Much has been made of the flurry of announcements in recent months by Xi Jinping—China’s president, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC)—signaling major structural reforms to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), scheduled for completion by 2020. Veteran China watchers have diligently catalogued what is known and unknown at this point from authoritative pronouncements, and what is speculated on the basis of unofficial sources. Observers, for example, have paid especially close attention to Xi’s establishment of the PLA Strategic Support Force and ruminated over its stature in the PLA vis-à-vis the services, as well as its precise role and mission. Analysts have also pondered questions such as the future membership of the CMC and how cooperative the traditionally army-dominated top levels of the PLA’s leadership will become under the reforms.
While understanding the details of Xi’s reforms is critical to assessing the direction of PLA modernization going forward, it is also necessary to consider the broader implications of Xi’s apparent relationship with the military. Many observers have stated the obvious: Xi is as “large and in charge” in military circles as he is in Chinese politics generally. This is true, but his control over the PLA deserves more attention than it has received. That is the subject of this article. We argue that Xi is reviving Maoist-style tactics—including purges of corrupt officers, forced public displays of respect for Mao and support of Maoist thinking, and a formidable internal monitoring system—to ensure his personal dominance over the military. Xi’s leadership style vis-à-vis the military will have profound implications for civilian-military relations in China.
Purging the Military
When Xi assumed power in November 2012, he vowed to fight both “tigers” and “flies”—a reference to taking on corrupt leaders as well as lower-level bureaucrats engaged in corrupt practices throughout the Chinese system. The PLA would be no exception.
The first warning shot was aimed toward the tigers. In 2014, Xi arrested a former CMC vice chairman, Xu Caihou, for participating in a “cash for ranks” scheme. After expelling Xu from the party , Xi followed up in 2015 with the arrest and purging of another former CMC vice chairman, Guo Boxiong, on similar charges. The arrests were unprecedented in that Xu and Guo were the two highest-ranking officers in China’s military when they served as CMC vice chairmen, and their arrests marked the first time the PLA’s highest-level retired officers faced corruption charges. As of early March 2016, Xi’s anticorruption campaign had resulted in the arrest of at least forty-four senior military officers, although the actual numbers could be higher.
Xi did not forget about the flies, either. At least sixteen lower-level military officers are facing punishment for corruption charges as well. The military anticorruption drive is part of a much broader dragnet: all told, nearly 1,600 individuals throughout China’s government are either under investigation for corruption, or have been arrested, purged or sentenced since Xi came to power.
The only other PRC leader that resorted to purges at such a high level—and so routinely—was Mao. After the establishment of the PRC in 1949, there were at least four major purges; two of these episodes involved military leaders. Mao first purged his defense minister Peng Dehuai in 1959 for questioning the disastrous Great Leap Forward. Peng’s purge was more about leadership politics than it was a struggle between Mao and the PLA, but Peng was also known as an advocate of Soviet-style military modernization and professionalization, which Mao believed ran contrary to his own emphasis on political indoctrination. Mao’s second purge of the PLA occurred in 1971, against the lieutenants of Peng’s replacement Lin Biao, who was widely viewed as Mao’s heir apparent during the tumultuous years of Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Although historical accounts differ on the details, it appears that Mao suspected Lin was involved in plotting a coup against him, perhaps impatient to replace the “Great Helmsman” as China’s supreme leader. Whatever Lin’s knowledge or involvement, he suffered the consequences when he died in a plane crash as he was supposedly fleeing China en route to the Soviet Union. A substantial number of Lin’s supporters were reportedly purged following his mysterious death.
According to one recent assessment, Xi’s anticorruption campaign represents the largest systematic purge since Lin’s death and, according to new analysis from noted China scholar David Shambaugh, the largest in PRC history. Xi’s immediate predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, both used such purges sparingly. More to the point, neither Hu nor Jiang ever used them against the PLA in so daring a manner, probably because neither had the stature among top brass to do so. Even Deng Xiaoping, who like Mao was a paramount leader himself, never technically purged the PLA in the way Xi has done. It is often said that Deng “purged” fellow communist revolutionaries General Yang Shangkun and General Yang Baibing (the “Yang brothers”) after suspicions that they were trying to depose Jiang Zemin, who was then Communist Party general secretary. Deng forced Yang Shangkun to retire, and sidelined Yang Baibing by removing him from the CMC, in effect ending their influence over the PLA. But it is important to note that neither was arrested or expelled (i.e. purged) from the party. In fact, in the case of Yang Shangkun, he retained ceremonial honors until his death.