On August 1, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) celebrated Army Day, the anniversary of its founding during the Nanchang Uprising in 1927. Commentaries in official media often use the holiday to propagate important military policy themes. While last year’s editorials focused on establishing the PLA’s part in President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream,” this year’s theme reinforces that “strong military dream” (qiangjun meng) and optimistically looks forward after the two major anti-corruption cases, the arrests of retired Generals Xu Caihou and Gu Junshan. Lengthy coverage of Xi’s visit to Fujian in the company of other Central Military Commission leaders added instructions for civilian officials on their role in supporting the PLA’s modernization. In many respects, the simplicity of the message suggests stability in the ranks, policy direction and civil-military relations.
The “strong military dream” pronounced under Xi includes the following key tenants: the ability to fight and win wars (neng dazhang, da shengzhang), absolute PLA loyalty to the party and improved work style (youliang zuofeng) (China Brief, August 23, 2013). Variations of these policy phrases have appeared repeatedly since last Army Day, including in Central Committee plenum documents, National People’s Congress statements and authoritative articles (China Brief, March 20). Perhaps the most important part of Xi’s dream is the connection drawn between the PLA’s fighting capability and the safety of China’s development, making the PLA deterrent critical to all other aspects of the “China Dream” (PLA Daily, August 1; Qiushi, July 31; PLA Daily, March 15).
Progress Despite Threatening External Developments
After usual laudatory sentiments on Army Day, the PLA Daily’s principal editorial marking the occasion used China’s two wars with Japan (1894–1895 and 1937–1945) to illustrate the dangers China faces without an increasingly strong PLA. The commentary opined that weakness leads to being pushed around; the first war was a defeat and victory in the second came at too high a price. At the moment, great power competition appears to be intensifying and “external hostile forces are unwilling to see a strong China and will do everything to contain and curb the development of China,” singling out Japan’s so-called militarist revival under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as the most dangerous regional threat (PLA Daily, August 1). Writing the senior officer commentary, Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Xu Qiliang stated the PLA’s mission is to support the achievement of the “Chinese Dream,” reversing the historical humiliations inflicted upon China (Qiushi, July 31).
This theme of a strong PLA being a force for peace and the need to provide effective deterrence providing the shield for China’s rise continues to serve as the guiding principle for the PLA under Xi Jinping. And this perspective enjoys some acclaim For example, the editorial staff at the Global Times postulated that, if the PLA was not becoming more effective over time, then the story of China’s rise “would have to be rewritten.” The PLA is “the cornerstone of China’s national security and strategic deterrence,” enabling China to be competitive internationally and rise on its own terms (Global Times, August 1).
Two conclusions should be drawn from this. First, “deterrence” in Chinese terminology can include any coercive diplomacy short of conflict and actual shots fired, so nothing in the Army Day editorials should be taken to suggest that Beijing’s behavior will moderate. Second, Chinese leaders continue to see their foreign policy as reactive, trying to protect established Chinese gains from foreign interference.
The defeat by Japan in the 1894–1895 war also served as a reminder of the need for the PLA’s absolute loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Cronyism and vanity among the Qing’s generals served to divide the military against itself and undermined any unified command (PLA Daily, August 1; Qiushi, July 31). Regardless of the emphasis on change and reform in most military domains, according to CMC Vice Chairman Xu, absolute loyalty to the party and remaining a people’s army are the unchanging foundation of PLA modernization (Qiushi, July 31). Or, as Xi noted in a March 15 speech, republished on Army Day, “Reform is to better adhere to the Party’s absolute leadership over the army, to better adhere to the nature and purpose of the people’s army” (PLA Daily, August 1). No matter how much the PLA changes, this requirement is an unswerving and unsurprising element of Xi’s military reform drive.
Improving the PLA’s work style (youliang zuofeng) may be the most visible effort of the last year, with the downfall of former CMC Vice Chairman Xu Caihou and General Logistics Department deputy director Gu Junshan. Both had exploited their positions, as a political officer and logistics officer, respectively, to sell promotions to undeserving officers and establish a network of dependents (Xinhua, July 31; China Daily, July 3). Army Day coverage compared Xu’s actions to the corruption that sapped the Qing Dynasty’s strength (PLA Daily, August 1; China Online, August 1). In a lengthy interview, the political commissar of the Shenyang Military Region explained that, because war is decided by human factors, cronyism, corruption and anything else that affects the selection of talented officers undermines military strength (Study Times, July 28). Lauding the anti-corruption successes of the last year, one quasi-official editorial expressed faith in Xi Jinping and military reform and predicted that the PLA will become an effective shield for China against external interference (Global Times, August 1).
Leveraging Technology for a Strong Military
One of the areas where the PLA continues to claim progress is producing new technological solutions for old tasks. With the increasing availability and flow of information across society, traditional tasks like military political work have needed to be revisited—a point echoed in General Xu’s Army Day essay (Qiushi, July 31). Maintaining the “absolute loyalty” of the PLA to the party under today’s conditions requires reaching soldiers through the media that they use in daily life. Moreover, the intensification of ideological conflict using modern information technology—presumably from hostile foreign forces—requires countervailing Chinese propaganda and more sophisticated filtering mechanisms (PLA Daily, August 1). Consequently, the General Political Department is developing online political education and propaganda work applications to reach soldiers outside of mandated study sessions. This development first emerged several years ago, but the repeated references indicate that the PLA views these tools as the future of political education (China Brief, February 3, 2012). They might even free up time for more combat-related training, supporting a major Xi-era goal.
