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China: Divergence of Opinions on the Party’s Status vis-à-vis the Military and the State Constitutio

C3S Paper No. 0214/2015

It would be  justifiable for  analysts  to ask  following  questions concerning two aspects of the governance in the People’s Republic of China (PRC)  – firstly, when it is normal for any nation in the world to empower the State to command the military, why in China , the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)  is adamant to ‘absolutely control’ the  entire army apparatus and secondly, why the PRC is following a political system in which “the CCP  governs the country on the basis of the constitution”. It is undeniable that the subjects coming under the questions are vital to the country’s future political and legal reforms. Also, deserving recognition are facts  that  the  first question is a corollary to a fundamental  second and  that in  both cases, the party faces obstacles from the still not so strong  ‘liberals’ in the country. The study which follows makes an attempt to critically examine the situation which has come to prevail   in this respect and trace the possible outlook for future.

Taking military situation first, being witnessed today are a heavy stress from the Chinese leaders on the need for the country’s armed forces to adhere to ‘Party Commands the Gun’, a principle laid down by the CCP from the very beginning (Herein after called ‘Principle’) and appearance of signs that the Principle is being challenged from ‘liberals’ within the CCP and the society. In such situation, one needs to understand the compulsions as being felt by the CCP to exercise control over the army; it may consider  the Principle  as a key guarantee for maintenance of the party rule and  be aware that in the event of delinking of the military from the CCP and its takeover instead by the State, there could be serious repercussions with respect to both domestic politics in China. The outside world, on its part, may think for right reasons that any change in party-army equation can have implications for China’s foreign policy, which has become assertive in the wake of allotment in recent years of priority by the PRC to protection of ‘core national interests’, a task assigned to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). In this background, focus has been given in the ensuing paragraphs on analyzing three points – the rationale being attached to the Principle by the leadership in China, sources of challenges to the Principle and the future outlook.

About the rationale for the Principle, the picture is clear, taking into view the statements coming from the country’s top leaders and opinions emanating from authoritative writers.  The CCP General Secretary and the PRC President, Xi Jinping exhorted (November 2015) officers and personnel of the PLA to maintain “correct political direction, under a series of designs and arrangements to consolidate the basic principle that the CCP has absolute leadership of the armed forces”, along with a caution to the military that it should not get influenced by ideas of ‘political liberalism[1].  Xi’s reference to ‘political liberalism’ appears to suggest his concern over possible reservations within the PLA on the principle of party controlling the army.  Earlier, the leader observed  (December 2012) that “in the Soviet Union, the military was depoliticized, separated from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU)  and nationalized. The party was disarmed.   Finally, Gorbachev announced the disbandment of the CPSU.  Nobody was man enough to stand up and resist the party’s losing command of the military which led to the Soviet Union’s collapse. There was not one person who was man enough to turn back the tide”[2].  Also, Xi’s speech (October 2014) echoed the  relevance of the  Principle, to tackle the “  serious problems existing  in the army’s ideological and political development, like those concerning  faith, Party ideology, revolutionary spirit, discipline, work styles,  management of officials and  the military’s supervision system”.[3]

Xi is not the only leader to explain why implementation of the Principle is necessary.   Other top PLA leaders have also done so, saying that the principle is a remedy to the existing ‘mistaken backward things’ in the military like ‘De-politicisation’ of the Army (feizhengzhihua), Party-Army separation (feidanghua) and ‘Nationalisation’ of the Army (guojiahua)[4] . Authoritative views[5]  expressed (November 2014) by scholars attached to party and government have contained a warning that unless the party is in charge of the army, there can be a military coup in China.

From the foregoing,  it looks beyond doubt that  the rationale for the principle of  the CCP having ‘absolute control’  over the PLA, as being perceived by the leadership in China, is  twofold- firstly, the Principle is a guarantee against any Soviet-type collapse in China and secondly, in the absence of that  Principle, a military coup is possible in the PRC. Such thinking may be debatable, but it, being noticed at China’s top levels, is worth not ignoring.

