actions that have also heavily affected the PLA, especially its highest ranks.
Therefore President Xi Jinping thinks that highly technically and operationally advanced Chinese Armed Forces are needed. They must above all be strongly and exclusively subjected to the Party, which has also been undergoing an anti-corruption probe for many years.
Mao Zedong’s Chinese dilemma “Reds versus Experts” is back again, but this time in the new global horizon imposed by Xi Jinping’s Presidency.
Xinjiang: Pan-Turkism fuels China’s hearts-and-minds campaign
Chinese efforts to woo Saudi Arabia’s ethnic Chinese community highlight the People’s Republic’s effort to avert criticism from the Muslim world of its crackdown in the north-western province of Xinjiang and strengthen relations with the kingdom and Middle Eastern nations.
The efforts to woo a community, a significant part of which is of Turkic origin, identifies itself as Turkestani, and long supported greater rights, if not independence for Xinjiang’s Uyghur population, are part of a larger, long-standing global Chinese effort to ensure the support of a mushrooming Chinese diaspora not only for its policy in Xinjiang, but also for its anti-Taiwanese One China policy and growing economic and geopolitical influence.
“Tukestanis…do not identify as ‘Chinese in the ethnic, cultural or even geographic sense. Parts of this cluster perceive themselves…as being part of an oppressed group whose homeland is currently under Han occupation,“ said Muhammed Al-Sudairi, a Saudi China scholar and author of a recent report on the Chinese efforts in Saudi Arabia.
In wooing Saudi Arabia’s ethnic Chinese community, China is targeting a group that not only historically supported the Uyghurs but also maintained close ties to Taiwan. Mr. Al-Sudairi estimated the Saudi Chinese community to number at least 210,000, 150,000 of which have lived in the kingdom for decades.
It is a community that played a significant role in Saudi Arabia’s propagation of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism in China, part of a four-decade-long global campaign to counter post-1979 Iranian post-revolutionary zeal that more recently with the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is being curbed and given a more moderate makeover.
China this week sought to tighten relations with the Arab world with the allocation of US$106 million in aid to troubled nations, including Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon and the creation of a US$3 billion joint Chinese Arab fund that would invest in transportation infrastructure, oil and gas, finance, digital economy and artificial intelligence.
China announced the financial initiatives at a moment that it was putting the brakes on funds it pumps into its infrastructure-driven Belt and Road initiative that aims to connect Eurasia to the People’s Republic. The slowdown was designed to ensure that the initiative does not become a drag on the Chinese economy.
China’s Xinhua news agency meanwhile reported that President Xi Jingping would visit the United Arab Emirates this month on his way to a BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit in Johannesburg. Mr. Xi visited Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt in 2016, the first visit to the Middle East by a Chinese head of state in seven years.
Chinese concern about Uyghur sentiment is compounded by the revival in post-Soviet Central Asian nations of pan-Turkism, a movement that emerged in the late 1900s that aims to unite Asia’s Turkic people. Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev sees pan-Turkism as a pillar of his country’s national identity.
Quoting Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire, Mr. Nazarbayev told a gathering in Ankara in 2012 that “the time will come when all the Turks will unite. Therefore I want to greet all the Turkic-speaking brothers. Between Altai and the Mediterranean Sea, over 200 million brothers live. If we all unite, then we will be a very effective force in the world.”
Pan-Turkism’s appeal in Central Asia, boosted by what Russia’s annexation of Crimea could mean for other post-Soviet states, does not stop at the borders of Xinjiang. The Altai mountains, Mr. Nazarbayev referred to is where Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia and Russia meet.
Mr. Nazarbayev last month took several steps to popularize pan-Turkic notions. The president sent a congratulatory message to a gathering celebrating the 125th anniversary of Magzhan Zhumabayev, a Soviet pan-Turkist poet whose works were banned by Joseph Stalin.
Days earlier, Mr. Nazarbayev signed a decree renaming the southern region of Shymkent as Turkestan, a reference to what pan-Turkists see as their spiritual homeland.
The rise of pan-Turkism puts China’s recent focus on Saudi Arabia’s Chinese Turkic community in a class of its own. China sought to boost its efforts by appointing in 2013 Anwar Habibullah, one of China’s few Uyghur diplomats as consul general in the Red Sea port of Jeddah.
The consulate, since Mr. Habibullah’s appointment conducts events not only in Mandarin and Arabic but also Uyghur, according to Mr. Al-Sudairi.
