Xi shores up power with demand for army obedience and foreign respect

President warns that China will not ‘swallow bitter fruit’ of threats to sovereignty, while telling military: ‘The Communist party commands the gun’.

President Xi Jinping has vowed China will never “swallow the bitter fruit” of foreign meddling or invasion, in his latest move to assert his authority ahead of a key political summit marking the end of his first five-year term.

In a 50-minute speech at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, the Mao era arena of Communist party rule, Xi told members of the military their calling was not as an aggressive or expansionist force.

“The Chinese people love peace … but we have the confidence to defeat all invasions. We will never allow any people, organisation or political party to split any part of Chinese territory out of the country at any time, in any form,” Xi said to loud applause.

“No one should expect us to swallow the bitter fruit that is harmful to our sovereignty, security or development interests.”

The speech, marking the 90th birthday of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), was Xi’s second major address of the week, following a televised appearance at a spectacular military parade on Sunday.

At that event China’s 64-year-old leader ordered his country’s army of two million to “unswervingly follow the absolute leadership of the Communist party of China” and to march “wherever the party points”.

Xi revisited the theme on Tuesday morning, repeatedly demanding his troops’ allegiance: “That the People’s Liberation Army has been able to move from victory to victory shows the power of the Chinese Communist party. As comrade Mao Zedong once pointed out: ‘Our principle is that the party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the party.’”

“History shows us that the party should always command the military. It is a fundamental safeguard that the party has drawn from battles of blood and fire.”

Later in the speech Xi renewed his call for unquestioning fealty: “Our army will remain the army of the party and the people. The army should increase its political awareness … be consistent with the Chinese Communist party’s central committee in thought and deed … and carry forwards and implement the party’s absolute leadership,” he said.

“On this important principle we must be clear, with firm attitudes and resolute actions. There should be no doubt, hesitation or ambiguity about this.”

Observers say Xi’s emphatic calls for obedience are part of a push to shore up his political position ahead of the 19th Communist party congress this autumn.

“What he is saying, technically, is nothing new. The PLA has always been the military wing of the Communist party,” said Steve Tsang, the head of the Soas China Institute.

“But it is blatantly obvious to everybody within the party that this emphasis on loyalty to the party – which doesn’t need to be emphasised since it has always been the case – is sending a message that he now has the military fully under his control and that they are loyal to the leadership, of which he is the core.”

“It’s a signal to the rest of the establishment: ‘I’m building up momentum … there is no reason for anyone to get hurt. Just be good party members and support your leadership.’”

Xi became the Communist party’s general secretary at the last party congress, in November 2012, and has since positioned himself as one of China’s most dominant rulers since the party seized power in 1949.

China’s leader has used a sweeping anti-corruption purge to get rid of key rivals, including some of the most senior members of the PLA. His most recent scalp was the Chongqing party chief Sun Zhengcai whom many had seen as a possible successor Xi himself.

Experts and western diplomats believe Xi is successfully cementing his place at the top of Chinese politics but say his push for omnipotence brings danger.

“Remember, Xi Jinping himself has identified five top leaders who engaged in anti-party activity [on the eve of his taking office],” said Susan Shirk, a leading expert in elite Chinese politics from the University of California, San Diego.

“We don’t know who was cooperating with whom. We don’t really know how many separate plots there were. But he has publicly identified that risk.

“He thinks that by consolidating more power for himself he is reducing that risk,” Shirk added. “I think he is increasing the risk.”

Cheng Li, the author of Chinese Politics in the Xi Jinping Era, said he believed the Communist party chief would manage to “significantly consolidate his power” at the autumn summit. “But I don’t think Xi Jinping can completely monopolise power. He needs to make some compromises in certain areas. We [just] do not know which areas these will be.

“A lot of complex deal-making will be made – outside people can only guess.”