The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) celebrates its founding during the 1927 Nanchang Uprising every year on August 1, China’s PLA Day or Army Day. Accordingly, each year on PLA Day, China’s official media provides authoritative coverage extolling the PLA’s accomplishments and highlighting the leadership’s current priorities. Recent examples have included editorials emphasizing “civil-military integration” in 2011 and discussion of the PLA’s “Historic Missions” in 2005 (“Civil-Military Integration Theme Marks PLA Day Coverage,” China Brief, August 12, 2011). As August 1, 2012 marked the 85th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), this year’s media coverage highlighted a grand reception held in the Great Hall of the People that was attended by more than 1,800 guests, including President Hu Jintao and all of the other members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) (People’s Daily, August 1). Editorials and related media coverage praised some of the PLA’s past accomplishments and extolled the progress it has made toward fulfilling the “historic missions” it received from President Hu Jintao in 2004. Another key theme in this year’s PLA Day coverage, however, was Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control of the military. Extensive discussion of party control and the PLA’s loyalty to the CCP seemed to suggest some concern about possible support for “nationalization” of the PLA—a concept that is surely anathema to the leaders who sit atop China’s Leninist political system and are currently preparing to hand over power to their successors at the 18th Party Congress this fall.
PLA Modernization and the “Historic Missions”
This year’s PLA Day media coverage highlighted the PLA’s recent accomplishments and the PLA’s growing ability to fulfill the “Historic Missions” that it received from President Hu Jintao in 2004. The PLA Day editorial that appeared in People’s Daily praised the PLA for its “brilliant contributions and splendid exploits” and underscored its role as a “strong pillar of socialism with Chinese characteristics” (zhongguo tese shehui zhuyi de jianqiang zhushi). According to the People’s Daily editorial:
“National defense and armed forces building always hold an important place in the overall cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics. Without a strong national defense and powerful armed forces, there would be no smooth advancement or great achievements in the modernization of China. All along, whether it is resolutely defending state sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity, pushing forward its own reform and development, actively participating in and supporting economic and social development, or actively taking part in emergency assistance and disaster relief, the PLA has consciously obeyed and served the overall interest of the work of the party and the state, effectively carried out the historic missions, and proved that it lives up to its role as a strong pillar and important building force of socialism with Chinese characteristics” (People’s Daily, August 1).
Moreover, the People’s Daily editorial continued, the PLA should continue to work toward fulfilling its “historic missions” by “providing an important power and guarantee for consolidating the party’s ruling position, a strong security guarantee for national development, and a powerful strategic support for safeguarding national interests, and playing an important role in maintaining world peace” (People’s Daily, August 1). As would be expected, PLA Daily was no less effusive in its praise, publishing an editorial that lauded the PLA’s recent accomplishments:
“Since the 16th Party Congress, under the strong leadership of the Communist Party Central Committee with Comrade Hu Jintao as general secretary, the PLA has made historic progress in enhancing its revolutionary character and achieving modernization and regularization, continuously expanded and deepened its preparations for military struggle, further strengthened its deterrence and actual operational capabilities under informatized conditions, continuously enhanced its ability to perform its missions, and remarkably fulfilled various tasks…from the campaign against the SARS epidemic to its responses to the disasters caused by freezing rain and snowstorms, from the Wenchuan and Yushu earthquake rescue and relief efforts to its responses to the extremely serious flood and mudslide disaster in Zhouqu, from the National Day military parade in the capital to supporting the Beijing Olympic Games, the Shanghai Expo, and the Asian Games in Guangzhou, from the escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and waters off Somalia to its participation in UN peacekeeping and international rescue missions, the People’s Army has always charged ahead, bravely shouldered heavy responsibilities, played an important role, made outstanding contributions, and won the acclamation of the Party and the people” (PLA Daily, August 1).
Other PLA Day coverage urged the PLA to continue improving its capabilities to support its “historic missions.” For example, a Xinhua commentary stated the following:
“It is necessary to persistently focus on the historic missions for the armed forces at the new stage in the new century (xin shiji xin jieduan jundui lishi shiming). While facing a more complex security environment, all of the work of the People’s Army must be centered on the effective performance of the historic missions…Only by being faithful to its missions, dedicated to its missions, and living up to its missions can the People’s Army provide a stronger security guarantee for the cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics” (Xinhua, July 31).
At the same time, however, as if to avoid creating the impression that the PLA’s growing ability to perform these missions might tempt China to adopt a more unyielding stance in dealing with its neighbors, official media also indicated that China’s growing military power was commensurate with its rising economic and technological status, emphasized that the PLA remains many years behind the world’s leading military, and promised that the development of the PLA “poses no threat to any nation” (Xinhua, July 31).
Party Control and PLA Loyalty
Beyond praise for the PLA’s past accomplishments and exhortations to continue improving its core military capabilities and its ability to effectively perform non-traditional security missions, PLA Day media coverage clearly highlighted the theme of Communist Party Control of the PLA and emphasized the central importance of the PLA’s loyalty to the Party. The August 1st editions of PLA Daily and People’s Daily featured comments from an 85th anniversary speech given by General Liang Guanglie, Minister of National Defense. Both papers published General Liang’s statements that the PLA’s accomplishments and progress should be seen as “the results of the correct guidance of the military theories of the Party” (dang de junshi lilun zhengque zhiyin de jieguo) and highlighted the emphasis he placed on “the need to unswervingly adhere to the fundamental principle and system of the Party’s absolute leadership over the armed forces” (People’s Daily, August 1; PLA Daily, August 1).