Mr. Al-Sudairi attributes the focus on the Saudi Uyghurs, one of the largest and wealthy Chinese Turkic diaspora communities, “to the role of this community as a stronghold for anti-Chinse and anti-CPC (Communist Party of China) sentiment in Saudi Arabia, and one that has had some influence in shaping Saudi elite and popular perceptions toward the PRC (People’s Republic of China) and CPC.”
The Chinese focus is also fed by the country’s determination to stem the influence of what it terms extremist thought, including Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism, that was promoted by Saudi ethnic Turkic Chinese through their contact with Uyghur pilgrims and the distribution of literature and, audio-visual materials in Xinjiang, often through governmental non-governmental organizations like the Muslim World League, a major vehicle in Saudi Arabia’s global propagation of ultra-conservatism.
Mr. Al-Sudairi’s portrayal of Saudi Turkic sentiment and its impact on perceptions of China in Saudi Arabia is noticeable given the fact that the kingdom, like almost all Muslim states, has turned a blind eye to China’s crackdown in Xinjiang and systematic attempts at forced assimilation of the Uyghurs.
Muhammad Amin Islam Turkestani, a strident Uyghur advocate of Xinjiang independence helped shape Saudi perceptions and propagate nationalism in his homeland after settling in the kingdom in the mid-1950s. Mr. Turkestani served as a translator for Uyghurs performing the haj and hosted a one-hour Uyghur-language show on Saudi radio in the 1980s.
Funded by the Saudi Turkic community, Mr. Turkestani published a book, A Message to the Islamic World … Facts about Muslim Turkestan, that criticized Han supremacism and denounced communist rule. The book was published in the kingdom and distributed locally as well as internationally as part of Saudi Arabia’s global propagation of ultra-conservatism.
Mr. Turkestani’s book, according to Mr. Al-Sudairi, influenced Saudi discussions and perceptions and complicated the kingdom’s relations with China before and after Saudi Arabia in 1990 became the last Arab state to officially establish diplomatic relations.
Saudi Arabia, however, while at times critical of Chinese policy in Xinjiang, ensured that they plight of the Uyghurs did not fundamentally affect official relations.
The country’s controlled media were at times allowed to raise the issues and senior religious scholars called for support of the Uyghurs, Mr. Turkestani’s campaign to get the Muslim World League to recognize East Turkestan went however unheeded.
Moreover, no senior Saudi scholar has issued a fatwa or religious opinion on the issue. “Uyghur persecution by China will not stop the Saudis’ engagement with China, nor even slow it down,” said prominent China scholar Yitzhak Shichor.
The Chinese effort to woo Saudi ethnic Turkic Chinese is being spearheaded by the United Front Work Department, the main communist party unit tasked with reaching out to key non-part groups in China and across the globe, including Saudi Arabia.
“In January 2018…Politburo member and former Foreign Minister and State Counsellor, Yang Jiechi, told the National Overseas Chinese Conference that the government should expand and strengthen ‘Overseas Chinese Patriotic Friendly Forces’ in the service of the ‘Great Rejuvenation’ of the Chinese nation. In plain language, what this means is that overseas Chinese should be persuaded, induced, or in extremis, coerced, into accepting allegiance to China as at least part of their identity,” said Bilahari Kausikan, a former Singapore diplomat and chairman of the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, in a recent speech.
Mr. Kausikan noted that the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office was incorporated two months after Mr. Yang’s remarks into the United Front Work Department.
“This is leading China into very complex, indeed dangerous, territory. China’s navigation of the complexities has in many cases been clumsy,” Mr. Kausikan said, noting that the policy had led Chinese diplomats to openly interfere in the domestic politics in for example Malaysia.
“Since my retirement, I have travelled extensively in Southeast Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. Complaints about similar behaviour by Chinese diplomats and officials are all too common in all these regions; in fact, so common that it is becoming somewhat tiresome to listen to them,” Mr Kausikan said.
Xinjiang: China ignores lessons from the past
A Chinese campaign to forcibly assimilate ethnic Uyghurs in its north-western province of Xinjiang in a bid to erase nationalist sentiment, counter militancy, and create an ‘Uyghur Islam with Chinese characteristics’ ignores lessons learnt not only from recent Chinese history but also the experience of others.
The campaign, reminiscent of failed attempts to undermine Uyghur culture during the Cultural Revolution, involves the creation of a surveillance state of the future and the forced re-education of large numbers of Turkic Muslims.
In what amounts to an attempt to square a circle, China is trying to reconcile the free flow of ideas inherent to open borders, trade and travel with an effort to fully control the hearts and minds of it population.
