The PLA reform and civil-military relations in China

T.note n.11

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is undergoing a major transformation. On September 3, 2015, President Xi Jinping announced the demobilization of 300,000 troops. The decision anticipated a much broader reform plan that was disclosed in late November 2015 at a Conference on Reform Work organized by the Central Military Commission (CMC). As reported by Xinhua, the plan aimed at addressing those “organizational obstacles, structural contradictions and policy issues” that had prevented a full modernization of the PLA until then. The whole structure of the PLA would be redesigned according to the principle that “the CMC controls the overall situation, the Operational Theatres are in charge of operations, the Military Services are in charge of force building” (junwei guan zong, zhanqu zhu zhan, junzhong zhu jian, 军委管总、战区主战、军种主建). The main items of the reform were then addressed by a CMC Opinion on Deepening the Reform of National Defence and Armed Forces, released on January 1, 2016. The day before, Xi Jinping had overseen the establishment of the PLA Rocket Force, PLA Strategic Support Force and of the new command organ for the PLA Army. Ten days later, an official ceremony inaugurated fifteen CMC “Functional Departments” (zhineng bumen, 职能部门) that would assume the functions of the existing four General Departments (zongbu, 总部), which were accordingly closed. On February 1st, five new Operational Theatres (zhanqu, 战区) were established, thus replacing the seven Military Regions (da junqu, 大军区) that had been in place since the last reform in 1985.

In the international media, accounts of the reforms have emphasized discontinuity in the organizational philosophy of the PLA, with a shift from a Soviet-style structure centered on the ground forces to a so-called U.S. model based on “jointness”. Creating a “system for integrated joint operations” is, in fact, one of the major goals of the reform. However, if we look at the reform plan from a different perspective, continuities with the history of the PLA will also emerge. This is especially the case with the so-called “right political direction” (zhengque zhengzhi fangxiang, 正确政治方向) that the PLA should maintain, as declared in the Opinion: “consolidating and improving the basic principle and system of the Party’s absolute leadership of the military.” At this level, the reform is actually consistent with the traditional Chinese model of civil-military relations, where control over the PLA is firmly in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As Mao Zedong famously wrote in Problems of War and Strategy, “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” – and therefore “Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party.” The CCP “absolute leadership” (juedui lingdao, 绝对领导) was strongly affirmed at the 1929 Gutian Conference and then enshrined in the 1932 Directive on Party Work in the Red Army. Since then, the principle has been the cornerstone of civil-military relations in China: several aspects of the current reform confirm that this is still the case.

First of all, the reform
has strengthened the
role of the CMC as the Party organ at the top of the armed forces in China. As announced in the Opinion, two separate chains of command have been established, both of which presided over by the CMC: the “administrative system” (lingdao guanli tizhi, 领导管理体制) and the “joint operational command system” (lianhe zuozhan zhihui tizhi, 联合作战指挥体制). In the first one, the chain of command goes from the CMC to the Military Services, with the CMC exercising “centralized and unified leadership” over the system. In the second one, authority flows from the CMC to the Operational Theatres, in accordance with a “two-level system of operational command.” Most notably, the reform has closed the four General Departments that used to work as a filter between the CMC and the underlying levels of the military hierarchy. Their functions have been now spread among the fifteen Functional Departments: this way, powerful bureaucracies that could potentially obstruct the implementation of CMC decisions were removed, thus consolidating CMC control over the PLA overall structure.

A second issue that should be carefully analyzed is the role of the CMC Chairman, Xi Jinping. The Opinion calls for “fully implementing the CMC Chairman responsibility system” (quanmian luoshi junwei zhuxi fuze zhi, 全面落实军委主席负 责制). Chinese official media had first referred to such a “system” in late 2014, in the run-up to the All-Army Conference on Political Work held in Gutian on the occasion of the 85th anniversary of the 1929 Conference. Although the exact meaning of the concept remains unclear, what it suggests is that Xi’s role within the CMC has been strengthened institutionally, in a process that amight reproduce in the PLA the centralization of power that has taken place in the Party. Further complicating the picture, Xi has assumed the title of “Commander in Chief” (zong zhi hui, 总指挥) of the new CMC Joint Operational Command Centre, as reported by Xinhua on April 20, 2016. On the following day, a photograph on the first page of the People’s Daily showed Xi in his new capacity, wearing a camouflage uniform instead of the usual, green one of the CMC Chairman.

This centralization of power is taking place against the background of the ongoing anti-corruption campaign. By bringing down senior officers – including both Vice Chairmen of the CMC under Hu Jintao – the campaign has prepared the terrain for the reform. Weakened by investigations, the top echelons of the PLA are currently unable to oppose any resistance to the reform. This will make it easier for the Party to reassert its control over the gun – and for Xi Jinping to strengthen his grip on the PLA as well as on the Party.

All of this suggests that, while the reform might bring the PLA closer to Western militaries in terms of jointness, China will nevertheless continue to posit a radically alternative model when it comes to civil-military relations. In order to understand how this model will evolve in the future, it is crucial to monitor the implementation of the reform on a set of interrelated issues. How is the CMC going to interpret its new role in the administrative and in the operational command systems? What are the practical implications of the “CMC Chairman responsibility system?” And what is the role that Xi Jinping is going to play as Commander in Chief? Answers to these questions will help to understand how the Party is enhan- cing its control of the gun, and how this will impact the overall political situation in China.

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