On January 1, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) put into effect new revisions to its National Defense Law (henceforth, “Law”) (中华人民共和国国防法 zhonghua renmin gonghe guo guofang fa) (Xinhua, December 26, 2020; South China Morning Post, January 3). This is the first update since 2009. Although the revisions might seem ordinary at first glance, they have important implications for the future of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which—it is worth noting—answers to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), not the state. There has been tension throughout the PRC’s history surrounding the subordination of the armed forces relative to the Party, the state and indeed the paramount leader. The new defense law reinforces the preeminence in this relationship of Xi Jinping (习近平), who is already chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and commander-in-chief of the CMC Joint Operations Command Center, as well as CCP General Secretary and president of the Chinese state.
This revision can be summarized with three main points: 1) It symbolically brings the law into line with Xi’s program; 2) it further consolidates defense mobilization and Party discipline powers under Xi and 3) it sends a message of Xi’s resolve and power, both within China and to the world. This consolidation of power reflects a fear of losing control. Overall, the Law is another step in Xi’s program of maximalism (The Diplomat, January 30, 2019), putting on a bold front that suggests a struggle against counter currents both abroad and at home.
Explicitly inserting the language of “Xi Thought,” including Xi Jinping’s Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想 xi jinping xin shidai zhongguo tese shehui zhuyi sixiang) and Xi Jinping’s Thought on Military Strengthening and Comprehensive National Security Thought, among others, brings the Law into ideological alignment with the nation’s paramount leader. This is most apparent in article 1, which states:
“In order to build and consolidate national defense, ensure the smooth progress of Reform and Opening and Socialist Modernization, and realize the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation, this law is established in accordance with the Constitution.” (additions italicized)
The “Chinese nation” (中华民族, Zhonghua Minzu) refers to the PRC as a national, multi-ethnic state. There is, however, a second definition of minzu, namely “ethnicity” or “race.” In addition to citizenship, Zhonghua can also refer a more essentialist notion of Chinese ethnicity. In recent years, Beijing has expanded its claims over people identified as “Chinese” to an extraordinary degree: detaining minors with American citizenship in Hong Kong (South China Morning Post, September 16, 2019); preventing ethnic Chinese business people with Australian citizenship from leaving the country in Shanghai (Sydney Morning Herald, January 24, 2019) and implementing new visa policies which explicitly differentiate foreigners with ethnic Chinese heritage (Straits Times, February 1, 2018). A degree of chauvinism runs throughout these cases such that we might even term the program the great rejuvenation of the Chinese race.
This “Great Rejuvenation” is Xi’s overarching program to revitalize China as a modern economic and military superpower, under which his myriad other policies fall. With the elevation of Xi Thought to China’s national constitution, where it sits co-equal to the reform and modernization programs of former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (邓小平), Xi has cemented his place in the pantheon of Communist Chinese leaders as a new Mao Zedong (毛泽东) (China Brief, September 21, 2017).
Consolidating Real Power
Under the auspices of “national defense and military reform,” the Law grants greater authority to the CMC for “national defense mobilization.” This marks a key practical change, removing an earlier provision that “the State Council and the Central Military Commission jointly lead the preparation and implementation of mobilization.” Instead, article 50 now reads:
“Leading agencies for national defense mobilization, central government agencies and relevant departments of the Central Military Commission shall organize the preparation and implementation of national defense mobilization in accordance with the division of responsibilities.”
This may look like a small change, but dropping the State Council from its leading role in defense mobilization and putting defense agencies first (including the CMC National Defense Mobilization Department and provincial military districts) makes the intent clear. Although Premier Li Keqiang (李克强) retains his position as chairman of the State National Defense Mobilization Commission, the change unequivocally elevates the power of the CMC at the expense of the State Council.
Zeng Zhiping, a military law expert at Soochow University, explains: “The CMC is now formally in charge of making national defense policy and principles, while the State Council becomes a mere implementing agency to provide support to the military” (South China Morning Post, January 3). Since the 2016 military reorganization and breakup of the General Departments, no member of the CMC has anything like Xi’s stature. Thus, the Law’s revisions further consolidate and legalize his direct control over the military.
National defense mobilization refers broadly to converting civilian assets for military use. This has previously included the mobilization of armed forces, economic, science and technology, transportation, air defense and/or political entities (Sina, July 25, 2002). A 2018 article in China Defense News (中国国防报, zhongguo guofang bao) lays out five distinct priorities: 1) serving the comprehensive national security strategy, 2) protecting the “theater command” strategy, 3) executing emergency rescue and disaster relief, 4) providing for rights protection and stability maintenance (维权维稳 weiquan weiwen) and 5) developing the strategy of military-civil fusion (军民融合 junmin ronghe, MCF) (Renminwang, October 18, 2018).