In doing so, it is ignoring lessons of recent history, including the fallout of selective support for militants and of religion to neutralize nationalism that risks letting a genie out of the bottle.
Recent history is littered with Chinese, US and Middle Eastern examples of the backfiring of government support of Islamists and/or militants.
No example is more glaring than US, Saudi, Pakistani and Chinese support in the 1980s for militant Islamists who fought and ultimately forced the Soviet Union to withdraw from Afghanistan. The consequences of that support have reverberated across the globe ever since.
Some analysts suggest that China at the time was aware of the radicalization of Uyghurs involved in the Afghan jihad and may have even condoned it.
Journalist John Cooley reported that China, in fact, had in cooperation with Pakistan trained and armed Uyghurs in Xinjiang as well as Pakistan to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.
The notion that Islam and/or Islamists could help governments counter their detractors was the flavour of the era of the 1970s and 1980s.
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat saw the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood as an anti-dote to the left that was critical of both his economic liberalization and outreach to Israel that resulted in the first peace treaty with an Arab state.
Saudi Arabia funded a four-decade long effort to promote ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam and backed the Brotherhood and other Islamist forces that helped create the breeding ground for jihadism and wreaked havoc in countries like Pakistan.
China’s experience with selective support of militancy and the use of religion to counter nationalist and/or other political forces is no different.
China’s shielding from designation by the United Nations as a global terrorist of Masood Azhar complicates Pakistani efforts to counter militancy at home and evade blacklisting by an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog.
Mr. Azhar, a fighter in Afghanistan and an Islamic scholar who graduated from a Deobandi madrassah, Darul Uloom Islamia Binori Town in Karachi, the alma mater of numerous Pakistani militants, is believed to have been responsible for a 2016 attack on India’s Pathankot Air Force Station.
Back in the 1980s, then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping saw his belief that what China expert Justin Jon Rudelson called a “controlled revival” of religion would foster economic development and counter anti-government sentiment boomerang.
The revival that enabled an ever larger number of Uyghurs to travel to Mecca via Pakistan for the haj made Saudi Arabia and the South Asian state influential players in Uyghur Islam. Uyghurs, wanting to perform the haj, frequently needed Pakistani contacts to act as their hosts to be able to obtain a Chinese exit visa.
The opening, moreover, allowed Muslim donors to provide financial assistance to Xinjiang. Saudi Arabia capitalized on the opportunity as part of its global promotion of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism to put money into the building of mosques and establishment of madrassas.
Receptivity for more conservatives forms of Islam, particularly in southern parts of Xinjiang that were closest to Central and South Asia, suggested that the closure of Xinjiang’s borders during the Sino-Soviet split in the 1950s and 1960s and the cultural revolution in the 1960s and 1970s had done little to persuade Uyghurs to focus their identity more on China than on Central Asia.
In fact, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent states in Central Asia coupled with rising inequality rekindled Uyghur nationalism.
The rise of militant Islamist and jihadist Uyghurs constituted in many ways a fusion of Soviet and Western-inspired secular nationalist ideas that originated in Central Asia with religious trends more popular in South Asia and the Gulf in an environment in which religious and ethnic identity were already inextricably interlinked.
The juxtaposition, moreover, of exposure to more orthodox forms of Islam and enhanced communication also facilitated the introduction of Soviet concepts of national liberation, which China had similarly adhered to with its support for various liberation movements in the developing world.
The exposure put Xinjiang Uyghurs in touch with nationalist Uyghur groups in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan that fed on what political science PhD candidate Joshua Tschantret terms “ideology-feeding grievances.”
Nationalists, dubbed ‘identity entrepreneurs’ by Gulf scholar Toby Matthiesen, built on the presence of some 100,000 Uyghurs who had fled to Central Asia in the late 1950s and early 1960 during Mao Zedong’s social and economic Great Leap Forward campaign that brutally sought to introduce industrialization and collectivization and the descendants of earlier migrations.
With Pakistan’s political, economic and religious elite, ultimately seduced by Chinese economic opportunity and willing to turn a blind eye to developments in Xinjiang, Uyghurs in the South Asian country had little alternative but to drift towards the country’s militants.
Militant madrassas yielded, however, to Pakistani government pressure to stop enrolling Uyghurs. The militants were eager to preserve tacit Chinese support for anti-Indian militants operating in Kashmir.
