Show of strength as China marks anniversary of world's biggest army

Clifford Coonan
London Independent
Wednesday July 18, 2007

Our Troops toward the Sun, an exhibition which opened yesterday, allows visitors to drive a tank, see Chairman Mao Zedong's punch-bag or check out a model of a hydrogen bomb. They can even examine in detail the new uniforms of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

This year is the 80th anniversary of the foundation of the PLA, the world's biggest military force, and China is celebrating the occasion with a stirring exhibition. Day one was packed with visitors, including children getting to grips with anti-aircraft guns and dozens of people queuing to fire a warship's gun.

The PLA has 2.3 million soldiers, 800,000 reservists and a People's Armed Police of 1.5 million. Since its foundation, it has been transformed from a group of guerrillas into a powerful military machine.

A surprise inclusion in the exhibition is Lin Biao, a defence minister who helped defeat Japanese invaders, routed Nationalist troops in China's civil war during the 1930s and 1940s and commanded Chinese forces in the Korean War. He is honoured as one of the "Ten Marshals" who founded the PLA, although he died a traitor in a mysterious plane crash after apparently plotting to assassinate Mao Zedong, the Communist leader.

"With objective thinking, we decided to put the picture of Lin Biao together with the other nine marshals," said Jiang Tingyu, a researcher. "We have to show history as it was."

A prominent diorama showed a beach invasion, with Taiwan in mind. The island is the focus of Beijing's military development, which mainland China has said it would attack if the self-ruled island state tried tried to declare independence. The exhibition says China's armed forces "make a valuable contribution to world peace", a view at variance with a Pentagon reportthis year which said the growth of the Chinese military could increase tension in Asia.

At the National People's Congress in March, China said it would boost defence spending by 17.8 per cent, to £22bn, this year, though the US says the figure could reach £63bn. Washington spends £244bn a year on its military, not including Iraq and Afghanistan.

The green hats in the new PLA uniform no longer incorporate a red band. Critics say it should have remained as a symbol of the Communist Party.

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