Xi Jinping Remakes the Military: Domestically Acquiescent, Externally Emboldened

by Tai Ming Cheung

The Expert Briefing is a special column dedicated to publishing the analysis and views of 21st Century China Center scholars on Chinese economy, politics, and society.

A timeless way to peer into the shuttered world of Communist elite politics is to look at leadership line-ups during major parades to see who is up and down. Using this lens to examine the grand military parade on August 1st 2017 celebrating the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) offers a revealing glimpse of the power dynamics at the top.

Presiding over the parade was a combat-clad Xi Jinping. Gathered behind him was the military top brass. There wasn’t a civilian leader in sight. The spectacle was an unmistakable sign of the pre-eminent clout that Xi Jinping has amassed in his five years as commander-in-chief. To add weight to his status, the parading soldiers saluted him as their “chairman”, a change from the past when he was addressed simply as “commander”.

The military show of force occurred as leadership deliberations for the 19th Party Congress were reaching a climax. Xi’s tenure as chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) will be extended for at least another 5 years at the Party meeting, but will there be any steps taken to groom his successor to this position, a pre-requisite for any aspiring paramount leader? If past practice is a guide, the answer is no as Xi was not formally given a CMC position until two years into the second term of his predecessor Hu Jintao.

While the Party congress will offer few clues as to who might eventually replace Xi at the top of the military hierarchy, it will show how he is able to impose his authority and vision on the powerful and insular military and national security establishments. No other Chinese Communist Party leader, not even Mao Zedong, controlled the military to the same extent as Xi does today. Mao had to share power with powerful revolutionary-era generals.

Over the past five years, Xi has carried out sweeping changes that have eluded his predecessors. They range from a far-reaching reorganization of the PLA high command to the largest ever anti-corruption crackdown within the military that has claimed more than 100 generals, including some of the most senior officers. Many of these initiatives, especially the organizational changes, are still being implemented and will take several more years to complete, but Xi declared at the parade that a new military institution is beginning to take shape: ” The people’s army now has a new system, a new structure, a new pattern and a new look. ”

The transformation of the PLA has several features that have significant long-term political and strategic implications for Chinese military and domestic politics and the global security order:

  • Personalization of power: The reorganization of the PLA high command has led to a re-centralization and personalization of command authority to Xi and the CMC. This reverses a steady effort begun under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s to delegate authority to the general staff. Moreover, Xi was not content with simply being CMC Chairman, which primarily deals with politico-military matters, and wanted to assume a more hands-on operational role. This has led to the creation of the new post of commander-in-chief of the PLA Joint Battle Command for Xi.
  • Squeezing the PLA’s autonomy and political influence: When Xi came to power, there were concerns that the PLA was becoming more autonomous and politically influential. He quickly addressed this emerging gap in party-army relations under the guise of a sweeping anti-corruption drive into the top ranks of the military and national security systems that included the removal and imprisonment of the two top military chiefs during Hu’s tenure, Gens. Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong. The PLA Daily admitted in 2016 that the arrests of these officers was because of “their violation of the bottom line of the party’s political discipline, rather than the corruption they committed.”
  • From political control to discipline governance: The long-standing political monitoring and control system that has been the bedrock of the Communist Party’s grip on the PLA has been drastically overhauled. The old system proved unable to prevent rampant corruption from taking root at all levels of the PLA, while the political commissars from the very top echelons were running some of the most blatant racketeering networks. A parallel disciplinary governance system has been established to watch over the commissars and commanders. It is too early to tell how this will impact the PLA’s political reliability and war-fighting readiness, but the reported arrests of Gen. Fang Fenghui, until recently chief of the CMC Joint Staff Department and Gen. Zhang Yang, the former head of the CMC Political Work Department shows that the disciplinary control system is a major new power center in the military establishment.
  • Military service politics: One of the biggest problems standing in the way of the PLA’s aspirations to be a state-of-the-art fighting force was that it was trapped in a 20th century time warp in which the ground forces were in charge and took most of the resources. In an era when the principal security threats facing China are in the maritime, air, cyber, and space domains, this makes little strategic sense. Xi was finally able to overcome this bottleneck in 2016 by downgrading the ground forces grip on power so that it would be at the same rank as the air force, navy, and rocket forces. At the same time, the new organizational paradigm is joint command between the service arms.
  • Making the PLA combat ready: The August 1st military parade was intended to showcase the PLA as ready for war if ordered. Everyone was wearing combat fatigues and the display took place at the PLA’s biggest combat training base at Zhurihe in Inner Mongolia. One of Xi’s priorities as CMC chairman has been to improve the PLA’s combat readiness and war-fighting capabilities, especially to cope with what PLA chiefs see as an increasingly threatening security environment surrounding China, be it the escalating stand-off on the Korean Peninsula or border frictions with India. There is also intensifying military strategic competition with the U.S., maritime power plays in the South and East China Sea, and an uneasy peace across the Taiwan Strait.

Beyond the PLA, Xi has also invested considerable time and effort to build up an expansive national security establishment dealing with domestic stability and any other threats to the Communist Party’s hold on power. A raft of new institutional and regulatory mechanisms and strategies have been established over the past few years, including a national security commission that Xi heads, new national security-related laws, and national security doctrines. This has allowed the national security apparatus to enjoy growing clout across many aspects of policy making, transforming China into a national security state under Xi’s rule.

The expansion of the national security state looks set to continue in Xi’s second term against a backdrop of slowing economic growth, deepening structural societal problems, and a complicated geo-strategic environment. The question that will dominate the next five years is will Xi be willing to relinquish all of this power and authority by the time of the 20th Party Congress in 2022 as his predecessors did?

Other articles in this series:

Beijing’s Game of Thrones: Signaling Loyalty Before the Party Congress

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Tai Ming Cheung

is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS) at UC San Diego and Director of the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC). He is a longtime analyst of and leading expert on Chinese and East Asian defense and national security affairs, especially related to economic, industrial, technology and innovation issues. His book "Fortifying China: The Struggle to Build a Modern Defense Economy" was published in 2009, followed by Forging China's Military Might: A New Framework for Assessing Innovation,  which he edited. He was previously a correspondent at the Far Eastern Economic Review. As director of IGCC, Cheung leads the institute's Study of Technology and Innovation, examining the evolving relationship between technology and national security in China. He also manages the institute's Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue, bringing together senior foreign ministry, defense officials and academics from around the globe.

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Reuters / Dale De La Rey