BEIJING – China's massive military pledged its loyalty to new Communist Party leader Xi Jinping on Friday, while reiterating its mission to follow the party's "absolute leadership" despite scattered calls for it to come under government control.
The men and women of the 2.3 million-member People's Liberation Army also thanked President Hu Jintao and other outgoing leaders for their guidance over the past decade. That was a reflection of the military's happiness with Hu's decision to hand the chairmanship of the party commission that oversees the military to Xi, rather than holding on to it for two years as his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, did.
The "military will absolutely take orders from the party center, the military commission, and commission chairman Xi Jinping," said an editorial in the official People's Liberation Army Daily.
"At any time and under any circumstances, we will take our orders from the party center, the military commission, and commission chairman Xi Jinping, and be absolutely loyal and reliable," it said.
Xi became chairman of the party military commission on Thursday, the same day he took over as party leader from Hu, who will retain the title of state president until next spring, when he will hand it over to Xi.
Xi, who currently holds the title of vice president, paid tribute to Hu and other outgoing leaders himself on Thursday, thanking them for "leading all the people of the nation in unity and achieving glorious achievements acclaimed by all the world."
Hu's decision to step down from the military commission surprised many, and won plaudits from the military, which had in the past expressed concerns about divided leadership.
Hu's relinquishing of the post completes only the second smooth transfer of power in party history, underscoring the party's hopes of institutionalizing its often obscure and secretive workings and spurring reforms to allow greater participation in decision making by rank-and-file members.
"I think this has a huge significance," said Zhao Chu, a Shanghai-based scholar who specializes in military issues. "It breaks away from the tradition. It will allow better coordination between the party and the military."
The handover of power comes as the military is rapidly modernizing with the help of double-digit annual percentage increases in the defense budget and major technical advances, including the development of two prototype stealth fighters and the launch of the country's first aircraft carrier. China claims those are purely for defense, although they are seen by its neighbors as adding bite to its territorial claims off its east coast and in the South China Sea.
Reform-minded intellectuals and some outspoken officers have urged the People's Liberation Army to transfer its ultimate loyalty to the state, rather than the party, saying that would help professionalize the armed forces. In response, party leaders and state-controlled media have repeatedly derided the notion as mistaken and dangerous and reiterated the axiom that "the party controls the gun."
Associated Press writer Didi Tang contributed to this report.