Tuesday, 4 August 2009


China's military machine launches website

The Times
July 31, 2009

Eighty-two years ago tomorrow, the world's largest army was founded in a country whose then-ascendant Communist leaders, once in power, kept the doors tight shut against outsiders until the late 1970s.

Now, 60 years after the founding of the People's Republic and 30 after the country opened up, China's Ministry of National Defence has launched its first website in Beijing's latest effort to draw back the curtain of the secrecy shrouding the 2.3 million-strong People's Liberation Army.

The site (http://www.chinamil.com.cn/) - like its PLA predecessor at the same address - is in both Chinese and English (http://eng.chinamil.com.cn/). A ministry spokesman, Hu Changming, said recently that the site was "a way to increase understanding between countries and raise trust between militaries".

As China's military budget has grown by double digits in recent years, so too have concerns among its neighbours and potential rivals. China's spending of $70 billion, though dwarfed by the Pentagon's $500 billion annual allocation, is on a par with spending by Britain, Japan and Russia.

A military analyst, Song Xiaojun, says the site will offer more detail on that spending and on general defence policy.

"The Defence Ministry is a special organisation. In principle it should be in the system of the State Council," said Song, referring to China's cabinet. "In fact, it is more like a window of the army toward the outside world. The current chinamil site is mainly about life in the army. It doesn't have much on the policy level."

Song explains that for centuries China was inward-facing. Now, as the world's third-largest economy, the country is playing catch-up as it grows more dependent on imported resources such as oil and the iron ore needed to fuel its steel industry, the biggest in the world.

Last winter, China's navy, officially part of the PLA, sent a rare force to protect Chinese merchant vessels against Somali pirates in the Red Sea.

"China only became an oil-import country in 1992. Large amounts of raw material imports happened after 2002. By then, China's interest in development was far ahead of China's interest in security," Song said. "China is now recuperating its debts on the state's basic security. As China does so, other countries start feeling that China is developing its army too fast."

Ever since the military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing in June 1989, green uniformed soldiers have been omnipresent in China, from Beijing's crowded streets to the dirt roads of the provinces.

With no wars to fight, the PLA has devoted itself to rescue efforts after natural disasters, such as the Sichuan earthquake last May, which killed 80,000 people. Soldiers helping quake victims were lionized in the state-controlled media.

But recent ethnic unrest in west China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and ongoing tensions between Beijing and self-ruled Taiwan mean China's military also remains on high-alert at home.

In keeping with Beijing's desire to control all information--both internal and international--about the image of the Communist Party, the new military web site already presents one face in Chinese and another one in English.

Chinese site headlines are uniformly mundane, such as "Jiaoliu Train Line Derailed, Soldiers Perform Urgent Rescue," whereas the site's English avatar features items such as "U.S. May OK High-tech Exports to China."


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