On sources of challenges to the Principle, it can be said that they had operated in the ‘revolutionary’ period and continue to exist in some form or other ever since the ‘liberation’ of the country on October 1, 1949.   Notable 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 that ‘monolithic military thoughts’ are prevailing in the party with some even preferring ‘liquidation of party committees in the military.[6]

In eighties and nineties, there were reports on support to a ‘nationalized’ army, coming from advisers to the then Premier Zhao Ziyang as well as some leading organs.[7] Evidence suggesting a test for the Party in enforcing its control over the army  seen in this period included – lack of enthusiasm on the part of some PLA men in the matter of dealing with 1989 Tiananmen student protests,[8]   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 Central Military Commission (CMC) chief Jiang Zemin should be answerable to the parliament.

A trend towards identifying ‘foreign hostile forces’ as sources of challenge to the Principle began in 2005. It was alleged that these ‘hostile forces’ were trying to ‘Westernize’, ‘Divide’ and ‘Depoliticize’ the army. Their attempts were described as ‘important component’ of carrying out a ‘peaceful evolution’ in China.[9] It was followed by leveling of charges against   ‘some factions’ in China for their support to bringing the army under the State control.[10] An authoritative argument[11] in 2007 gave a subtle warning against emergence of leaders like Zhang Guodao who were ‘right opportunists” and had supported army ‘nationalization’. It called for remembering such events in party history. It in addition cautioned the CCP against repeating the mistake committed by the CPSU leading to its collapse, by the way of delinking the Soviet Army from the party.

In 2014, the Liberation Army Daily named ‘foreign hostile forces’ for “preaching the nationalization and de-politicization of the military, attempting to muddle our minds and drag our military out from under the Party’s flag.” In a front-page editorial, the same daily alleged (June 7, 2015) that “enemy forces” were trying to infiltrate the ranks to push for the “de-politicization” of the military and remove the party’s leadership role. It added that ‘liberalism’ has always been the great enemy of strictly maintaining political discipline”, citing a 1937 warning by Mao. It charged that “still today, political liberalism floats up from the dregs from time to time.” As a latest tendency in China, the term ‘foreign hostile forces’ is  now getting associated with US intelligence agencies. [12]

Xi’s reference to the idea of ‘political liberalism’ while alerting the military on challenges to the Principle (reference paragraph above), may indirectly point to his identification of that idea as a source operating within in the military challenging the Principle. This gives rise to the need for examining the ‘political liberalism’ phenomenon in a broader perspective, especially by looking beyond the military.

It can be seen that the ‘political liberalism’ idea has been inherent in the concept of “constitutionalism”, a debate on which took place during 2012-13. Such finding can be said as  based only on inference, because there was no direct  reference in the concept to the principle of ‘party commanding the gun’. Arguments put forward by a ‘liberal’ group in favor of “constitutionalism”  was based on its thinking that a government’s power should be restrained by a higher system of laws which protect citizens’ rights. In other words, they pleaded that all institutions in China,   should function under the State constitution and laws. This group [13] seemed to have consisted of influential academicians / institutions/ internet contributors. The Central Party School’s “Study Times” carried an article by the Party historian Li Haiqing calling for “the introduction of constitutional concepts of citizenship to replace the political notion of the masses”. It added that hopes for “democratic reform” were high after the 18th party congress and it was imperative for leaders to introduce political reform to promote citizens’ political rights and their participation in policymaking.

