Can the PLA ever become a modernized military?

The People's Liberation Army of China (PLA) is not on the right development trajectory. With more burdens on its shoulders, especially after the 1989 Tiananmen Square, the PLA can no longer be fully attentive towards achieving the goal of military modernization.

The PLA's onerous responsibilities date back to 1949, the year that marks the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) overwhelming victory over the Chinese Nationalist Party. Since then, PLA started to have two duties. The first one, understandably, was to safeguard the security of the country by fighting against external enemies.

The second and also implicit one, was to implement internal security missions and to guarantee the CCP's rule. In 2004, Hu Jintao placed his personal stamp on the PLA's internal security mission in his Historic Missions for Our Military in the New Period and the New Century.  He urged the PLA to provide an important guarantee of power for the Party to stabilize its hold on governance  so that the socialist red rivers and mountains will forever not change their color.  The latest official statement can be found in China's Military Strategy released by the Ministry of National Defense in 2015, the third year Xi Jinping took charge over Zhongnanhai. The document required armed forces to strengthen efforts in operations against infiltration, separatism and terrorism so as to maintain China's political security and social stability. 

The missions the PLA needs to implement are aimed at eliminating the domestic threats that may significantly shake social tranquility. They also aim to prevent movements which challenge the CCP's authority and its hold on power, like the campaign against the Falungong and the pacification of the Siege of Wukan in 2011. As soon as these internal security issues break out, the PLA will enter the fray. As a result, unlike other countries' armed forces who only carry out their first duty, the PLA cannot bend its mind to the military modernization, given the fact that it has an extra burdensome responsibility.

Nowadays, it is more and more obvious that the CCP is strengthening its control over the PLA to help defend from within. 

Nowadays, it is more and more obvious that the CCP is strengthening its control over the PLA to help defend from within.  The Party's determination to have a dependable military force originates from the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protest.

The Chinese leadership learnt its lesson from the severe discipline problem that had existed in the PLA during the crisis. Some senior officers and political commissars were reluctant to obey the orders given by the Central Military Commission (CMC). Before the bloodiest crackdown, seven retired senior PLA generals addressed the CMC not to use force. Perhaps the most urgent situation was the commander of the 38th group army Xu Qinxian's refusal to carry out the order of mobilizing his army from Baoding, Hebei Province to Beijing. Xu was the representative of the dissenting voice in the military.

Tiananmen Square was a chance for the CCP to check the military's loyalty, but from the central leadership's perspective, the result was disappointing. How can an unconstrained army guarantee the Party's regime in China? Consequently, many efforts have been made to strengthen the Party's control over PLA, which continue even today.

Deng Xiaoping's successor Jiang Zemin kicked General Liu Huaqing out of the Politburo Standing Committee so that military figures could not build their powerbases in the central leadership, while Hu Jintao continued preventing military rivals from emerging in the Standing Committee.

China's current leader Xi Jinping is a harsher enforcer. Former CMC Vice-Chairmen and Politburo members Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong were two large tigers  hunted by Xi during his military anti-corruption campaign. He has also put the Audit Office of PLA directly under CMC. Last year, Xi used the 85th anniversary of 1929 Gutian Conference to host the second Gutian meeting on PLA political work. The goal was to reinforce ideological commitment to the Party leadership over the military.

The intensifying ideological indoctrination is the PLA's third burden. The Party perceives that only through the consistent political education can the PLA become the CCP's reliable last resort when severe internal security issues suddenly happen.

However, if the scope of the definition of internal security issue is extended, the PLA's responsibility will become increasingly bulky. In fact, many paramilitary or even non-military issues that may affect national well-being, the CCP's party image and Chinese people's trust in the Party can all be comprehended as internal security issues. Civilian rescuing after the natural disasters is a suitable instance. In the wake of horrible catastrophes, like the 1998 Yangtze River Flood, the 2008 Chinese Winter Storms and the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake, the PLA was immediately sent to the sites to save civilians because it was the only well-trained elite unit in China. Thus, the PLA has its fourth duty.

Always bearing four ponderous duties, the PLA cannot focus on military modernization, and thus the full achievement of this goal is unlikely in the near future.

It is therefore clear that the PLA now faces a dilemma. PLA needs to prepare for informationalized  warfare, all while the CCP expects it to conduct both the narrowly-defined internal security mission (eliminate social instability and ensure CCP's authority) and the broadly-defined one (military operations other than war). Always bearing four ponderous duties, the PLA cannot focus on military modernization, and thus the full achievement of this goal is unlikely in the near future.

The following two tabs change content below.

Chutian Zhou

Chutian Zhou has a multidisciplinary background in journalism, finance, political science, and data science. He graduated from the School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS), UC San Diego in 2017, and later obtained his second Master’s degree from Columbia University with a focus on quantitative social science. His thesis examines non-violent tactics used by the Chinese leader to pre-empt domestic political challenges. At GPS, Chutian's interests lie in Chinese elite politics, cross-strait relations, and methodology. He is now based in New York working as a data analyst.

Start typing and press Enter to search