Tiananmen: Could It Happen Again?

June 2, 2014 Topic: Domestic Politics Region: China

Tiananmen: Could It Happen Again?

Today, like a quarter century ago, discontent is growing in China. Could history repeat itself? 

And in an even more disturbing sign of the times, the country’s resurgent “leftists” that year publicly called on the army to intervene in the nation’s politics.

Today, Xi Jinping, who once served as a secretary to a minister of defense, depends on the PLA for support. China watchers talk about him heading the “Princelings” faction, but that is misleading. The term describes children of the elite. These offspring have views spanning the political spectrum and do not form a cohesive group.

Xi became China’s supreme leader because he appealed to all factions, in large part because he had no faction. And because he still heads no identifiable faction, he cannot afford to offend the flag officers. The announcement this March of a 12.2 percent increase in the budget of the People’s Liberation Army—a figure well in excess of the actual rate of growth of gross domestic product—suggests generals and admirals have outsized influence in Beijing.

The dominant narrative among analysts is that Xi rapidly gained control over the military after he became Party general secretary in November 2012. That assessment might be wrong in crucial respects, however. For one thing, the so-called “corruption” purges in the PLA could be a sign of disunity, not consolidation, as they have generally been interpreted to be.

Especially troubling are recent loyalty oaths of senior flag officers. The People’s Liberation Army Daily on April 17 published two full pages of speeches by seventeen generals pledging allegiance to Xi’s policies, essentially a sign of allegiance to Xi personally. It was the third such campaign by the military’s top paper in six weeks: on March 7 and April 2 another thirty-six senior officers made similar pledges. “I think Xi is facing dogged defiance from the top echelons in both the army and government amid his sweeping anticorruption campaign, which has forced him to manage so many study meetings for high-level military and government officials to learn his philosophy,” said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based PLA analyst, to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. The paper describes the atmosphere within the ranks, due to Xi’s anticorruption initiatives, as “precarious.”

Turbulence in senior ranks is mirrored by turbulence in society. In society, people in recent years have taken to the streets in larger numbers, with increasing frequency, showing growing defiance and anger. Most Chinese, it appears, no longer believe that a one-party state is appropriate for their modernizing nation. What maintains political order these days is coercion, not a shared sense of the Party’s legitimacy.

In these circumstances, the Party’s continued rule depends even more on the loyalty of its soldiers and their willingness to use force against Chinese citizens. Will today’s officers heed a call for another slaughter to defend the Communist Party? Party leaders maintain that the PLA is not a national military. It is, in their view, the Party’s. In fact, China’s officers report to a Communist Party organ, the Central Military Commission, making the PLA, at least in form, a private army. Many of China’s officers, however, reject that notion, seeing themselves as part of a professional military that defends their country, China, not its ruling organization, the Communist Party.

So the military is changing along with society; both are, in their own ways, becoming modern and assertive. Today, in the complex bargaining process taking place in Beijing, Xi Jinping may learn that the People’s Liberation Army, which knows it has made and broken Party leaders over the course of decades, now answers only to itself.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.

Image: Flickr/momo/CC by 2.0