Most China-watchers would agree that the military’s growing political influence and the pluralization in Chinese leadership is one of the country’s most salient developments in the 21st century. Many have observed the steady expansion of the military’s role in China’s foreign and security policy in the past decade.
In addition to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), organizations such as the economic and foreign trade ministries, state-owned enterprises specializing in arms sales and those responsible for the acquisition and management of energy (the powerful “oil lobby”) are all active participants in the foreign policy process.
These organizations possess enormous resources and their interests often differ from those of party/state organizations — such as the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) international department and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — that normally deal with China’s external relations.
Consequently, party/state organizations no longer monopolize the making and execution of China’s foreign and security policies. Other leadership groups, such as the military-industrial complex and the oil lobby are able to advance their interests in the leadership consensus-building process, thus affecting policy.
Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) was China’s leader from the second half of 1977. His political comeback from the purges of the Cultural Revolution depended primarily on the staunch support of the PLA. He did not possess the uncontested power that Mao Zedong (毛澤東) wielded, nor did he carry the title of party chairman or general secretary; his only key official position was chairman of the CCP’s Central Military Commission (CMC).
As Deng knew, “political power grows from the barrel of a gun,” and he understood the strategic importance of securing the PLA’s trust and support. He inducted PLA representatives into the party and state leadership bodies and after stepping down as chairman of the CMC in November 1989, he appointed then-CCP general secretary Jiang Zeming (江澤民) in his place. He also elevated his trusted aide, General Liu Huaqing (劉華清), to vice chairmanship of the CMC and also to the Politburo Standing Committee — the first time since 1976 that a uniformed member of the PLA had stood on the elite body.
In 1993, Jiang announced that CMC vice chairman General Zhang Zhen (張震) and other CMC members would attend meetings of the Politburo Standing Committee as non-voting members. At Deng’s behest, the CCP’s Leadership Group on Taiwan Affairs has since the mid-1990s included several PLA representatives.
Coming after Deng, Jiang and Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) lack his stature and authority. Hu, who has served as chairman of the CMC since September 2004, has had even less time and opportunity than his predecessor Jiang — who headed the CMC from 1989 to 2004 — to build a PLA support base. As such, Hu’s relations with the PLA are not close and are occasionally strained. Some PLA spokesmen have criticized him for being soft toward the US. There is a discernible tendency that under Hu, the PLA is more outspoken and assertive on foreign and security policy.
Major General Luo Yuan (羅援) of the Academy of Military Science, an outspoken militant, has claimed that as China has grown stronger relative to the US it should proactively pursue its national interests. Other PLA spokesmen have also called for Beijing to take a stronger stance over the South China Sea disputes and US-South Korea-Japan military exercises. Some PLA strategists have also questioned Deng’s cautious, low-profile foreign-relations approach as they consider it outdated in a changed world.
In a speech made during his visit to Washington in May last year, Chief of General Staff General Chen Bingde (陳炳德) accused the US of a lack of respect for China’s “core interests” and named “three major obstacles” that harm Sino-US relations: continued US arms sales to Taiwan, close-in US military and surveillance operations against China and a ban on the export of US high-tech goods to China. In the semi-annual Sino-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue, PLA participants tend to set the tone and speak for the Chinese delegation; they take a tougher stance not only on bilateral relations and the Taiwan issue, but also on regional issues such as North Korea and sanctions against Iran and Syria.
On the eve of the 17th Party Congress in October 2007, Hu convened a conference of CCP, PLA and government leaders and nominated his protege, then-Liaoning Province party chief Li Keqiang (李克強), to succeed him as party leader after the 18th Party Congress this year, but his choice was vetoed.
In a unprecedented “straw vote,” China’s leadership elites, especially the PLA leaders, opted for the election of Xi Jinping (習近平), then the party chief of Shanghai and the son of a revolutionary veteran, to succeed Hu. Xi was highly popular with most of China’s power holders, but the overwhelming PLA support was decisive in his elevation.
The 18th Party Congress started today, with the PLA expected to send 251 delegates — three times more than those from Henan, China’s most populous province — a very good measure of its political clout. Xi has maintained close relations with the PLA, and his public and informal remarks on China’s foreign policy and Sino-US relations echo the tough line of the PLA.
Has Xi been politically “hijacked?” Will he continue to follow the PLA’s hard line on foreign and security policy? Or, after he assumes the mantle of party general secretary, can he rule and command “the gun?”
This is an interesting and important question which cannot be answered with any certainty. A period of time must pass before it can be judged if Xi is truly in power and capable of ruling and leading China.
Parris Chang, professor emeritus of political science at Penn State University, is chair professor of general studies at Toko University.