Since the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) started undergoing an unprecedented restructuring effort in 2015-2016 after years of carefully outlined modernization plans, the intent, significance, and implications of these military reforms have been continually debated. As one of the most vital organs of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the PLA’s changing political dynamics in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is an inexorable theme in the run-up to the CCP’s 20thNational Congress.
Notably, the PLA is not a national army under the control of the state but an armed wing of the CCP under the control of the Central Military Commission (CMC), which is currently headed by the CMC chairman and PRC president Xi Jinping. Hence, the question of loyalty (a quintessential theme in Xi’s speeches) amid Xi’s strengthening control over the military, which comes courtesy of the PLA’s restructuring and upcoming leadership changes in the CCP central committee, has become an integral aspect of the current governance debate.
In the current unstable global and domestic scenario, the fallout from the Russo-Ukrainian War, a new Taiwan crisis in August, as well as domestic economic and political unrest have prevented Xi from exercising unadulterated control of the party. However, it has not weakened his nearly decade-in-the-making hold over the CCP and PLA. In this scenario, what does the future hold for China’s current civil-military discourse?
“Collective Leadership” to Personalistic Control
Given that Xi is set to gain a historic third term as the CCP general secretary amid an expected leadership reshuffle after the 20th National Congress, one key contention is whether the latest military reorganization (which has been ongoing since the plenary session of the CCP central committee formally decided to undertake massive military modernization reforms in November 2013) is making way for the PLA to cede its traditional CCP allegiance to Xi, the commander-in-chief. This is not a new debate; since Xi’s first term, the popularization of the phrase “CMC Chairman Responsibility System” highlighted that the ultimate authority on military affairs now lies with Xi, marking a shift away from the “collective leadership” template of his predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin.
The low-key military outreach was especially evident during Hu’s term, which was focused on pursuing the political and military institutionalization processes that began during the Deng era and solidifying Hu’s political leadership in the party. In contrast to the current discourse, this highlights Hu’s reliance on the military brass’s professionalism and basic party loyalty, as well as his lack of control over the PLA. It is widely argued that during the Hu and Jiang eras, the PLA was plagued by institutional corruption stemming from the military’s greater autonomy, which undermined the party’s authority. Hence, while Xi’s mandate was to clean up endemic and systemic malfeasance, which obviously took on a wider agenda such as the purge of political rivals, the compulsive centralization drive raises questions about his intentions that go beyond matters of party loyalty.
Looking back, notwithstanding the criticism of Hu being a figurehead in military affairs, Xi’s predecessor maintained the delicacy of civil-military relations; carried forward the legacy of Zemin’s “constitutional autonomy” for the military under the 1997 National Defense Law, which increased the power of state institutions over the PLA vis-à-vis the decreasing authority of individual leaders; and was successful in “materializing the institutional powers” by pursuing professionalization and legalization norms for the military, as well as through the regularization of the party-military interactions. Thus, in the Hu era, the PLA was moving from being a “party controlled” to a “party-state-controlled” institution.
Xi’s desire to control the day-to-day affairs of the military has upended this movement and propelled it toward a “Xi-controlled” apparatus. For example, the amendments to the National Defense Law that came into effect in 2021 clearly ceded authority that resided in the State Council to the CMC on actions like “national defense mobilization.” Moreover, with the post-2016 military reorganization (wherein the four general departments were broken into fifteen agencies) disallowing any CMC member besides Xi to have overarching control, the argument for the supremacy of the party over the state and Xi over the party has gained solid ground.
Moreover, the law provides legal support for the PLA’s overseas endeavors through economic or developmental interests, which in tandem with safeguarding sovereignty, unification, territorial integrity, and security widens and legalizes the scope for Chinese adventurism.