Pakistan’s foremost Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, went as far as signing in 2009 a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese communist party that pledged support for Beijing’s policy in Xinjiang.
Despite eagerness to address Chinese concerns, Pakistan and China’s selective support of militants is likely to continue to offer radicalized Uyghurs opportunity.
“Jihadis and other religious extremists will continue to benefit from the unwillingness of the military and the judiciary to target them as well as the temptation of politicians to benefit from their support,” said former Pakistani ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani, discussing overall Pakistani policy rather than official attitudes towards the Uyghurs.
Cultural anthropologist Sean R. Roberts noted that Central and South Asia became with the reopening of the borders in the second half of the 1980s “critical links between the inhabitants of Xinjiang and both the Islamic and Western worlds; and politically, they have become pivotal but contentious areas of support for the independence movement of Uyghurs.
The 1979 inauguration of the of the 1,300-kilometre-long Karakoram highway linking Kashgar in Xinjiang to Abbottabad in Pakistan, one of the highest paved roads in the world, served as a conduit for Saudi-inspired religious ultra-conservatism, particularly in southern Xinjiang as large numbers of Pakistanis and Uyghurs traversed the border.
Pakistani traders doubled as laymen missionaries adding Islamic artefacts, including pictures of holy places, Qurans and other religious literature to their palette of goods at a time that Islamist fighters were riding high with their defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan and the emergence of the Taliban.
Increased religiosity became apparent in Xinjiang.
Women donned veils in what was traditionally a more liberal land. Students of religion made their way to madrassas or religious seminaries in Pakistan where they came into contact with often Saudi-inspired Pakistani and Afghan militants – trends that China is trying to reverse with the construction of an Orwellian type surveillance state coupled with stepped-up repression and intimidation.
“The cross-border linkages established by the Uyghurs through access provided by the highway, Beijing’s tacit consent to expand Uyghur travel and economic links with Pakistan through Reform Era policies, and Beijing’s explicit consent in supporting anti-Soviet operations – all prompted the radicalization of a portion of Xinjiang’s Uyghurs,” concluded China scholar Ziad Haider more than a decade ago.
The process was fuelled by the recruitment in the 1990s of Uyghur students in Pakistani madrassas by the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, both of which were linked to Al Qaeda. Some 22 Uyghurs captured by US forces in Afghanistan ended up in Guantanamo Bay.
The eruption of protests in Xinjiang in the late 1990s and late 2000s against rising income differences and the influx of Han Chinese put an end to official endorsement of a religious revival that was increasingly seen by authorities as fuelling nationalism and facilitating Islamists.
Seemingly stubborn insistence on a Turkic and Muslim identity is likely one reason that China’s current assimilation drive comes as Xinjiang’s doors to its neighbours are being swung open even wider with the construction of new road and rail links as part of the People’s Republic’s infrastructure-centred Belt and Road initiative.
Forced assimilation is designed to bolster China’s expectation that increased economic ties to South and Central Asia will contribute to development of its north-western province, giving Uyghurs a stake that they will not want to put at risk by adhering to nationalist or militant religious sentiment.
The crackdown and forced assimilation is further intended to reduce the risk of a flow of ideas and influences through open borders needed for economic development and cementing Xinjiang into the framework of China’s infrastructure-driven Belt and Road initiatives that spans Eurasia
The assimilation effort is enabled by China’s Great Fire Wall designed to wall the country off of free access to the Internet. In doing so, China hoped in Xinjiang to halt cultural exchanges with Central Asia such as political satire that could reinforce Uyghurs’ Turkic and Central Asian identity.
The breadth of the more recent crackdown has complicated but not halted the underground flow of cultural products enabled by trade networks.
Mr. Roberts noted as early as 2004 that Chinese efforts aiming to regulate rather than reshape or suppress Islam were backfiring.
“Interest in the idea of establishing a Muslim state in Xinjiang has only increased with recent Chinese policies that serve to regulate the practice of Islam in the region,” Mr. Roberts said at the time.
The transformation of the North Korean military and political system
How is North Korea’s political system currently changing, pending the Great Transformation with the USA and South Korea, wanted and carefully directed by Kim Jong-un?
In the future the Great Leader wants to have a new ruling class suitable for the economic and strategic changes which will affect North Korea in the coming years.
Far-reaching military and economic changes, with the support of Iran, the Russian Federation, China and other countries.
According to Kim Jong-un, without prejudice to the regime’s structure, everything else must change.
In the framework of this change, the State and the Party must be turned into quick and agile tools in the hands of the Leader and of his partly-renewed inner circle.
