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Red Army's glory fades

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PAUSING with one foot on Luding Bridge, Li Guangshan praises his comrades in China's communist revolution who made the bucking footbridge a symbol of rebel valor. Red Army commandos crawled on the bridge's frame of iron chains, across the roiling Dadu River, toward enemy machine-gun fire in a 1935 assault.

``The attack was so thrilling and inspiring - we really admired the bravery of the Red Army,'' Mr. Li said above the roar of river rapids 50 feet below.

The battle roused Li and other peasants as much as the storming of the Bastille and the bitter winter at Valley Forge steeled rebels in France and America. For decades after the revolution, the Army invoked similar legendary heroics from the 6,000-mile ``Long March'' to maintain its power, surpassed in China only by the Communist Party.

But today, soldiers like Li can no longer rely on combat lore like the Luding battle to sustain their prestige in the torrential change in Chinese social values.

The power and esteem of the military have waned during the 10 years of economic reform. Its fallen status is in part a casualty of peace: China faces fewer military threats from outside than ever before, particularly since it began improving ties with the Soviet Union.

But the Army is also the victim of the internal shift of values and political priorities since 1978, when senior leader Deng Xiaoping subordinated Marxist dogma and revolutionary ardor to his drive to build the economy.

Mr. Deng has cut the military's share of revenue and directed funding to the more productive sectors of industry and technology. He has made the military defer to civilian control, trying to ensure that it no longer uses its power arbitrarily, as in periods since the revolution.

The decline in the military's reputation and influence means that soldiers and veterans like Li can no longer revel in public admiration.

``People aren't as impressed with soldiers as they used to be,'' said Li, a retired deputy battalion commander. In 1945 he slogged out of a paddy field in Henan Province with other teen-age peasants and quit a village militia to join the communist Army.

``When I was young, everyone thought people in the Red Army were supermen,'' he said.


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