The second area where the Army Day coverage highlighted new opportunities offered by technology is advanced simulations—both for tactical and strategic purposes (Xinhua, August 1; PLA Daily, August 1). In terms of its training, the PLA may be pursuing more realistic training exercises; however, the reported equipment and personnel attrition rate through accidents seems unbelievable by modern military standards. Realistic training leads to accidents; yet, for example, the number of PLA Air Force and Naval aviation aircraft that fall out of the sky is remarkably low—averaging less than one per year for the last 15 years, with roughly 75 percent involving variants of the older J-7, based on this author’s searches. According to one Western diplomat, the reluctance to engage fully in realistic training may stem from the fact that a service leader could be held accountable for such accidents. For example, the widely-reported crash of a navy Su-27 two years ago might have affected navy commander Wu Shengli.  More advanced and realistic simulation could improve capabilities beyond where they are now without the risk to rising leadership. At the operational and strategic levels, simulations offer the chance to experiment with different approaches to campaigns, examining the potential effectiveness of particular ways of fighting. As an example, Naval Logistics Technology Equipment Institute analysts Meng Chunguang and Guo Yadong highlighted the U.S. Navy’s simulations of mine warfare against the Japanese ahead of World War II. Meng and Guo assessed the U.S. Navy’s rigorous testing contributed to U.S. mines being the single most effective weapon against the Imperial Navy, sinking the majority of Japanese ships, because the navy had invested in mine warfare capacity as a result of the simulation (PLA Daily, August 1).
Xi Jinping and Building Relations with the PLA
On Army Day, President Xi visited his old haunts in Fujian Province with the CMC Vice Chairmen Xu Qiliang and Fan Changlong, prompting a lengthy Fujian Ribao article that was re-transmitted nationally through Xinhua. The most important elements of the piece dealt with Xi’s decisions as a provincial official in his dual PLA role for the military districts, demonstrating the mutually-reinforcing connection between economic development and military modernization.
Economic development and military modernization go hand-in-hand, and the military-civil integration and the PLA’s status as a “people’s army” requires local officials to think also of local military needs. Xi explained that, learning from communist revolution and witnessing the close connections between older party cadre and military officers, he formed affection for the PLA. As a rising provincial official in Fujian, Xi helped PLA dependents find part-time government work to supplement their spouses pay and issued directives for his subordinates to provide similar support. In Fuzhou, Xi also used the city’s resources to upgrade the road system around one PLA base, improving mobilization times. His willingness to support the PLA and address problems brought to him by local commanders surprised officers, who were who apparently unaccustomed to local officials providing unsolicited support (Xinhua, August 1).
Although there is no way to know exactly how Xi built his much-touted ties to the PLA—which go beyond what one might expect from a brief stint in the Ministry of National Defense and his princeling ties—this exposition offers another insight into Xi’s careful rise through the ranks and his thinking. The Xinhua piece cited a China Defense article published under Xi’s name in 2000 that foreshadowed some of the Army Day themes noted above. Xi wrote, “A country without defense is unstable, a people without soldiers are unsafe [guo wufang bu wen, min wubing bu an]. Supporting the development of the reserve forces is to support economic development, to support the Reform and Opening [policy]” (Xinhua, August 1).
This year’s Army Day editorials and other publications reinforce existing Xi Jinping’s existing military reform policy and offer little new on the policy front. The most interesting elements are the technological and civil-military economic cooperation (with Xi as an exemplar) outlined in the August 1 coverage. Military-civil integration—the theme of Army Day three years ago, which focused on leveraging technological and organizational advances in the civilian sector—seems to be encouraged as a pathway for CCP cadres to advance their careers, and perhaps as a way to trade favors and build networks without undermining national priorities (for more on previous Army Day editorials on civil-military integration, see China Brief, August 12, 2011).
The Army Day editorials also underscores that Marxism has not left the party. CCP and PLA leaders claim their ideological orientation offers unique insights into the course of history.  As the chief of the PLA Daily Group wrote in a Central Party School periodical, the openness of this historical period allows hostile Western forces to expose Chinese soldiers and officers to mistaken ideas and concepts, such as army nationalization (guojiahua), constitutionalism and universal values. Only under the leadership of the party can the PLA anticipate and overcome the obstacles to achieving Xi’s “China Dream” and the supplemental “Dream of a Strong Military” (Qiushi, July 31). Beneficially, however, for the analyst, the structured and dialectic approach keeps an open window on how the PLA approaches modernization.
Finally, irrespective of the PLA’s actual capabilities, the emphasis on deterrence as a core mission means that conveying the impression of improving capabilities is a military end in itself. The relatively objective and critical views of Chinese military capabilities from within the force suggest PLA officers understand their limitations in spite of the propaganda (Study Times, August 11; China Brief, May 9, 2013). Such progress is difficult to assess from laudatory propaganda; however, the danger is less that foreign analysts will be deceived than that Chinese leaders, commentators and citizens may overestimate the PLA’s abilities.
- Author’s Interview, May 2014.
- Timothy Heath, “Xi Jinping’s Military Reform Drive,” Fourth Annual China Defense and Security Conference, Washington, DC, March 25, 2014: DVD Recording available at < www.jamestown.org/store/dvds >.