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China: Cracks in Party-Army Unity?

It is not surprising that the open call given by a top Chinese military leader (‘Qiu Shi’, the theoretical organ of the Chinese Communist Party- CCP, 1 April 2009) for “upholding the absolute leadership of the CCP over the Army”, for “making the Party flag as Army flag at all times” and for “ the Army listening to the commands of the Party, Central Military Commission (CMC) and President Hu Jintao at all times”, received world attention. The leader, General Li Jinai, a CMC member and head of the General Political Department of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), while giving the call, also admitted that ‘mistaken backward things’ viz. ‘De-politicisation’ of the Army (feizhengzhihua), Party-Army separation (feidanghua) and ‘Nationalisation’ of the Army (guojiahua) have come to influence the military, to which he demanded ‘resolute’ opposition. Prima facie, the remarks meant an acknowledgement from the CCP that internal differences on the subject persist; their implications need a careful study, considering the importance of Party-Army equation for the country’s politics and governance.

A deeper look would reveal that divergences within the CCP on ‘absolute leadership of the Party over the Army’ are not new; they had originated in the pre-revolution days and are prevailing in the post-liberation period also, as responses to situation prevailing at each stage. Discussing chronologically, worth noting first is the rift in late thirties, as noted by the party historians, between two top leaders – Mao Zedong and Zhang Guodao due to the latter’s alleged ideas in favour of separating army from party; it finally led to Zhang’s exit from the CCP. Coming to modern era, during the ‘anti-rightist’ campaign of late fifties, there were allegations of ‘monolithic military thoughts’ prevailing in the party with some even preferring ‘ liquidation of party committees in the military’[1]. In eighties and early nineties, there were reports on support to a ‘nationalised’ army, coming from advisers to the then Premier Zhao Ziyang as well as some leading organs[2]. More evidences suggesting a test for the Party in enforcing its control over the army were seen – lack of enthusiasm on the part of some PLA men in the matter of dealing with 1989 Tiananmen student protests[3] , the closure of the PLA-led enterprises in 1998 following the then Premier Zhu Rongji’s dissatisfaction over the army’s smuggling activities and observations of Qiao Shi, the then Chairman of the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee (interview to Le Figaro, April 1997) that President and CMC chief Jiang Zemin should be answerable to the parliament.

An active propaganda phase to emphasise party’s control over the army is being seen ever since Hu Jintao took over as Chairman of the CMC during the fourth Plenum of the 16th CCP Congress Central Committee in September 2004. ‘Hostile forces’, trying to ‘Westernise’, ‘Divide’ and ‘Depoliticise’ the army, have become the main target. Their attempts are being seen as ‘important component’ of carrying out a ‘peaceful evolution’ in China[4] . Blame is also being leveled against ‘some factions’ in China for their support to an army under the state control[5] . Since 2005, all important occasions like PLA founding anniversaries and organs like ‘Qiu Shih’ [6] , are being used regularly to lay stress on the need for party’s control over the army. Getting highlighted in this regard are Hu Jintao’s statement that the PLA should ‘obey party and CMC command at any time and under any circumstances’ [7] and his ‘concern over the army’s stability[8].

The question arises as to why the theme of “party’s absolute control over the army” is being repeated again and again in China? Basically, it can be said that the CCP always considers its control over the army, as the principal mean to perpetuate its superiority and protect the one-party system in the country. It is officially stated that the principle of “CCP’s leading the State as the ruling party got evolved historically and also, is the requirement of current national conditions” [9]. In simple language, this would mean that more the party perceives potential dangers to its rule, more its dependence on the army. Both Mao and Deng had to rely on the army at crucial times to bring back normalcy in the country- Mao in the aftermath of Cultural Revolution and Deng in the case of the 1989 Tiananmen student protests.

