China's military comes to terms with its past
By Alexander Casella

While the leaders of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) have always put considerable stress on the need to ensure that its troops be properly motivated, communicating with the outside world has never been of particular concern to them. But this has changed. China's Ministry of Defense has now set up a website in English with the obvious purpose of presenting to the international community a more comprehensive and positive image of its past.

Granted, this is not the first attempt by China's military to have an international communications presence; in March 2003, the PLA daily went online with an English-language edition. This, however, could be perceived as an endeavor by a newspaper and not by the Ministry of Defense as such. Then, in August 2009, the ministry followed suit with its own website and while there is a considerable communality regarding the information carried by the two websites the fact that one is published by the ministry in its own name is indicative of China's concern for greater international transparency - if only in form.

The new website has not done away with China's penchant for secrecy. Providing information on troop deployments, military regions, weapon systems, the precise hierarchy of grades or even salaries and terms of service for the troops is not what the website is about. Rather, the emphasis is on official speeches, new parade uniforms, press releases and China's peacekeeping activities for the United Nations. But if shedding light on the present is not the website's forte the same cannot be said about the past.

When clicking on a lonely "Special Reports" icon, one is brought to a chapter of China's military history that for decades was shrouded in awkward silence. There, resplendent in their Soviet-style uniforms, are the neatly aligned pictures of the "Ten Marshals".

In September 1955, ranks with the corresponding insignia were introduced in China's PLA which, until then, only had functions such as company commander, platoon commander, division commander and the like. The introduction of ranks not only reflected a trend towards a greater professionalization of the PLA but also by following the Soviet system of grades further underlined the close relations between Moscow and Beijing.

Among the hundreds of newly promoted general officers, 10 stood out at the apex of the hierarchy - the Ten Marshals. These were all military commanders who had performed outstandingly during the war against Japan and against the Kuomintang and whose credentials as military strategists were unquestionable. All were also committed communists and respected figures within the party, where they carried considerable weight. But over the following years few survived Chairman Mao Zedong's quest for absolute power.

Zhu Deh, the senior and oldest of the lot, drifted into oblivion during the Cultural Revolution. Peng Dehuai, the second highest ranking marshal who had dared openly criticize Mao at the 1959 Lushan Plenum for the failure of the Great Leap Forward, was forced to resign as defense minister, put under house arrest, tortured by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution and died in December 1969. His successor Lin Biao reportedly died in an air accident after he tried to kill Mao in September 1971.

Of the remaining seven marshals only two, though sidelined, outlasted Mao without falling in complete disgrace; Yeh Jiangying never commanded a sizable number of troops and was therefore no threat to the Chairman. Though marginalized he still commanded some loyalty within the army which enabled him to play a major role in the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976.

As for Yang Shangkun, through also not a direct threat, he was considered by Mao as ideologically too soft and was given only minor functions that enabled him to survive the Cultural Revolution. But his name, among the military, still carried some weight and in 1988 he was made China's figurehead president.

With the onset of the Cultural Revolution, which also saw the abolishing of the military ranks set up in 1955, the Ten Marshals were air-brushed from China's history and while Lin Biao survived till 1971 it was only as Mao's "close comrade in arms" and not as a former military leader in his own right.

For some 30 years, the Ten Marshals vanished from history only to be slowly rehabilitated as the Chinese army inched closer to the model many had advocated - namely a more professional force, which, were it only for organizational reasons, could not dispense with ranks.

But the rehabilitation of the Ten Marshals goes beyond the meanderings of Chinese domestic policy. In the ruthless world of Stalin and Mao, political leaders were dehumanized into caricatures depicting them as either absolutely good or irremediably bad.

Thirty-three years after the death of Mao, disagreeing with the chairman no longer makes one automatically a bad communist or an incompetent military leader and the fact that all the Ten Marshals had, at one point or another, disagreed with Mao does not relegate them to the pits of Chinese history. Indeed, all of them had been outstanding military leaders and that fact alone should guarantee them a standing in Chinese history.

Ultimately, by not so much by rehabilitating the Ten Marshals but simply acknowledging their rightful place in history, the current regime in China merely took a leaf out of Mao's book, albeit one that he rarely practiced: seek truth from facts.