China's rising military star also heads space program

Special to World
Thursday, October 30, 2003

"Mr. Missiles" heads China's high priority space program, overseas weapons procurement from Russia, and was the poster boy for Jiang Zemin's emphasis on competence over ideological correctness.

Gen. Cao Gangchuan
  • Age: 67
  • Organization:People's Liberation Army
  • Position:Defense Minister, member of Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee
    Cao Gangchuan, 67, defense minister and one of two new military members of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, has become China’s No. 1 military figure.

    Gen. Cao, who met President George W. Bush Wednesday during a meeting with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, is known as "Mr. Missiles" for his support for the missile programs, he also heads China's high priority space program, overseas weapons procurement from Russia, and was the poster boy for former President Jiang Zemin's emphasis on competence over ideological correctness.

    But is Jiang really out?

    In the ritualistic pledge of allegiance to the new leadership, the commanders of the military departments called a meeting of their senior staff to demonstrate their loyalty to new Military Commission leadership. Chief of Staff Gen. Liang Guanglie was quoted as saying his department would "resolutely heed the commands of the party central authorities and [those of] Chairman Jiang."

    No recorded references were made in these meetings to newly-elected party General Secretary and President Hu Jintao, who also has been a CMC vice-chairman since 1999. Furthermore, there was not the usual pro forma pledge to Hu as the new general secretary of the Party. This has raised eyebrows among diplomats. It is telling that the top military pledged their allegiance to Jiang, who, in theory, is no longer a party official although he continues -- so far without a stated time limit -- as chairman of the Military Commission.

    Thus Cao’s promotion to the Commission (and to the Central Committee and Politburo) are viewed as part of Jiang Zemin’s attempt to hang on to power -- despite giving up the presidency and the secretary-generalship of the Party to Hu Jiantao, the former vice president. Cao was one of a number of Jiang supporters who now give the former president a majority on the Central Committee and the Politburo although he is no longer a Party official. Many observers believe it suggests that Jiang will try to repeat the history of former Maximum Leader Deng Xiaoping who continued into his dotage to run the Party and the government from his position as chairman of the Military Commission after abandoning former offices.
    In March 2001 Jiang Zemin sent Gen. Cao an unusually warm message of congratulations on the successful return of the Shenzhou spacecraft, shown above at launch. This was one of the first signs to the outside world that in addition to his other key posts, Cao was also chief director of the national manned spacecraft program.
    Educated in part in the Soviet Union, Cao headed the General Armaments Department and oversaw the procurement of billions of dollars of high-technology purchases from Russia. These have included the purchase of fighter aircraft, warships and military technology.

    He has also handled such politically-sensitive overseas transactions as the sale of missiles to Saudi Arabia in 1988 in his role as the military chief charged with all exports. Cao was also directly involved in the purchase of the Phalcon radar control plane by Israel and the tough public statements demanding an indemnity when Israel was forced to cancel the deal at U.S. insistence.

    In the past Cao identified the U.S. as Beijing’s enemy. Seen by some Beijing observers as "a solder’s soldier" with a lifetime career in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), he told his officers at a closed meeting at the 2002 summer's party-leadership retreat in Beidaihe: "We must be soberly aware that the world is not peaceful. Western hostile forces led by the U.S. have not given up the ambition to subjugate us and do not wish to see China growing strong and enjoying stability."

    The key to understanding that statement is the fact that, as the Chinese official media reported two years ago, Cao has been put in charge of the PLA's role in the "reunification" of Taiwan.

    Cao’s promotion to the top rung of the Chinese Party hierarchy is generally seen as part of the effort to place officers with technical competence and knowledge of the outside world in positions of power, replacing the geriatric veterans of the Communists’ struggle for power and the early tumultuous years of domination by Mao Zedong. For example, neither of the two uniformed vice chairmen of the Commission - Zhang Wannian, 74, and Defense Minister Chi Haotian, 73 - were on the new Central Committee elected at the close of the party's 16th congress in mid-November. While the change has been anticipated for some time as part of the effort to modernize the military, the changes were more numerous and more dramatic than many observers had expected.

    He has played a direct role in the promotion of China’s blue water navy and was apparently involved in the dispatch of a small flotilla of naval vessels - and its return two months ago after a voyage around the world - a first for Chinese warships.