Hu Jintao faces same compulsions, experienced by Mao and Deng. He needs the army support under the officially described “ new conditions and complicated changes in national defence and military building” and “ multiple security threats and diverse military tasks”. In other words, a party-controlled military would be crucial to Hu in providing guarantee to the country’s stability, which is being viewed by him as an ‘overriding task’ (Hu’s speech of 18 December 2008). Factors that could affect stability and lead to social unrest would include the impact of global financial crisis on China, increasing unemployment as a result of migration of rural workers from cities and less opportunity for young graduates passing out from universities. Army’s backing would also be important for Hu in dealing with separatist tendencies in Tibet and Xinjiang. Also, with military firmly under his grip, Hu may feel confident in fighting pro-democracy movements like “Charter – 2008” group which interalia has demanded party-army separation. However, Hu’s status as only a member of China’s collective leadership without being a ‘core’, in contrast to the supreme positions enjoyed by his predecessors, would imply reduced elbowroom for him in keeping the PLA fully under his grip.

Indisicipline and trends towards taking action independently in the PLA without consulting the party or civil administration may also be pushing Hu Jintao to keep the army under the party control. The authorities are looking upon instances of ‘slack management’ in the army and protests from demobilized soldiers with concern. The party may also have reasons to be unhappy over the military’s failure occasionally to keep the CCP and government fully informed about its actions, for e.g during the Sino-US EP-3 crisis and the Anti-Satellite Weapon test (2007).

Thirdly, a doubt arises whether or not the renewed emphasis of Hu regime on the necessity for the Army to obey the Party, has something to do with factional struggle within the party. An authoritative argument[10] has given a subtle warning against emergence of leaders like Zhang Guodao who were ‘right opportunists” and had supported army ‘nationalization’. It has called for remembering such events in party history. It has in addition cautioned the CCP against repeating the mistake committed by former USSR leading to its collapse,by the way of delinking the Soviet Army from the CPSU. The remarks need a close scrutiny for their hidden meaning, if any.

Lastly, Hu Jintao’s underscoring the need for the PLA to obey the party command may also need to be viewed in the context of ongoing moves in China to bring Hu’s military writings on par with those of his predecessors- Mao, Deng and Jiang. Politically important has been the incorporation of his “ Scientific Outlook on Development” theory in the Party constitution. In military terms, the exhortation to the PLA now to follow Hu’s military line based on “ Three Provides and One Role” principle [11],along with the military thoughts of the three mentioned above, appear significant.

The PLA is fast becoming a professional and apolitical army, with entry into it of qualified persons in engineering and science and technology. Its cyber warfare and space units are being strengthened with specialists. Politicians have less presence in the PLA and the level of military representation in top-level party units has come down considerably. For e.g in the nine- member Politburo Standing Committee, there is no PLA member. Gone are the Long March days, when the military dominated occupying high political posts. There is also presently a large turn over in the PLA representation in the party gatherings, for e.g 17th Party Congress, apparently as part of efforts to prevent emergence of strong military leaders capable of challenging the political leadership at some stage. The old system of having both ‘Red and Expert’ cadres in the party, Army and State, seems to be fast giving way to one disconnecting the two. In sum, the gap between the Party and Army appears to be increasing day by day in practice. Under the circumstances, the focus in the coming years is expected to be on whether or not a ‘State Army’ will emerge, replacing the present ‘Party Army’ model.

(The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Director of the Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. Email:


1. Liberation Army Daily, 1 July 1959 and 17 August 1959 2. Civil-Military Relations: Domestic Power and Policies, by Michael D.Swaine, Carnegie Endowment for Peace, 2 November 2005 3.China Daily News, Overseas edition, Taipei, 26 November 1989 4.Dai Yuanpeng, Liberation Army Daily, 15 July 2005 5.Xinhua, 17 Jul 2007 6. Qiu Shi, 16 July 2007, 31 July 2007 and 1 February 2009 7.Xinhua, 1 February 2009 8.Xu Caihua, Xinhua, 25 May 2005 9.Prof Shi Zhongquan, Deputy Chairman of the All China Party History Association, Liberation Army Daily, 19 July 2007 10. as in 9 above 11.Three ‘provides’ are: Provide support to ruling party, provide guarantee for success of national defence, provide strategic support to national interests; “One Role” – play a role for world peace and common development

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