Although the leadership shuffle (which will see four out of the six CMC members retire) in the CCP central committee and the twenty-five-member politburo will involve the induction of new members and promotions, the percentage representation of the PLA is unlikely to suffer as a result of Xi’s years-long centralization drive. At the same time, it is contended that Xi is using the retirement age cap as a political tool to reward or castigate individuals on the basis of their “loyalty quotient.” However, it would be counterproductive for Xi to use this tool indiscriminately, and hence it is unlikely that officials other than him will be exempt from the age cap.
An Unyielding Posture
Russia’s failures in Ukraine have no doubt exposed the vulnerabilities of an ineffective or weak regime, such as haphazard decision-making, internal corruption, inadequate training, lack of motivation, and low combat readiness. As the PLA reforms that have been accelerated under Xi are being undertaken to redress some of these gaps, it stands to reason that the military lessons from the Russo-Ukrainian War would reinforce the direction and ambitions of China’s military restructuring process to achieve rejuvenation and reunification. Whether it will have an impact on PLA operational guidelines is a matter of speculation at the moment.
Nonetheless, it is clear from the outcome of the Xi-Putin meeting at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit last month that despite China’s “concerns” about Russia’s war in Ukraine and the West’s growing discomfort with Beijing’s tacit support for Moscow, Xi will continue to pursue bilateral and multilateral alignment with Russia. Moreover, when Xi signed the guidelines for military operations other than war in June, some observers speculated that they would allow China to conduct its own kind of “special military operation,” perhaps aimed at Taiwan. While that may be so, China has been advancing its military diplomacy to include non-traditional security activities, such as protecting its foreign economic and security interests, thereby expanding the scope of its global presence.
The latest reforms have also aimed to provide the modernized PLA with better joint warfighting capabilities, especially during operations related to a Taiwan contingency. In a situation such as the emerging Fourth Taiwan Crisis, the PLA, which has been equipped to “fight and win informationized wars,” used House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) visit as a pretext to showcase its combat readiness. For instance, live-fire drills highlighted the PLA’s improved long-range denial capabilities. Moreover, China’s use of non-standard (multidimensional) military tactics, including cyber, economic, and diplomatic coercion, indicated its new-age warfighting adroitness. The 20th CCP Congress will likely get the ball rolling for a radical reunification process.
With regard to India, despite the current disengagement along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), China has been inflexible about restoring the pre-April 2020 status quo ante and the overall relationship has not normalized. The continuing distrust between India and China and the latter’s coercive military tactics are drawn from China’s inflexible approach to exercising dominance in territorial disputes (rejection of the international tribunal verdict in the South China Sea dispute is incontrovertible evidence of its militant obduracy). Given India’s tilt to the West, its assertive stance of limiting cooperation on the LAC issue at the tactical level, and dogged engagement with the much-reviled Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), the 20th National Congress is unlikely to change the PLA’s strategy toward India.
All Roads Lead to Xi?
The 2016 military reorganization under Xi has rewritten the civil-military relationship by pursuing a “conditional bargain” with the PLA: a modicum of autonomy (among other basic incentives) in return for party fidelity and absolute obedience to the CCP leadership. A precursor to such allegiance was on display in 2014 when several senior generals of the PLA attested their loyalty to Xi by vowing to implement Xi’s thoughts on defense and military strategy.
Moreover, Xi has also taken over sole command of the paramilitary forces People’s Armed Police (PAP) through the CMC, bypassing the State Council that used to have a say. Undoubtedly, the PAP’s actions will go beyond domestic security to include supporting PLA joint-operation objectives which will have wider regional implications, besides showcasing Xi’s total control over the military.
In other words, Xi’s resolute grip on the three most powerful positions of the CCP general secretary, PRC president, and CMC chairman has come to resemble the Mao era in terms of personalistic control of the politico-military narrative and moved away from the “incremental institutionalization” of the Hu term. The 20th National Congress mandate on the military’s allegiance to Xi will only reinforce this trend.
This piece is the second in a series of pieces that the author is writing on the 20th National Congress of the CCP. The first piece in the series titled “How Will the 20th National Congress Change China?” is published here.