    Cao's career has been based on expertise in conventional land armaments and missiles and his strong ties to Russia. He was promoted to the position of director of the Military Products Trade Office of the Military Commission in 1990 and later assumed the job of chief military negotiator for weapons purchases and military cooperation with Russia. He became known as an outspoken critic of the many failings to produce high-quality weaponry at home.

    From the time he joined the army at 19 Cao has been associated with armaments, first with artillery and more recently with missiles and space technology. A native of Henan, he entered the Third Artillery Technical School in Zhengzhou and picked up his Communist Party membership at 20. From there he attended the Russian training School in Dalian.

    After two years of Russian language study, Cao was sent to Moscow’s Artillery Engineering Academy for six years. He returned to China in 1963 after the blowout of the Sino-Soviet alliance, but with a fluency in Russian and with comprehensive knowledge of the Soviet Red Army’s armaments.

    For much of the next 15 years Cao worked in the Ordnance Department of the General Logistics Department. But in 1979 he went to the front lines of the Sino-Vietnamese conflict to help coordinate artillery attacks. His success there despite the debacle of the war for China which exposed its Korean War vintage weapons, Cao got a place at the National Defense University. After a two-year year stint he embarked on the fast track. He was promoted to the rank of full general in March 1998 and shortly thereafter became a full member of the Party’s Military Commission. As a member of the Commission, Cao has overseen the overhaul of the defense industrial complex and has continued to manage the arms trade with Moscow.

    Cao came to the outside world’s attention in 1996 when he replaced Gen. Ding Henggao who came under fire following a series of fiascos, including China's failed attempts to launch satellites. The party's military committee, then as now headed by Jiang Zemin, deemed the armaments command had performed poorly in the field of R&D, forcing the Chinese to acquire Russian SU-27s. Cao had previously been deputy and also assistant boss of the Discipline Committee, which keeps an eye on the army alongside the Military Security Service.

    Cao was also deputy director of a group that assigns covert officers leaving the service to civilian jobs, many of them in PLA-controlled companies, and also selects and trains intelligence agents for overseas duty. What is not known is the extent of Cao's involvement in dealing with American companies during the Clinton Administration - from the major and controversial transfers of missiles and space technology to the Chinese to U.S. military exchanges as part of Washington’s effort to establish a working relationship with Beijing.

    Cao becomes a prominent member of the Military Commission at a time of important changes in the relationship between the Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army. There is a growing demand inside and outside the military for specialization, professionalism and most of all for a concentration on high tech. As the Chinese leaders have set the whole structure of Marxist-Leninist-Maoism aside, ideological instruction of the military cadres has been replaced by military "professionalism." The military, at least in theory, has been removed from internal security operations — although another crisis like Tiananmen might very well call them back to the traditional role of the PLA in times of internal political disruptions.

    There has also been a formal move to establish civilian authority. This has become a necessity since the third generation of Party leaders like Jiang — unlike their forebears — did not have military backgrounds. This trend will be even more pronounced among the fourth generation presumably headed by Hu and his supporters in the bureaucracy.

    Cao epitomizes all these currents. But that does not mean that he is not involved in the high politics of the Party. Such became clear in March 2001 when, according to the official Chinese news agency Xinhua, Jiang sent an unusually warm message of congratulations on the successful return of the Shenzhou spacecraft. Jiang reportedly sent the message in a telephone call to Cao, in his multiple roles as head of the General Armaments Department of the PLA, a member of the Central Military Commission and chief director of the national manned spacecraft program.

    In the spring of 2002 the world learned that the chairman of its national space program is a senior People’s Liberation Army official in charge of the General Armaments Department. This confirmed what many suspected: that Cao also heads the Chinese space program. That certainly will complicate the debate over NASA’s past efforts to foster collaboration with China’s space program.

    As head of the General Armament Department, Cao is in charge of efforts by the PLA to collect and develop weapons technology and systems. His success in pushing his missiles program to the maximum was attested when China recently test-fired a new cruise missile with twice the range U.S. intelligence agencies initially estimated.

    But Cao’s fortunes now seem to be tied to Jiang’s tenure as chairman of the Military Commission. He has reportedly been plagued by ill health and Beijing gossip has it that he has cancer. There is growing evidence that the succession struggle which preceded the 16th Party Congress, which finally did tap Hu as Party general secretary and president, is continuing. Jiang evidently intends to carry on outside the formal arrangements for governing China. That probably means that Cao will be at his elbow and the principle architect of military policy. Washington has for the past year let it be know that it would welcome a visit from Cao so that it could get a better fix on this "solder’s soldier."

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