In a significant signal of his firmer hold on power, in September Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a massive reform of the military—something that has not happened in the country since at least 30 years ago, when China’s former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping took power in the late 1970s.
The People’s Daily remarked: “This is the biggest reform of the system of military leadership since the foundation of PRC. It is unprecedented in structure, in revolutionarily remodeling the system, in the latitude of the impact of reforms; it deeply affects existing interests and of it is very large scope.”
The role of political commissars, the backbone of the old PLA structure modeled after the Soviet Army, will be redefined and their numbers will be curtailed. The structure meant to inspire political loyalty in an army of young recruits in the years of revolution had become the main conduit of corruption. Besides, all soldiers have to have political education, not just the commissars. A disciplinary body will be set up, roughly mirroring the disciplinary commission in the party as a whole, to fight rampant corruption.
The role and leadership of the Military Central Commission will be strengthened, the regional commands will be regrouped, and a general command center will be set up. The military regions will be redrawn and become four from the original seven. In the process, a lot of power previously devolved to the regions will be concentrated in Beijing.
The People’s Liberation Army, PLA, was transformed from a peasant army into a relatively modern combat body in the 1950s with Soviet support, and in 1955 the whole of China was divided into 13 military regions. Local commanders wielded great power then and were rarely moved until the Cultural Revolution started in the late 1960s. During this time, the PLA played an important role in supporting Mao’s thrust, and since the mid-1970s, it began to modernize with the help of the US when military regions were reduced to 11.
After the setback of the 1979 border war with Vietnam, in the 1980s, chairman of the military commission and paramount leader Deng Xiaoping promoted new changes, shedding over a million personnel, further reducing the military regions to seven, and encouraging the army to go into business.
It was a significant political trade: the PLA relinquished its old political meddling but in return gained carte blanche in making money.
Things got out of hand a decade later when the PLA was running de facto a parallel economy, defying trade rules and regulations set by Beijing. In the mid-1990s, internal studies showed that the amount of trade conducted by the PLA without custom duties caused China greater losses than would the request to lower tariffs if Beijing joined the World Trade Agreement (WTO).
This led to a new political pact with the army in the late 1990s. The PLA was to withdraw from business activities and in return it would get generous new budget allocations for modernizing weapons. With little or no oversight, this money went in large part to line the pockets of many senior officers.
Moreover, in the fight for budget resources, any commander had incentive to prove his role and mission was more important than that of other commanders. This created a competition for resources based on opposing concerns and betting on rising anxiety. Greater tension with Japan, meant more money in that slot; more tension with India meant more money in the other slot. This race for resources, which then could easily be misallocated, squandered, or worse, was one of the backdrops for the confusion and aggressiveness of Chinese foreign policy around 2010-2011 (see http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/MA07Ad01.html ).
Moreover, the relative freedom in competition for resources for military commanders was fueled by the hazy structure of the line of command. Since he became party secretary in 2002, Hu Jintao never had full clout over the PLA, where many generals continued for over a decade to seek support and favors from retired president Jiang Zemin and leaders of his generation.
This double line of command has been cut in recent years with the concentration of power in the center and the anti-corruption campaign of President Xi Jinping. The launch of the army reform is the first significant change Xi has been able to put forward since his election, and it means that he has mustered enough power to gain full control of the PLA, the kingmaker of Chinese politics.
Although in the communist organization, the army has to follow the party, everyone is well aware of Mao’s principle that power comes from the barrel of a gun. The full control and reform of the army can thus be an important conduit to carry on the reform of the rest of the Chinese state. The reform of the army should be completed by 2020.
In the past, the strong division of power between military regions stemmed from two concerns. The first was that Beijing’s future fight would be in its own territory against an invasion or an uprising, historically the two things that brought down dynasties in China. The second was that with a balance of military powers between regions in place, military coups could be prevented or their effects minimized.
In fact, the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976 and the military intervention against the students in Tiananmen Square in 1989 were both followed by complicated processes of appeasement and the eventual sacking of recalcitrant people within the army whose sections were loyal to the Gang of Four or the students.
The problem with the dispersal of military power is that political changes will always be difficult and will need the consensus of the entire military. This political bargaining was limited before Mao’s death, in 1976, because of the commanders’ personal loyalty.
The new concentration of power with Xi could then be the condition for massive changes in the overall Chinese political structure, maybe starting with the role of the State-Owned Enterprises (SOE), which have been a growing drag on many levels for the development of the economy. It is yet unclear whether these changes will happen at all—and if so, when and how.
Certainly, the new order in the military stems also from a radical change of national threats. Possibilities of an invasion have become remote and crackdown on eventual uprisings would be a smear to China’s international image and would thus need coordinated central response to avoid their spread rather than counting on the local skills and knowledge of semi-independent military commanders.
Moreover, these changes come from a very different international environment. The new security challenges come from new non-military threats like “currency wars” (see http://temi.repubblica.it/limes-heartland/one-belt-one-road/2070 ) or in the cyber-world. In both these areas, individuals may try to use the excuse of acting in support of national interests to rather acquire personal gains through speculation or cyber thefts, actions that may ultimately endanger national security and international status.
On the other hand in the future, individual actions by a local official will bear greater responsibility for the central government. With the new tighter command structure, it will be harder to believe that an incident at sea or along the land borders is the crazy initiative of a person or a group of interests within the military and not a premeditated act of provocation. In case of incident, escalations could be easier and international political fall-out larger. Then the new command structure will need a comprehensive and detailed overhaul of China’s strategic goals and procedures for its military.
Deng’s reforms in the 1980s came from a negative assessment of the PLA’s performance in Vietnam in 1979. The latest reforms too might have been triggered by a negative assessment of the past years of attrition with neighbors. Here, possibly individual initiatives went sometime over the boundaries set by Beijing and put the central authority sometimes in a very difficult position.
Francesco Sisci is a Senior Research Associate of China Renmin University. The author of Asia Times’ Sinograph column, he was also Asia Editor for the Italian daily La Stampa and Beijing correspondent for Il Sole di 24 Ore, and has written for numerous Italian and international publications. He was the first foreigner admitted to the graduate program of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, he is the author of eight books on China and a frequent commentator on CCTV.
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