China’s Army yearning to break free of Communist Party

There are signs of a yearning for greater autonomy for the PLA from the political leadership. This bodes ill for China and its neighbours.

hidden June 11, 2011 09:57:11 IST
China’s Army yearning to break free of Communist Party

By Bhaskar Roy

On June 9, the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, carried an article on the Second Artillery Force (SAF), China’s strategic missile force, which also controls the country’s nuclear weapons. Curiously, the article stressed that the SAF “should promote loyalty and obedience in their ranks towards the Communist Party of China (CPC).”

What is perhaps more significant, this short article was authored jointly by the Commander of SAF, Gen. Jing Zhiyuan, and Political Commissar of the SAF, Gen. Zhang Haiyang.

The two Generals, who are in charge of the military and “political” aspects respectively, emphasised that “against the background of profound changes in the society and the increasingly complicated struggles in the ideological areas, continuous efforts should be made to resist the tendency of ‘Westernisation’ in the military forces as well as the idea of separating the military forces from the leadership of the CPC.”

Within the context of the military in China, ‘Westernisation’ means an armed force that is bereft of ideological moorings or independent of political parties, where the Commander-in-Chief is the Head of State. In China’s case, it would the President.

China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had tried to rear a professional People’s Liberation Army (PLA). He had almost stopped political education in the PLA and initiated the move to divest the PLA of its commercial ventures: hotels, discotheques, civilian goods manufacturing and even some military business.

A veteran of the Long March and himself a political commissar, Deng concluded that political indoctrination was perhaps necessary at one time to motivate the largely peasant soldiers. When he came to power in 1978, he realised that the PLA had put professionalism second on its priority list and that it was more interested in business, which benefited mainly the officer class. Deng also dismantled what he called “mountain war-lordism” – top commanders who spent their entire careers in one Military Region and used the forces under them as their own army.

It is not known whether Deng would have liked to put the PLA under the government. But he would have realised that the Party was supreme and well above the government. But despite initial opposition from the PLA in the late 1980s, he succeeded in establishing the Party General Secretary and the President, a civilian, at the top of the military as the Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC).

Chinas Army yearning to break free of Communist Party

If the SAF were to become a free radical it could portend a dangerous challenge not only to China but also its neighbourhood. Larry Downing/ Reuters

It was, therefore, left to the party chief to command the PLA; the extent of his control would depend on how politically strong he was. Neither of Deng’s appointees as Party general secretaries  — Jiang Zemin and his successor Hu Jintao — have demonstrated unquestioned control of the PLA. Both had to make compromises to execute their power, and the PLA grew in strength.

Interestingly, when Defence Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie attended the Shangri-la Security dialogue in Singapore in May, he introduced himself as Vice Chairman of the CMC and State Councillor, not as Defence Minister. It was because the defence ministry is known as a facade for protocol duties but has lacks teeth of its own.

In March this year, Gen. Liang Guanglie stated that the PLA was not under the government, but under the Communist Party. He made it abundantly clear that the PLA was independent of the Chinese government.In the last two years, especially in 2010, it appeared that the PLA, while remaining under the agreed framework of “the Party commands the gun”, was pushing for a major say in both internal security issues, and external security and territorial claims.

Following the 2008 global economic meltdown, the Chinese hierarchy miscalculated that US was a declining power and China was a rising power which could dictate terms to Washington. The PLA, emboldened by its rising power, decided to challenge the return of the US in the Asia-Pacific region under the guidance US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The PLA’s surge was another example of its surge for autonomy.

The SAF commentary has far-reaching implications. On the one hand, it suggests that there is a growing consensus among SAF officers for autonomy from political decisions. At the same time, the party fears that the free world structure of the armed forces, when they are totally isolated from the political parties that run the government of the day, is a threat to the CCP.

In the US,  changes in political power do not affect the military, although the US Congress has a say in budget allocations and policy. Even then, the executive president holds the veto power irrespective what his party’s position may be in the Congress. Decisions are taken in consultation with the Department of Defence (Pentagon), the CIA and the State Department.

In India, it is even clearer. Political parties, including the party in power, have little or nothing to do directly with the armed forces (although the civilian leadership over the military is unquestioned).

For China, the situation would be much worse if the PLA were to take independent decisions on both internal and external security challenges. If the SAF were to become a free radical making the government irrelevant in the military context, it could portend a dangerous challenge not only to the Chinese authorities but to the neighbourhood, particularly since China’s “no first (nuclear) use” doctrine has become more opaque in recent years.

The more the Chinese leadership and official media emphasise the Communist Party’s control over the PLA, the greater may be the problem. That emphasis has sharply increased in recent months.

Bhaskar Roy is an analyst based in New Delhi.  Republished with permission from the Chennai Centre for China Studies.

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