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China: Party Vs PLA

There is a general consensus among China watchers that the Communist Party of China (CPC) remains firmly in control of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the country at large. The reasoning is that over the decades the number of military members have gone down gradually in 25 member Politburo (PB) of the party with only two currently, none in the highest decision making body the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) and also none in the important Party Secretariat. On the face of it, the argument sounds reasonable.

But one has to take a quick look at the development of the PLA from 1949, the birth of People’s Republic of China. When the Red Army led by Mao Zedong came to power there was hardly any difference between civilian and military personnel in the leadership ranks. The leadership comprising Military Commanders and Political Commissars, all wore uniform. Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, the ten Marshals were all ensconced in civil political work. Marshal Chen Yi became a foreign minister. Deng Xiaoping as a Political Commissar had led the famous 4th Field Army, was the Secretary General of the Party.

The youngest of the Marshals, Lin Biao was Mao’s putative successor. But Lin was in a hurry to overthrow Mao. His sister, ever loyal to the party high command, betrayed him, and in trying to escape to Russia, Lin died in a plane crash in Mongolia in 1971.

Therefore, a military man could have become China’s paramount leader. Would Lin Biao as China’s leader at that point of time have changed China’s course? Would he have changed China into a military dictatorship like many other countries in the world? Apparently not. The Chinese leaders were all bound by one ideology, though there were differences on issues which exist even today. This is natural. Only today’s dissenters are not purged from the party and consigned to labour camps.

Party vs PLA is not a zero sum game. The PLA is very much aware that the Party must remain in overall charge of the country. The Chinese must have a one Party rule in which the military will play its role. A military led government would shock the world and change China’s advantage in the world. Beijing would be seen a major threat to global and regional security and stability. This is exactly what has started since the PLA’s recent assertiveness on territorial issues.

The PLA game has been how to leverage greater power and say in the countries policies, especially foreign policy under the cover of the Party, and retain quasi-independence.

That the PLA does not want to take over the country was exemplified by its role to protect Deng Xiaoping and arrest the infamous “Gang of Four” and their supporters among the Party radicals immediately after Mao’s death in 1976. The rest was left to Deng to turn China into the ideological envelope of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” and controlled market economy.

Deng Xiaoping, one of the most prescient political leaders of his century, apparently saw that in the immediate new atmosphere of the post-Mao era the PLA as a whole was not trying to establish its power centre, but individual regional commanders were trying to set up their own power centres. It may have brought a vision of the ancient warring states syndrome.

Deng openly declared that there was no place for “Mountain Warlordism”. Military commanders and political commissioners had made it almost a rule to remain in charge of a region and influence and even direct the political party set up. Deng ensured that the regional military satraps were to be shifted around.

The other step that he took was to reduce the number of military regions from eleven to seven. This re-organization helped sideline commanders who were becoming too powerful for the central government’s comfort and helped the Central Military Commission (CMC) exercise better control.

Following the end of the Maoist era, Deng Xiaoping had to take over the Chairmanship of the CMC, though he deliberately kept for himself the civilian position of a Vice-Premier. But he was the first among equals of the Long March leaders, and the puppet master.

It may be noted that while Deng could create a new civilian leadership with Party General Secretaries like Hu Yaobang, and following his death in May 1989, Zhao Ziyang, but could not initially install a new civilian leader as the Chairman of the CMC.

The senior PLA leadership, the remnants of the Long March, were unwilling to accept the new political leaders of the Party as the head of their own citadel, the CMC. Deng Xiaoping was, of course, acceptable. He was their leader during the Long March. With Deng as the Chairman, Gen. Yang Shangkun, a political commissar, Long Marcher, and a trusted aide, held the position of the Executive Vice Chairman of the CMC. Rest of the CMC comprised military officers as is the case currently.

In terms of the PLA’s quest for power, the events that followed the June 1989 Tien An Men Square students’ protest throws some light. In spite of Deng’s orders, some PLA units refused to move in and break the sit down strike by students. They did not want to have the blood of their own people on their hands. Units of the PLA did move in on the protestors on June 4, resulting in deaths of still conflicting numbers.

Jiang Zemin was brought in from Shanghai to take over the Party. Even then, the PLA resisted Jiang from the Chairmanship of the CMC.

The PLA leadership of that time made a cardinal mistake which their predecessors and successors kept away from in a strategic calculation. Yang Shangkun and his younger half brother Gen. Yang Baibing, planned a coup. The plan was discovered and Deng removed them forthwith. And he wasted no time to install Jiang Zemin as the Chairman of the CMC.