On the opposite side, there were strong criticisms[14] of the ‘liberal’ pro-constitutionalism ideas from within the CCP and its journals like the CCP-run Qiu Shi (Seeking Truth), “Red Flag Manuscripts” (Hongqi Wengao), the People’s Daily Overseas Edition and “Party construction”

How Xi Jinping himself perceives “constitutionalism” is an interesting question. He observed soon after assumption of power (December 4, 2012) that the ‘vitality of the constitution lies in its implementation”. Addressing the Second Plenum of the 18th Central Committee, the leader stated (February 2013) that “no organization or individual should be put above the Constitution or the law”. He followed that up by saying (April 22, 2013) on the occasion of 30th anniversary of promulgation of the country’s constitution that the “rule of the nation by law means, first and foremost, ruling the nation in accord with the constitution. The party would act within the framework of the constitution and the law”. Subsequently, on the occasion of the Constitution Day (December 4, 2014), Xi said that the constitution is paramount, that it is  the highest law of the country and that  it embodies the will of the Party and the people. Overall, thus, Xi seems to be recognizing the status of nation’s constitution as the supreme instrument of governance. But disregard to the constitution and laws is becoming visible as Xi continues to take repressive measures like curtailment of freedom of expression including in the Internet, censorship of media, detention of lawyers and activists, sacking of liberal-minded academicians from posts, suppression of religious groups and targeting those believing in  “western values”. In a nutshell, the gulf between Xi Jinping’s words and actions,   seems to indicate the leader’s ambivalence  on the question of which is supreme- the party or the constitution.    

 The foregoing suggests that differences within the party on the principle of ‘party commands the gun’ may still persist; there is of course no clear picture about the identity of those challenging the Principle.  Xi Jinping however may surely not relent on this count. He may need the army support to thwart any threat to stability of his regime on the premise that it would be possible only when the CCP controls the military. He may remember that both Mao and Deng had to depend  on the PLA  to bring back normalcy in the country- Mao after  Cultural Revolution and Deng after  the 1989 Tiananmen student protests.

 Regarding the likely picture on the party’s place under the state constitution, the leadership in China would certainly further improve the conditions with regard to the rule of law, but without diluting the degree of party’s overall supremacy.  It looks uncertain in what way the present ‘liberal’ opposition will progress from now on; it is very weak, but  seems to have established some roots; even within the CCP, there seems to be  an ideological rift about how far the regime can go on the question of making the constitution supreme[15]. In the circumstances, political and legal reforms in China from now on will at the best be only incremental.

 Suffice to  conclude therefore is   that there is not going to be any fundamental change soon in the CCP’s supreme status in the PRC’s political and military systems, which as on today stands written both in the party and state constitutions.[16]


[1] Xi’s ‘important’’ speech delivered at the Reform Work Conference of the Central Military Commission , Beijing, November 24-26, 2015).

[2] In this context, useful to recall are Xi’s  observations  (December 2012) that “in the Soviet Union, the military was depoliticized, separated from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU)  and nationalized. The party was disarmed. A few people tried to save the Soviet Union; they seized Gorbachev, but within days it was turned around again, because they didn’t have the instruments to exert power. Yeltsin gave a speech standing on a tank, but the military made no response, keeping so-called neutrality. Finally, Gorbachev announced the disbandment of the CPSU. A big Party was gone just like that. Proportionally, the CPSU had more members than the CCP does, but nobody was man enough to stand up and resist the party’s losing command of the military which led to the Soviet Union’s collapse. There was not one person who was man enough to turn back the tide”.

[3] Speech at the  Political Work Conference of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army-PLA, held in Gutian township, Shanghang county, Fujian province, on October 30, 2014.

[4] Li Jinai, a CMC member and head of the General Political Department of the PLA , ‘Qiu Shi’, the theoretical organ of the CCP ,  April 1,  2009).

[5] Zhang Hui, “Party commands gun”, Global Times, November 3, 2014. ( It quotes Wang Zhanyang, a professor with the Central Institute of Socialism as saying that “in today’s China, without the leadership of the CCP, the military could easily fall into an uncontrolled state. The absolute leadership of the Party prevents the military coups that frequently occur in some Latin American and Asian countries.” It adds that Wang’s opinion was echoed by Xu Yaotong, a professor with the Chinese Academy of Governance, who explains that “unlike Western countries, China has only one ruling party. Thus the country faces different conditions regarding the relationship between the

party  and the military”.