Kim Jong-un’s primary goal is to control the initial phase of North Korea’s economic transformation, as well as to keep the grip on the Armed Forces and the Party, and to finally create a new ruling class for managing denuclearization and the economic transformation.
In the case of North Korean Armed Forces, the new appointments have mainly concerned the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, the Chief of Staff Department of People’s Armed Forces – with new appointments also in the Directorate of Operations – and, finally, the Director of the General Political Bureau of the Armed Forces.
In the specific hierarchy of the North Korean military system, these are the three most important posts.
Furthermore, each of the three above mentioned roles implies the alternating or fixed presence of the Workers’ Party of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the Political Bureau.
Therefore the new appointments are No Kwang Chol, former first vice-Minister of the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, replacing Pak Yong Sik, while Ri Yong-gil replaces his former boss, Ri Myong-su.
Ri Yong-gil was Commander of the North Korean Armed Forces, as well as member of the Party’s Central Committee, but he was later removed from office in February 2016.
As early as 2013 he had been Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces and, despite the recent events, he had a stable and secure military career.
From 2014 to 2018 Ri Yong-gil was also Head of the Pyongyang Committee of the Workers’ Party.
From 2012 to 2013 he accompanied Kim Jong-un on many visits to nuclear and bacteriological-chemical sites.
Considering the symbolic relevance of the North Korean power, he is probably one of the true leaders of the nuclear and bacteriological-chemical program of the North Korean Armed Forces.
Ri Yong-gil was at first Party’s official and later became officer of the North Korean Armed Forces, while always keeping political and party positions rather than technically military ones.
Moreover, Kim Jong-un is still playing many of his cards on the Defence Ministry.
It is a source of foreign currency and of excellent profit in relation to the friendly powers, as well as of social control and of real and effective foreign policy.
Under the current leader, Kim Jong-un, six new Defence Ministers have been appointed.
Pak Yong-sik is one of the Ministers removed from office.
Probably he had some business roles, but we cannot rule out that in the future he can start again his career, interrupted on the basis of unpleasant news about his role as businessman in the phase of the Sunshine Policy with South Korea.
He had been member of the Council of State, of the Central Committee and of the Political Bureau of the Workers’ Party of Korea, as well as of the Central Military Commission and finally of the Political Committee of the Pyongyang Defence Command.
Clearly Kim Jong-un is measuring his potential enemy lobby.
And he is certainly planning the generational and political change of all the important positions of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea.
As we will see later on, the new Minister No Kwang Chol was Head of the Second Economic Committee, which is in charge of the defence industry and hence connected with North Korea’s supervision and construction of conventional and nuclear weapons.
He is an excellent manager loyal to Kim Jong-un.
He held various posts in the North Korean political system.
These newly-appointed people have certainly been selected due to their absolute loyalty to Kim Jong-un and the Party,but we must better analyse the decision-making process of the North Korean Armed Forces, as well as their specific role.
The naive analysts who think that Kim Jong-un is “prisoner” of his ruling class have understood nothing of North Korea’s political and economic mechanism.
For the Leader, both loyalty and professional skills are needed. He is willing to get over some affectation or groveling too much, but Kim Jong-un wants the best of his technocracy, subject to loyalty to the Party and to himself.
And, above all, subject to the absolute non-involvement in any financial and commercial activity having even the slightest hint of irregularity.
Corrupt people are always at the mercy of the enemy’s blackmail.
The Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, however, is currently placed under the dual and symmetrical control of the State Affairs Commission of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea and of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
Nevertheless the Ministry deals mainly with the logistics and training of the Special Forces and operates with approximately 36 external organizations.
The Ministry acquires the orders, requests and notes from the basic military units and later organizes and distributes them between the Central Military Commission, the General Staff and the Party’s Ammunition Department.
The Ministry also deals with military finance and operates with commercial companies and production units which can export goods and hence supply the country with hard currency.
In fact, as already noted, at least 36 commercial companies operate in the field of export and internal distribution.
But someone talks about 50 of these companies.
The naive Western analysts were wrong in believing that the People’s Armed Forces were a “terrible cost” for the people and a huge obstacle to economic development.
The opposite was, and is, true.
Therefore the military system operates, above all, with the 44thBureau of the People’s Armed Forces, in controlling most of North Korea’s hard currency flows.
The Technology Transfer Department has also relations with both the companies owned by the Party and by the Ministry’s Ammunition Department.
In particular, it deals with the acquisition of information technology and advanced weapon systems.