Jiang had a difficult time in the initial period and had to be protected by Deng. The fixed retirement age both for civilian and military officers instituted by Deng ensured Jiang’s stability at that position.

Nevertheless, Jiang had to negotiate with the PLA all the time and appease them with promotions and other allurements including substantial raise in salaries. The PLA extracted from the Party sharp anti-Americanism on the US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Kosovo in 1999, and the American spy plane incident in 2001 near Hainan.

Following Hu Jintao’s takeover of the Party and the CMC from Jiang in 2003-2004, the PLA continued in its power growth which started around 1995. From 2004, the PLA and its associated thinks tank writings became more demanding and assertive. The most important new line was to argue that China had become politically, economically and militarily strong enough to discard Deng Xiaoping’s strategy of “hiding one’s strength and biding one’s time”.

It is around this time that the strategic postulate came from the PLA associates that China should control the region from the “Western line” (West Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, Indian Ocean) to the “Eastern Line” (Asia Pacific in terms of the first line of islands command which includes the South China Sea).

A close examination of the recent Chinese military exercises probing away from its coastal areas, aggressively and militarily demonstrating its sovereignty of the South China Sea do lend credence to the rising say of the PLA in China’s territorial and strategic foreign policy issues. It would be interesting to note in this context the Chinese navy traversing Japan-controlled channels in the East Asia region, and challenges Japan on territorial issues. It is also significant that Beijing did not come out with a condemnation of North Korea sinking a South Korean frigate. More questions will rise on the recent report (August 08) that a Japanese fishing vessel has been captured by North Korea. The PLA has pushed its confrontation with the US in the waters nearby, demanding that international waters off China’s coast, and the international shipping corridor remain under China’s executive control.

The response from China’s civilian government has been much more measured. The party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily and its subsidiary, the Global Times (August 04 & 05) sought a “mature” relationship with the US, admitted that China is weaker than the US, and warns a war between the two countries would be a global disaster.

In the meantime, the PLA is reportedly moving its Second Artillary (Missile Force) battery to the Guangdong coastal province with DF-21 series of missiles with range of 2000 km approximately, that are nuclear capable.

According to Chinese reports, it has started moving large scale military equipment and munitions to Tibet by train. SAM missiles have been spotted in Lhasa, and air bases along the border with India (Xigatze, Ngari etc.) have reached operational levels.

For India and most of the South East Asian countries especially Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia, the PLA is drawing a huge contour of forward aggression, unless these countries succumb to its new strategic map. Unfortunately, China’s “core interest” are growing exponentially with its military power. This is disturbing the equilibrium in the region, with states in the vicinity left wondering what would be China’s (or the PLA’s) next declaration of “core interest”.

To conclude, Vice-President and No.2 in the Politburo, Xi Jinping was tipped to be appointed as the Executive Vice Chairman of the CMC at the last party plenum. That, finally, did not happen. The exact reason is not known. The speculation is Hu Jintao has established a relationship of accommodation with the PLA to extend his Chairmanship of the CMC. Others say, the PLA top brass was resistant to a new boss who has yet to demonstrate his leadership. Or, is it, the PLA is against more than one civilian in the CMC?

The exclusion of Xi Jinping suggests that his military connections may not be as strong at the moment, given his age and his contemporaries in the PLA. Before and during the 18th Party Congress in 2012, retirement and promotions in the PLA are to take place.

Given the foregoing, the PLA has been pushing the envelope at any given opportunity. The Party’s pillars – the workers and peasants are weakening, while the main pillar, the soldiers (PLA) is gaining strength. The PLA’s influence in directing policy will depend upon how strong the Party is. At the moment, the party is beset with several difficult challenges within the country and, therefore, can be vulnerable when outside issues are concerned. The PLA scores here under the umbrella of the party.

The latest signal to note, however, is the PLA providing $1.5 million separately from the Chinese government, for Pakistan’s flood victims. This type of an independent action by the PLA, for to say the least, is rare.

This is the situation which has allowed the PLA’s external assertiveness and daring. It is not the question of the gun commanding the party, but the gun getting its way on issues it feels should be at its command. It is up to the regional and international community to take a count. With the US-China relations on a downward slide and President Hu Jintao’s proposed visit to the USA in November now in question, the PLA appears to be calling the shots. It suspended military-to-military contacts last November after Washington cleared a $6.4 billion arms transfer to Taiwan for legitimate defence requirements.

The foregoing leaves no doubt about the PLA’s new power assertion even in Beijing’s policy making. It is now the responsibility of the countries concerned on how to deal with the challenge.

There is an old saying taught in elementary schools in a moral context “united we stand, divided we fall”.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst with many years of experience. He can be reached at

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