[6] Liberation Army Daily, July 1, 1959 and  August 17,  1959

[7] Civil-Military Relations: Domestic Power and Policies, by Michael D.Swaine, Carnegie Endowment for Peace, November 2,  2005

[8] China Daily News, Overseas edition, Taipei,  November 26, 1989

[9] Dai Yuanpeng, Liberation Army Daily, July 15, 2005 [10] Xinhua,  Jul 17, 2007

[11] Prof Shi Zhongquan, Deputy Chairman of the All China Party History Association, Liberation Army Daily, July 19, 2007

[12] People’s Daily (overseas edition) alleged ( August 5,2013) in a  front-page commentary that the spread of “constitutional-rule” ideas – in China was fostered by foundations affiliated with US intelligence agencies that aimed to overturn socialism. It warned that “constitutionalism” under the disguise of “democratic socialism” was more dangerous than one under the name of capitalism as the former was designed to subvert socialism around the world.

[13]  Examples are remarks of  Qinhui, a professor at Tsinghua university in Beijing and author of the popular book “ Out of Imperialism”,  central party school journal ‘Study Times’,  many liberal  periodicals like Yan Huang Chun Qiu and journals like ‘Caijing’, Southern Weekend and   several portals like “Love Thinking” (ai sixiang), “Consensus Net” and “Gong Shi Wang”.

[14] Qiu Shi (October 2013) said that those “promoting constitutionalism idea are pressing us into conducting the political reform they aim for, and their basic objective is that they want to abolish the leader-ship of the CCP and change our country’s Socialist system”.  The  ‘Decision Concerning Several Major Issues In Comprehensively Advancing Governance According to Law,’ a document  of the party’s Fourth Plenum (October 2014)  while giving approval to  the ‘socialist rule of law’ in the country, first time to  happen in such sessions,  did not fail to reiterate the overall party’s  supremacy in the Chinese political system. It described party’s official position in clearest terms– “governance according to law requires that the CCP governs the country   on the basis of the constitution and laws and that the party leadership and socialist rule of law are identical.  Not to be missed is the fact that in the Decision, though the term “constitution” appeared 38 times, there has been no mention of “constitutionalism.”  It did not say anything about strengthening the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the power of the NPC standing committee for interpreting or applying the constitution.  Qiu Shi’s 2014 New Year edition contained an article by Chen Jiping, the Party Secretary of the Law Society of China, on constructing the rule of law with Chinese characteristics. In his  view, there is no difference between Party leadership, the popular will, and the public interest, as “safeguarding the authority of the Constitution and the law means safeguarding the authority of the Party and the common will of the people. Guaranteeing the implementation of the Constitution and the law means the guaranteeing the realization of the people’s fun-damental interests”.

[15] Suggesting existence of intra-party differences on the issue of ‘’constitutionalism’’, all party periodicals (except ‘Caijing’) did not publish Xi’s remarks that the Party must “use the constitution to rule the country”. Such differences are  also visible in the contrast seen between  the “Study Times” article    and  the write-ups in other journals of the CCP like ‘Qiu Shi’ (seeking truth).

[16] China’s constitution promulgated in 1982 says that “the people of all nationalities, all state organs, the armed forces, all political parties and public organizations and all enterprises and institutions in the country must take the constitution as the basic standard of conduct, and they have the duty to uphold the dignity of the constitution and ensure its implementation”. The CCP Constitution (Amended and adopted at the 16th party Congress held on November 14, 2002) mentions that the party “persists in its leadership over the PLA and other people’s armed forces, builds up the strength of the PLA  and gives full play to its role in consolidating national defence, defending the motherland and participating in the socialist modernisation drive”. On constitution and laws, at  the CCP plenum (October 2014),  it has officially been declared that  “governance according to law requires that the CCP governs the country   on the basis of the constitution and laws and that the party leadership and socialist rule of law are identical”.

(The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Distinguished Fellow, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India.Contributing date – December 26, 2015. Email:

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