Similarly, the People’s Daily editorial extolling the PLA’s role as a “pillar” stated that the “fundamental reason” for the PLA’s success was “maintaining the party’s leadership.” Furthermore, the editorial indicated that strengthening the PLA’s ability to perform the “historic missions” would require ensuring that “the troops will resolutely obey the party’s command and be absolutely loyal and reliable, take this as the primary task that must be grasped persistently in force building, and guarantee the effective implementation of the fundamental principle and system of placing the armed forces under the Party’s command” (People’s Daily, August 1). Moreover, at a press conference held on the eve of Army Day, Wang Yongsheng of the PLA’s General Political Department (GPD) stated: "The PLA was founded and is under the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC), and the CPC’s absolute leadership over the army is the army’s fundamental system and principle" (Xinhua, August 1). In addition, in the CCP Central Committee’s official journal, Seeking Truth, Academy of Military Science (AMS) president Liu Chengjun and AMS political commissar Sun Sijing stressed the importance of the Party’s leadership over the military. "Under whose leadership the armed forces are placed and whose command they obey is the core content of the military system," Liu and Sun wrote (Qiushi, August 1). Other official reports, such as Xinhua’s PLA Day commentary, struck similar chords:
“To advance national defense and armed forces building from a new historical starting point, it is necessary to maintain the party’s absolute leadership over the armed forces (jianchi dang dui jundui juedui lingdao) and take this as the primary issue in the building and development of the People’s Army. The PLA should always take the party’s banner as its banner, take the party’s will as its will, vigorously foster the core values of contemporary revolutionary military personnel, energetically develop advanced military culture, and resolutely obey the commands of the Party central leadership, the Central Military Commission, and Chairman Hu Jintao in all of its actions” (Xinhua, July 31).
That PLA Day media coverage would highlight such themes is unsurprising, especially considering the emphasis the CCP historically has placed upon its primacy over the military, in line with Mao Zedong’s famous dictum that “the Party commands the gun.” The emphasis on CCP control and the PLA’s loyalty could be seen as reflecting this historical preoccupation and perhaps general concerns about holding a steady course ahead of the upcoming 18th Party Congress, which will mark the transition from the Party’s current leadership group to the next generation of top leaders. Presumably, party leaders are particularly determined to avoid any further unpleasant surprises as they move toward the culmination of a succession process that has gone relatively smoothly on the whole, but has also been overshadowed to some extent by the drama of Bo Xilai’s ouster and his wife’s arrest on murder charges. While this could account for the emphasis on party control and PLA loyalty, there is also at least some reason to believe that it could reflect concerns about an extremely sensitive issue—possible calls for “nationalization” of the PLA, which would threaten to fundamentally transform the role of an institution that has been a party-army for its entire 85-year history.
Resisting “Nationalization” and Other “Mistaken Ideas”
Indeed, the strong emphasis on party control appears closely linked to recent commentary about resisting "nationalization" of the PLA, a theme that has been emphasized in a number of editorials this year following rumors that a top PLA officer was under investigation for supporting “army nationalization” (South China Morning Post, March 22). Some of this year’s Army Day media coverage echoed the theme of resisting “nationalization.” For example, a brief August 1 Xinhua report stressing the CCP’s “absolute leadership over the army” stated that Beijing would “resolutely oppose any erroneous ideas about the de-politicization of its army,” ideas which it said clearly had “ulterior motives” (Xinhua, August 1). The Xinhua report was vague about who, if anyone, was advocating such de-politicization, but starker and at least somewhat more specific language appeared in a Global Times summary of Army Day media coverage, which bluntly stated: “Discussion about nationalization of the PLA, namely stripping the Party of its leadership over the military, has caught some attention this year, reflecting dissident thinking within the PLA and among scholars” (Global Times, August 1).
This was not the first time this year that the Chinese media had given prominent voice to such concerns. On July 1st, a PLA Daily editorial marking the 91st anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) raised similar concerns about any support for a “non-Party or non-politicized army” (jundui feidanghua, feizhengzhihua), or “army nationalization” (jundui guojiahua) (PLA Daily, July 1). Similarly, in mid-May, Global Times highlighted concerns that “nationalization” of the armed forces could be part of a foreign plot to undermine China’s political system, warning that the United States and other Western countries have used “nationalization” of the armed forces as “a strategic tool…to subvert the systems of socialist countries” (Global Times, May 18). The Global Times piece echoed an earlier PLA Daily exhortation to remain vigilant against conspiracies aimed at separating the military from the Party and adhere to the system of party control of the armed forces (PLA Daily, May 15). In April, another PLA Daily editorial highlighted similar themes (PLA Daily, April 6). All of this followed a March PLA Daily editorial entitled “Resolutely Resist ‘Nationalization of the Army’ and Other Mistaken Concepts,” which highlighted the “special significance” of 2012 in the history of the Party and the PLA, owing to the 18th Party Congress, and stressed the importance of “unswervingly adhering to the fundamental principle and system of the Party’s absolute leadership of the military” (PLA Daily, March 19).
More Smoke than Fire?
This year’s Army Day media coverage not only celebrated the PLA’s 85th anniversary, but also placed strong emphasis on Party control of the military and the loyalty of the army to the CCP, in keeping with a body of commentary this year that seems to reflect some anxiety about support for “army nationalization.” The leadership transition may well be intensifying such concerns, but exhortations to remain obedient to the Party and resist calls for “nationalization” have been a recurrent theme in official media for a decade or more, making it very difficult to discern whether anything truly unusual is afoot this time. Nonetheless, the emphasis on resisting “army nationalization” suggests ensuring the PLA’s loyalty to the Party is a preoccupation for Hu Jintao and other top leaders as the succession process unfolds.