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IDSA COMMENT

Assertiveness in The People’s Liberation Army: Pressure on The Party?

October 01, 2012

Perhaps the most intensely debated issue on the outcome of the clichéd once-in-a-decade transition in China that has drawn the attention of the strategic community is the PLA-Party relationship and its influence on the possible outcome of the transition process. The reason for this is not hard to guess - recent reports emerging out of various sources suggest that jockeying for power may not just be restricted to the political elite alone, and that even the PLA Generals are part of the power struggle. The International Herald Tribune carried a report about General Zhang Qinsheng, Deputy Chief of General Staff of the PLA, as having “lashed out in a drunken rage against what he believed was a backhanded move to keep him from being named to the Central Military Commission” at a Lunar New Year banquet hosted for the Chinese military leadership, prompting President Hu Jintao to “leave in disgust” from the venue. 1 Another report dated 31 July 2012 states that Hu Jintao promoted six top Lieutenant Generals of the PLA and People’s Armed Police (PAP) to Generals, five of whom have a background in the General Political Department (Deputy Head of General Political department and four Political Commissars). Not surprising, considering that these Generals are responsible for overseeing the “ideological education, cadre personnel, party affair, security, discipline, propaganda, military-civilian relations, and servicemen welfare”, all critical to the Party’s control over the PLA. 2 However, what has been most noticeable has been a number of reports of Senior PLA officers cautioning and addressing troops against disobedience to the Party in writings in the People’s Daily in the months preceding the National People’s Congress (NPC) which convened in March this year. 3 On 6 March 2012, Wen Jiabao, while addressing the NPC, made a reference to Party control over the military, and said: “We will strengthen ideological and political standards, and adhere to the fundamental principle of the party having absolute leadership over the armed forces, and we should maintain the Chinese armed forces' fundamental purpose of being an army of the people.” The Guardian notes that Wen’s comments “were an indication of the urgency with which the leadership feels it needs to address calls from junior officers and academics for a nationalised military.” 4 Is the call for a national army a sign of new ‘assertiveness’ in the PLA? Does the ‘Gun’ want to break away from the control of the ‘Party’?

That there are rumblings within the military can be best gauged by an open editorial written by General Li Jinai, a member of the Central Military Commission and the Director of the PLA General Political Department, on the front page of the PLA Daily. He said, “We must resolutely reject these false political ideas (of PLA disassociating itself from Party) and unswervingly listen to and follow the Party." And he added that “domestic and foreign hostile forces" have a purpose in criticising the principle with calls for "nationalization of the military" and "non-affiliation between the military and the CPC and depoliticizing the military." 5 The Global Times, a popular China newspaper, said, “Discussion about nationalization of the PLA, namely stripping the Party of its leadership over the military, has caught some attention this year, reflecting dissident thinking within the PLA and among scholars.” Another report suggests that the concern over Party control and PLA loyalty could be “possible calls for “nationalization” of the PLA, which would threaten to fundamentally transform the role of an institution.” 6 Essentially, the demand for a National army implies that the PLA be divorced from the Communist Party. A National army would be apolitical and answerable to the government of the day and NOT the Party. A path breaking thought, considering the fact that this would challenge the very foundation of the PLA, of Mao’s famous statement in 1938 that the party controls the gun and not the other way around or even its charter and foremost responsibility to safeguard the stability of the Party.

The PLA’s assertiveness is a recent phenomenon. It is particularly visible in the political and foreign policy domains. It also appears that in the last one or two years the PLA has been able to manoeuvre and manipulate the Party to ensure that there are no impediments to its modernisation plans. In what appears to be a policy of appeasement, a flurry of sops has been ordered by the CMC to improve the quality of life of PLA personnel and their kith and kin.

Political Domain

The PLA has consistently been losing ground in the political hierarchy of China. Prior to the Tiananmen crackdown, there were three members from the PLA out of a total of five in the all powerful Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). After Tiananmen there have been none. Even in the 25-member Politburo, from 1997 the representation of the PLA has been reduced to just two members. Today, with the end of the ‘dual elites’, senior PLA officers have little exposure to governance and civil authority. This distanced the PLA from policy making and the machinations and manipulations within the Party, often resulting in disagreement with the political elite.

How has that impacted the PLA? The growing disillusionment with the political class seems to have been simmering in the PLA. It came out in the open in a series of writings by senior PLA generals. In 2010, Lieutenant General Liu Yizhou, Political Commissar of the National Defence University, shocked the Party in an interview to The Phoenix magazine, wherein he said: "If a system fails to let its citizens breathe freely and release their creativity to the maximum extent, and fails to place those who best represent the system and its people into leadership positions, it is certain to perish." And he “promised that in the next ten years, China would certainly see political change.” In a damning indictment of the political system, he continued thus: “The secret of US success is neither Wall Street nor Silicon Valley, but its long-surviving rule of law and the system behind it... Democracy is the most urgent; without it there is no sustainable rise. Ideals of democracy are not restricted by national borders, or by historical ones." 7 Quite surprisingly, he was one of those promoted to General on 31 July 2012. In May 2011, General Liu Yuan, the Political Commissar of the PLA’s Logistics Department, wrote a preface to the book Changing Our View of Culture and History in which he criticised the Communist Party leadership thus: “Actually, the Party’s General Secretaries have all betrayed and recanted many things – both inside and outside the country, recently and in the past, there are too many examples to list.” And he “accused Communist Party leaders of “betrayal,” and urged them to allow more open debate within the Party.” 8 Gen. Liu Yuan, a ‘princeling’ and son of former Chairman of CPC Liu Shaoqi, is a strong contender for membership of the Central Military Commission in this transition.

