BEIJING >> During a holiday banquet for China’s military leadership early this year, a powerful general lashed out in a drunken rage against what he believed was a backhanded move to keep him from being promoted to the military’s top ruling body.
The general, Zhang Qinsheng, vented his fury in front of President Hu Jintao, according to four people with knowledge of the event. At the banquet, he even shoved a commanding general making toasts; Hu walked out in disgust.
The general’s tirade was one of a series of events this year that have fueled concerns among Communist Party leaders over the level of control they exercise over military officials, who are growing more outspoken and desire greater influence over policy and politics.
With China’s once-a-decade leadership transition only months away, the party is pushing back with a highly visible campaign against disloyalty and corruption, even requiring all officers to report financial assets.
“Party authorities have come to realize that the military is encroaching on political affairs,” said one political scientist with high-level party ties. “Although the party controls the gun, the expression of viewpoints from within the military on political issues has aroused a high level of alarm.”
He, like others who agreed to discuss internal party affairs, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisals.
Some generals and admirals have loudly called for the government to assert control over the South China Sea, the focus of increasingly rancorous territorial disputes between several Southeast Asian countries and China, where nationalist spirits are on the rise among the public and politicians as well. And earlier this year, leaders in Beijing became alarmed over ties between generals and the disgraced Politburo member Bo Xilai.
The party’s need to maintain stable rule over an increasingly vocal military is one reason Hu, its top civilian leader, is expected to hold on to his position as chairman of the Central Military Commission for up to two years after he gives up his party chief title in the fall, according to people briefed on political discussions. His anointed successor, Xi Jinping, would still take over Hu’s posts as head of the party and head of state, but would have to wait to become China’s military boss.
Hu’s two predecessors both exercised control of the military after they gave up their other civilian titles. But some party insiders have argued that a staggered handover can lead to rival centers of power, splitting generals’ loyalties. No final decision has been made on whether Hu will stay on. But if he does, then Xi could find himself with limited room to expand his power base, even though he has more of a military background than Hu.
Hu has been building a network of army loyalists by promoting generals in waves. At least 45 officers have been promoted to full general by Hu since September 2004, when he became head of the military commission. Just over half the promotions have taken place since July 2010. Four of the 45 are now among the 10 generals who sit on the commission.
One officer who rose quickly with Hu’s support was Zhang, who could still be in contention for a commission seat despite his drunken tantrum. When Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin, held on to his military post from 2002 to 2004, factional enmity arose over many issues. The same could happen with Hu and Xi, who was promoted to a vice chairmanship of the military commission in 2010. Jiang yielded his post to Hu only after conflicts between the two had intensified.
“The way it goes in the military is: Whoever promotes me is my daddy,” said one member of the party elite who meets with generals regularly.
Such divisions need not be debilitating in an increasingly professional military, analysts say.
“They prefer to work out these differences in a consensus-building process,” said Dennis J. Blasko, a retired United States Army intelligence officer and former military attache at the American Embassy in Beijing. “I see the PLA leadership as rational, pragmatic and realistic,” he added, referring to the People’s Liberation Army.
Nonetheless, conversations with officers suggest that some may feel an affinity for the incoming Xi they do not share with Hu, a tea trader’s son who has struggled in Jiang’s shadow to win respect. Xi, 59, is the “princeling” son of a revered Communist guerrilla leader who grew up in Beijing with military families. He is stepping into the leadership role with closer military relationships than anyone since Deng Xiaoping.
“When those from the ‘red second generation’ move up, there will be a personal feeling, a traditional bond,” a senior officer said.
Xi’s first job was as an aide to Geng Biao, a guerrilla comrade of his father’s who became China’s defense minister in 1981. Xi later held political command offices over military units while serving as a civilian leader in Fujian and Zhejiang Provinces opposite Taiwan, which China still considers part of its country. And he is married to Peng Liyuan, a celebrity singer from an army performance troupe who holds the equivalent rank of major general.
Even before taking his post on the military commission, Xi had occasional informal meetings in Beijing with several generals, including the outspoken princelings Liu Yuan and Liu Yazhou, according to Li Mingjiang, an expert in Chinese politics now in Singapore.
When it comes to ideology, Xi is a cipher. But with China’s rise has come a growing assertiveness in the region, and Xi will feel pressure to go in that direction. He will be “tougher in terms of protecting China’s interests,” Li said. “The fact that he does have some military background gives him more confidence in decision making.”
There are signs that some generals believe they have Xi’s ear. Last year, Gen. Liu Yazhou, political commissar of the National Defense University, sent a famously bellicose major general, Zhu Chenghu, to Singapore to lead a study on that tiny nation’s more flexible authoritarian system. Liu, who was promoted to full general by Hu on July 30, planned to present it to Xi to make the case for a more liberal one-party system as a means toward strengthening the state, said one scholar who met with the group.
Liu Yuan (no relation to Liu Yazhou), another powerful figure in Xi’s network of princeling generals, is the son of Liu Shaoqi, who had been picked by Mao to take over the post of supreme leader before being purged and left to die in prison. In an essay published in 2002, Xi reminisced about how he bonded with Liu Yuan when they were both given county-level civilian postings in 1982.
“We agreed with each other even before we talked,” Xi wrote. “Both of us wanted to take the road of integrating with workers and peasants.”
Despite his favored position, Liu Yuan came under pressure this year from party authorities because of his connections to Bo. Indeed, the Bo affair put civilian officials on heightened alert for such collusive links. When the scandal began to unfold in February, Bo alarmed some party leaders by flying to Yunnan Province to visit the headquarters of the 14th Group Army, the unit once commanded by his father.
Some say that the scandal damaged Liu Yuan’s prospects for promotion. But his popularity was evident in April, when he earned top marks in a poll of senior officers, according to a party intellectual close to him. To guard his career, the general distanced himself from Bo and made a declaration of support to Hu, who had earlier promoted him to full general.
It was one of many ways that Hu, analysts say, has tried to corral officers from elite families and that could allow him to extend his influence into retirement.