Why China’s Communist Party maintains a tight grip on the military

This is the third in the South China Morning Post’s series of explainers about China’s Communist Party, in the lead-up to the party’s 100th anniversary in July. In this piece, Josephine Ma looks into the relationship between the party and the military.

From a party that fought a guerilla war to one of the longest-running single-party regimes in modern history, the Communist Party of China has paid great attention to its control over the military, which is now the largest in the world with 2 million active personnel.

In 1927, chairman Mao Zedong famously said that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”. This was the year the Chinese communists staged the Nanchang uprising against the ruling nationalist government.

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At the time, the Communist Party largely existed in the form of an armed rebellion against the ruling Kuomintang party. The revolutionary force, initially called the Chinese Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, was later renamed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

It was the PLA that put the Communist Party in power when it won the Chinese Civil War in 1949. In the early years of its rule, all Communist Party leaders – from senior leaders such as Mao and Deng Xiaoping, to more junior figures such as Bo Yibo and Xi Zhongxun – had military experience.

As the founder, operator and leader of the army, the Communist Party has a closer relationship with the military than most political parties around the world.

Since the Communist Party’s ideology states that the party represents the interests of the people, the party has argued that having the military serve the party is tantamount to serving the state and the Chinese people.

Part of Mao’s strategy to achieve this control over the army was to establish a Communist Party cell in every grass-roots military unit, to ensure loyalty to the party’s decisions and ideology throughout.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 further convinced the party it must maintain a tight grip on the military so its rule would not be challenged.

“The Russian Communist Party let go of the authority over the military and therefore its regime was overthrown,” warned a 2015 article published in the official army newspaper PLA Daily.

The PLA reports to the Central Military Commission (CMC) of the Communist Party and any talk of nationalising the military – suggesting the military would serve any elected political party – can be seen as subversive in China.

In theory, the PLA is also accountable to the National People’s Congress, the highest organ of state power and the national legislature, through a parallel reporting line to another CMC under the State Council, China’s cabinet.

But the two CMCs consist of exactly the same members, and the chairman of both is usually the leader of the party – currently President Xi Jinping.

The lack of real power the cabinet has over the PLA was clearly demonstrated in 2008 when a magnitude-8 earthquake hit Wenchuan in the Sichuan region leaving 87,000 dead, 370,000 injured and 5 million homeless.

When then-premier Wen Jiabao tried to mobilise the military to help with rescue work on the first day, the PLA refused to move until it was commanded to do so by the CMC the next day.

In addition to national defence and helping out with disaster and emergency relief efforts, the PLA has also played an unusually important role in the country’s economic and social development. PLA soldiers helped build the Shenzhen special economic zone, and worked at the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a paramilitary economic organisation tasked with building and operating farms and settlements in the western Xinjiang region.

Unlike the defence ministries of other countries, the Ministry of National Defence in China mainly plays the role of engaging foreign countries. Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe is a member of the Communist Party’s CMC.

In 1938, Mao wrote in an article that “the party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the party”.

Apart from making it clear the party had to control the military, Mao also wanted to make sure the military would not decide who would be the party leader. But in the past, there have been times when the CMC chairman faced difficulty gaining full control of the military.

The position of CMC chairman did not stop then-general secretary Jiang Zemin from facing a fierce power struggle with Yang Shangkun and his half-brother Yang Baibing – CMC secretary general and vice-chairman, and PLA political commissar respectively – in the 1980s and early 1990s. The two brothers controlled the army, and it was only with Deng’s backing that Jiang finally sidelined them.

When Jiang Zemin passed the baton to Hu Jintao, the latter – a civilian – had a hard time commanding respect as CMC chairman. His two deputies, generals Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, effectively took control of the army’s staff affairs right under his nose.

After Xi came into power in 2012, he launched a sweeping anti-corruption campaign in the military and smashed the strongholds of many interest groups in the army.

For decades, the military was known to be rife with corruption starting around the 1980s, when military personnel were allowed to run businesses to support their expenses. Such practices were banned in 1998 but corruption was still rampant in the army.

In 2015, Xi moved to end the PLA’s profit-making activities and ordered it to focus on transforming into a modern army that could win the wars.

Even though the transition from Hu to Xi was hailed by many as a rare peaceful power transition in the party’s history, Xi continued to have his power challenged.

Threats included Communist Party “princeling” Bo Xilai, the son of prominent party leader Bo Yibo, then-state security chief Zhou Yongkang, as well as generals Guo and Xu.

Between 2013 and 2015, Xi purged all these threats from the party in a sweeping anti-corruption campaign, while accusing his rivals of planning a coup.

In November 2014, Xi used the occasion of the 85th anniversary of the 1929 Gutian Conference to remind the 420 generals and senior military officials of Mao’s dictum about the party’s absolute control of the military.

Xi also personally headed a commission to shake up the PLA, and successfully uprooted the strongholds of vested interest groups by reorganising the headquarters, the troops and the military regions.

He was named “commander-in-chief” in 2016, similar to the US president’s position as the commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces, establishing command over the country’s ground, naval, air and rocket forces.

In 2017, China amended the party charter to state that all military forces in China were accountable to the CMC chairman, putting in black and white in the party’s most important document that the PLA and the paramilitary forces must be absolutely loyal to the CMC chairman, which is currently Xi. The president said the reforms were part of his efforts to turn the world’s largest armed forces into a modern military, on par with its Western counterparts.

Reforms were also introduced to bring the 1.5 million-strong paramilitary police force, the People’s Armed Police Force (PAP), under the sole command of the CMC. Analysts said the change put the PAP directly under Xi’s control.

Previously, the PAP came under a dual command structure of the CMC and the State Council via the Ministry of Public Security.

It serves as a backup for the military in times of war and domestically has a role in putting down protests and counterterrorism – particularly in areas such as the restive far-western Xinjiang region – as well as border defence and firefighting.

In January this year, China further revised its National Defence Law to weaken the role of the State Council in formulating military policy, handing full decision-making powers to the CMC.

All of this has expanded the power of the CMC, headed by Xi, to mobilise military and civilian resources in defence of the national interest, both at home and abroad.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2021 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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