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Why war is reviving spirit of Mao

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam, CNN Senior China Analyst

Two key legacies of Mao may reassert their influence on Chinese policy.
Two key legacies of Mao may reassert their influence on Chinese policy.

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BEIJING, China (CNN) -- "Saddam Hussein is a good student of Mao Zedong's," so goes a popular saying in Beijing.

The Maoist angle of the war -- that Iraqi forces have done much better than expected thanks in part to the late Chinese leader's military doctrines -- could have a sizeable impact on the development of the Chinese Army as well as Sino-U.S. relations.

As Chinese are glued to their TV sets the past fortnight, Mao's defense-related theories such as "people's warfare" and "sustained warfare" have made a surprising comeback.

A web enthusiast said in a posting on the chat-room: "The best gift that the Chinese people can send to the Iraqis is 'Quotations from Chairman Mao'."

And as a military commentator on the site noted, "Saddam should come to China and say thank you at the Mao Zedong Mausoleum."

Song Xiaojun, a military scholar and frequent TV commentator said there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein had studied -- or asked Iraqis to follow -- Mao's edicts.

However, Song pointed out there were similarities between Mao's teachings about "whole-people warfare" and the way the Iraq people had quite spontaneously used different strategies including guerrilla tactics and suicide raids to counter "U.S. invaders."

Other analysts have dug into Mao's classic texts to explain why the allied forces have been bogged down by Iraqi militiamen and citizen-turned-fighters on their way to Baghdad.

People's warfare means, in essence, turning ordinary people into soldiers, who will be particularly effective in inner-city and street combat, a prospect awaiting American forces in the Iraqi capital.

Mao also noted that crafty use of people's and guerrilla warfare could enable a militarily backward -- but politically motivated -- country to win over a much stronger power.

Possible theoretical cross-fertilizations aside, Mao has also been celebrated the past fortnight for two reasons: his championship of high-tech weapons and his defiance of American supremacy.

And it is these two legacies that may exert a significant influence on Chinese policy.

The former Red Army supremo made history in the mid-1950s when he insisted that China pull out the stops to develop the "two bombs and one star," a reference to the atomic and hydrogen bombs and putting a satellite in orbit.

Mao also decided to give top priority to fostering heavy -- particularly defense-related -- industry.

Mao's single-minded focus on defense modernization aroused intense opposition because China was then going through an economic depression and prolonged famine.

The Iraq war is prompting calls for greater funding for the PLA.
The Iraq war is prompting calls for greater funding for the PLA.

However, the importance of a high-tech arsenal in modern combat, which has been demonstrated so dramatically since the 1991 Gulf War, seems to have vindicated Mao's military thoughts.

It is true that during current Iraqi war, military analysts on Chinese TV have made fun of how America's sophisticated weapons including the Tomahawk missiles have often missed their mark.

And several newspapers and websites have run a cartoon featuring an Apache helicopter being shot down by a couple of Iraqi peasants using bows and arrows.

However, as with the Gulf War, the Allied Forces' stunning display of firepower since late last month is being cited by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) -- and nationalistic elements in Chinese society -- to raise the budget for procurement of hardware.

At the recent National People's Congress, the PLA was awarded a budget increase of 9.6 percent, eight percentage points lower than comparative figures for 2002 and 2001.

According to intellectual circles in Beijing, a group of scholars from think tanks such as the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) is planning to petition the Communist party and government for a bigger boost in defense spending.

Moreover, the war could postpone or limit a large-scale demobilization planned for the upcoming three to four years.

Earlier this year, the Central Military Commission decided in principle to lop off up to half a million PLA staff, mostly from units including the infantry and academies.


The Iraq war, however, has demonstrated that ground forces are every bit as important as the Air Force and missile units, which are PLA departments that have enjoyed hefty expansion in recent years.

And will a revived interest in Mao's hard-line approach toward "American imperialism" play a role in Sino-U.S. relations?

As far as relations with the U.S. are concerned, Beijing is at least temporarily heaving a sigh of relief.

With forces apparently overextended in Iraq -- and with anti-war voices rising in the U.S. and Europe -- Washington seems less prone for the time being to target other rogue regimes with weapons of mass destruction.

It has become less likely that Washington will take on North Korea this year, a scenario that will plunge Sino-U.S. relations into crisis.

Overall, Beijing has continued to maintain a relatively low-profile stance in the Iraq war.

Thus while Foreign Ministry officials have criticized the U.S. for "trampling upon international law," they, as well as Chinese TV commentators, have not characterized the Iraqi campaign as an invasion.


Last Sunday, Beijing forbade a group of nationalist intellectuals from holding anti-war demonstrations, apparently for fear that anti-U.S. sentiments may spread through the nation.

There can be little doubt, however, that U.S.President George W. Bush's determination to crush Saddam Hussein's regime no matter how long it takes has alerted Beijing to the necessity of crafting a long-term strategy to counter U.S. "hegemonism."

As veteran military analyst Yu Guohua pointed out last weekend, "the goal of the U.S. is to be master of the world."

CASS economist Zuo Dapei, who has championed against China's accession to the World Trade Organization, said the Iraqi war had been an eye-opener particularly to Chinese who still harbored illusions about American democracy.

"The Iraqi people have taught Chinese the imperative of maintaining national dignity and sovereignty," Zuo said.

"The war has demonstrated America's efforts at world domination -- and the importance of China's ability to maintain its independence and defense capabilities."

Given the apparent swing of popular opinion against U.S. "neo-imperialism," the new administration of President Hu Jintao is facing formidable pressure to adopt tougher tactics against a country that was not too long ago considered China's "constructive, strategic partner."

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