The General Department of Logistics deals above all with the network of factories and farms supplying food and clothing to the People’s Armed Forces.
Sometimes they operate for the civilian and foreign market of food and clothing.
The Ministry, however, is subject to the control of the State Affairs Commission, which originates both from the Government and the Party, as well as from the Central Military Commission, which anyway results from the Party-government link only.
It is worth recalling that as early as 2000, the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces directly controlled the Political Department, the General Staff, the Military Security Command, the Reconnaissance Bureau and the Coast Guard Command.
Later, around 2007, all these structures became an integral part of the Ministry itself, which was placed under the control of the National Defence Commission.
In 2016 the latter saw its powers restricted and was placed under the State Affairs Commission’s control.
It should also be noted that, unlike Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un has revolutionised the People’s Armed Forces more than any other predecessor.
For example, there was the handover in February 2009 – just before Kim Jong-un’s role as heir to Kim Jong-il was officially declared.
As you may recall, this happened in September 2010.
At that stage, only seven of the most important positions in the North Korean military system were changed. It was the beginning of Kim Jong-un’s grip on power.
The North Korean Leader had carefully analysed all the military and economic positions well before his full rise to power.
From July to November of that year, the Political Committee (PC) of People’s Armed Forces was combed through by the North Korean leadership.
It was, in fact, the first scrutiny carried out by the Organization and Guidance Department after 1996.
There were some surprises: for example, the PC ships that secretly fished in Japanese waters; some military promotions in exchange for “bribes”; some accounting problems and some suspicions of corruption.
As is typical of his political role, Kim Jong-un has been very harsh in putting an end to these situations and punishing these behaviours.
In fact, in 2017 many executives of the Political Bureau of People’s Armed Forces were removed, with repercussions on the military forces that,as can be easily imagined, affected also the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
Only after this long “purge” did Kim Jong-un focus on negotiations with South Korea and the USA.
In November 2017 Son Chol Ju, one of the officers promoted with the position of Colonel entrusted “with upper management and tasks”, was appointed as Head of the Organizational Affairs Department of People’s Armed Forces, but his appointment was made public only in May 2018.
As already noted, Son Chol Ju has replaced Jon Nam Jin and, most likely, also Kim Wong Hong.
Until that date Son Chol Ju had been the Director of the Political Bureau with the portfolio for organizational affairs, where he had spent his entire career.
Before taking this post, Son Chol Ju was political Director of the Air and Anti-Air Force, in addition to being Head of the respective political committee.
Probably Son Chol Ju was Head of the Political Bureau with the Propaganda portfolio, especially in the Pyongyang region.
In the meeting held on April 2018 Kim Jong Gak was elected to the Political Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
These changes of the North Korean ruling elite, however, show the extreme and non-negotiable power now reached by Kim Jong-un, unlike what claimed by the most naive, but very widespread, Western analyses.
This is one of the signs that, in a North Korean extremely important phase, the Party wants to control its “separate bodies”, with a view to avoiding “political advantages” and the systems of influence – even the foreign ones – as well as all the grey and black areas of finance which must currently be transformed and be directly controlled by the Party and its ruling class.
In this phase we need to study the careers of important personalities such as Jo Kyong Chol, the Director of the Military Security Command since 2009, as well as full member of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea and member of Kim Jong-il’s Funeral Committee.
Jo Kyong Chol was essential in strengthening Kim Jong-un’s power – a member of the “old guard” that wanted continuity, independence and military power for North Korea.
Hence he has accepted the new system of international relations in North Korea.
Currently Kim Jong-un certainly wants the regime’s continuity, but also and above all the emergence of a ruling class capable – by training, background and political culture – of organizing the North Korean stability in a phase of opening to the world market.
Ri Song Guk, another fer de lance of Kim Jong-un’s current political and military system, currently leads North Korea’s Fourth Army Corps – after leading the 39th Division – a very special military structure deployed near the Yellow Sea and the Northern Limit Line.
He is the current Director for Special Operations of the Central Command.
Yung Jong-rin is serving as the Commander of the Supreme Guard Command – therefore he is responsible for Kim Jong-un’s personal safety, but he had the same post with Kim Jong-il and is hence the Commander of the most technologically advanced security service in North Korea.
He has been member of the Central Military Commission since September 2010, as well as member of the Party’s Central Committee, and General since April 22, 2010.
Hence Kim Jong-un is preparing the ruling class that will defend North Korea’s interests in its new, gradual and slow globalization.
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