The scene looked like Beijing’s version of Mumbai’s Nariman House siege last November. Chinese counter-terrorism commandoes stormed a three-storey building while explosions covered the white structure in smoke. After a brief battle the ‘terrorists’ were silenced.
The battle was staged this week for foreign journalists invited inside barracks of a division of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The PLA, which has grown from its origins as a peasant army in 1927 to becoming a sophisticated 2.3 million-strong military force, is the world's biggest army.
The PLA, feared because of its secrecy and double-digit budget budget, is now experimenting with an open image. On the PLA’s 82nd anniversary on August 1, the defence ministry will launch its first official website ---Chinese analysts call it a ‘leap forward’.
The opaqueness of Beijing's military system has attracted criticism from many countries. The former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld became famous for repeated public demands that China explain why its defence budget was growing at such a fast pace.
India’s defence ministry has recently called for ‘greater transparency’ and monitoring of China’s defence policy and China’s $70 billion military budget for 2009. India is the world’s third-largest military force after the US, with a defence budget less than half the size of China’s. But while India's defence budget has remained largely static in budget terms, China's has grown 15 per cent from the previous year.
The two neighbours share one of the world’s longest disputed borders and there is growing concern in New Delhi about reported Chinese transgressions in Sikkim. China is also strategically inching closer to remote and rugged Indian borders with a modern transport network including a planned China-Pakistan railway.
“We will speed up our opening process,’’ senior colonel Leng Jiesong of the Third Guard Division told the media. “China is more open to the outside world and so is the PLA.’’
On the October 1, 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, the PLA will march down Beijing’s main east-west avenue in its first military parade since 1999. The government-run Chinese media has said that the parade will be the biggest-ever and include ‘new weapons.’
But as the US, India, Japan and self-ruled Taiwan worry about China’s military modernisation and plans to build an aircraft carrier, the PLA’s image-makeover is focussed on counter-terror operations.
“We are learning from terror incidents the world over,’’ senior colonel Li Shao Jun told the Hindustan Times. “The Mumbai terror attack was also a lesson for us. We can mobilise our counter-terrorism group very fast.’’
The rare media visit included a stroll through spartan dormitories with bunk beds, a dining-hall where dumplings were placed beside cupcakes and front-row seats as soldiers blasted targets on a mountainside.
"The degree of openness is an expression of national confidence,” Ma Zhengang, president of the China Institute of International Studies, told Reuters. “A rich household is willing to welcome guests, but a poor family would be embarrassed.”
“Now you can talk to the soldiers!’’ the media was instructed after the marksmanship.
“It’s a glorious career,’’ Captain Luo Ying, 26, the only girl from southwest Sichuan province to enlist in the Nanjing military academy in 2001, told the newspaper. “My parents are workers. Now I can release the family’s burden”.
A drizzle ended the military’s open day. On October 1, Chinese weather modifying scientists will ensure that Beijing’s sky doesn’t open up as well.