Foreign Policy

In foreign policy too, the PLA appears to be flexing its muscles as is evident from some recent developments:

  • CMC member and Chief of General Staff, General Chen Bingde, announced a $7.7 million military aid package for Nepal’s military while meeting Nepal`s Army Chief in March 2011. 9 This, when the Nepalese Defence Minster was present in Kathmandu, thus bypassing the political hierarchy of both countries.
  • The aggression shown by the PLAN in the Scarborough Shoal incident in South China Sea with Philippines forced the latter to ‘back off’. It is widely believed that the South China Sea policy is driven by the PLA and the Foreign Affairs ministry has little say in the matter.
  • The establishment of a division level ‘Sansha Military Command’ on Yongking island in the Paracels in the South China Sea clearly signals aggressive military intent to safeguard China’s claims in this region. This military command is in addition to the Xisha Maritime garrison under the PLAN which is responsible for maritime issues.
  • The reported test firing of the DF-41 missile with a 14,000 km range capable of striking most regions of the globe at a time when the political leadership is selling the ‘peaceful rise’ and ‘harmonius world’ theory. 10

Defence Budget

On the domestic front, the PLA has been able to ensure that the Party has placed adequate funds at its disposal. The Defence budget has been increasing steadily at an average of 11.2 per cent over the last decade. This has ensured:

  • No shortfalls in the military modernisation programme; and
  • Improvement in living conditions, salaries and privileges to PLA personnel.

Military Modernisation Programme

While it is difficult to put a figure to the amount of expenditure that the PLA has done on its ongoing military modernisation programme, the deployment and development of weapon platforms suggest that there is no let up in the programme. In fact the U.S.‐China Economic and Security Review Commission Staff Research Report states that some projects like the ASCM (Anti-Ship Cruise Missile) and J-20 stealth aircraft programmes are well ahead of assessed schedules. 11

Salaries and Service Privileges

The salaries of officers in the PLA prior to 2006 were abysmal. In 2006, they were raised by a massive 51.2 per cent in an attempt to adjust them upwards to the level of other government officials. It was only in January 2011 that they were brought at level. 12 Salaries of NCOs were given a massive 5 to 40 per cent raise in March 2011, the third time in four years, while officers received an across the board hike of 1000 Yuan, indicating an urgency to keep the PLA rank and file content and happy.13 If that was not enough, the State Council issued three major ordinances in 2011 concerning the welfare and well being of the PLA soldiers and civilians in the military:

  • State Council of the People’s Republic of China Order 601 ‘Martyrs Ordinance’ signed by Premier Wen Jiabao on 29 July 2011 and promulgated on PLA Day, 1 August 2011, regarding pension and privileges to martyrs and their survivors applicable to all citizens martyred in line of national duty including military duties.
  • Central Commission of the People’s Republic of China Order 602 ‘State Council And CMC Decision To Modify The Military Pension Privileges Ordinance’ signed by Premier Wen Jiabao and Chairman Hu Jintao, President CMC, on 29 July 2011 and promulgated on PLA Day, 1 August 2011 regarding pension and privileges to martyrs and their survivors of the PLA.
  • Central Commission of the People’s Republic of China Order 608 ‘Retired Soldiers Placement Regulations’ signed by Premier Wen Jiabao and Chairman Hu Jintao, President CMC, on 29 July 2011 and promulgated on PLA Day, 1 August 2011 regarding resettlement and placement of PLA personnel on retirement from active duty.

Living Standards

The standard of food has improved in units with expenditure on food having doubled from 10 to 18 yuan for each person every day. Newly-built modern barracks are “highly informationized and environmentally friendly”. All the officers and men have received new military uniforms. The standard of medical security has been improved, the variety of medical security medicines has been increased to 2,135 numbers and the medical treatment expenses of common soldiers have increased by 30 per cent in the past five years. Units have been provided satellite televisions and internet is available in nearly 90 per cent of the organic battalions and companies.14

Is this largesse an attempt to quell the clamour for a National Army? While these developments are clear indicators of increased assertiveness by the PLA, it appears that the Party has its ears to the ground. A series of proactive measures appears to have been taken to appease the rank and file of the PLA. The talk of ‘nationalising’ the PLA seems to have been lost in the slew of sops that the Party has given the PLA in the recent past. Clearly, for the present, the Party has successfully parried any untoward embarrassment from the PLA in the final run up to the 18th Party Congress scheduled to convene in the next couple of months.