A recent report by the Center for a New American Security suggests that Beijing wishes to harness the dynamism outside of state-owned enterprises to accelerate military development through MCF, but still faces significant obstacles. In line with this analysis, article 38 of the Law calls for greater market orientation in defense acquisitions through “emphasizing the role of market mechanisms to promote fair competition in defense scientific research/production and military procurement.” An “Explanation” of the Law on the website of the National People’s Congress dated October 13 additionally highlights the “law of value” and “joint development and sharing of military and local resources.” Considering Xi’s overall posture toward the market economy, any deepening of the private sector’s role in developing the military is likely to be offset by ongoing efforts to centralize the party’s control over the economy (China Brief: September 28, 2020; December 6, 2020).
Chairman Responsibility System
Strengthening Party discipline is another key facet of the revisions. Specifically, the Law strengthens the CMC’s Chairman Responsibility System (CRS) (军委主席负责制, junwei zhuxi fuze zhi) (see article 16 of the Law). First promulgated in the 1982 PRC Constitution, the term was revitalized in 2014 and further enhanced during the 2017 19th Party Congress (China Leadership Monitor, January 23, 2018). The CCP Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) lists three purposes for CRS: 1) ensure the Party’s effective control of the People’s Armed Forces, 2) continue the Party’s tradition of organizing and controlling the military and 3) govern the military by law. According to the PLA Daily: “the [CMC] Chairman must maintain unified leadership and command of the national armed forces; all major issues of defense and military organization must be decided by the Chairman; and all CMC work must fall under the management and responsibility of the Chairman” (PLA Daily, January 28, 2015).
The Party’s 2017 motto of the “Three Protects” (三个维护 san ge weihu) re-emphasized: “Protect the authority of the Party Center, protect the Core, and protect and carry out the Chairman Responsibility System.” The new Law reflects this cross-cutting of Party and government by adding the admonition to be “faithful to the Party” (see article 59): “Active duty military personnel must be faithful to the country, faithful to the Party, carry out their responsibilities, fight bravely, not fear sacrificing their lives, and protect the security, honor, and interests of the country” (addition italicized). The 2009 law simply stated that “the armed forces of the PRC are subordinate to the people” (see article 19 of the 2009 law). As Mao said, “political power flows from the barrel of a gun.” Strengthening the CRS increases Xi’s direct control over the CMC and the PLA via the mechanism of the Party.
Message to the World
The timing of this law is notable. The PRC National People’s Congress has been called a “rubber stamp” legislature (The Economist, March 5, 2012). and its work plans reflect a CCP-approved legislative agenda. For the past five years, in both its annual (short-term) and five-year (longer-term) legislative plans, there has been no specific mention of revising the Law. Publicly available deliberative documents show that a first draft of the Law was not available until last October. Interestingly, the “Explanation” noted above claims that work on the revisions began in January 2019. The author can only speculate that the recent revisions did not appear in any short- or mid-term plan because there was no specific date by which the PRC wished to publish it. The unscheduled revisions thus hint at Xi’s individual power to dictate legislation.
The law also contains a message to the world, stated most directly in article 2:
“This law applies to military activities carried out by the state to prevent and resist aggression, stop armed subversion and separatism and defend the country’s sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity, security and development interests, as well as military-related political, economic, diplomatic, technological and educational activities.” (additions italicized)
Expanding the scope of the Law to include combating “separatism” looks to be a direct message to Taiwan, among other regions. Pointing to “secessionists” creates a rationalization for a future forceful reunification with Taiwan at a time when relations between the mainland and the island nation—and the odds of peaceful reunification—are in freefall (China Brief, October 19, 2020).
Moreover, much has been made of the addition of “development interests” as a reason for defense mobilization (SCMP, January 3). Chinese commentators have increasingly agreed that the Biden administration will continue the thrust if not the tone of many of the Trump administration’s policies towards China, including a focus on human rights in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang; deepening ties with Taiwan; and the defense of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific—all of which presage continuing poor bilateral relations between the two countries. China regards the first two as matters of “internal affairs” not subject to “foreign interference” (PRC Foreign Ministry, January 28). A commentary in the state tabloid Global Times defines China’s increasing military presence near Taiwan and in contested waters in the South China Sea and East China Sea as part of “development interests and safeguarding China’s territorial interests,” and quoted a revised article 6 of the Law to emphasize that, “China pursues a national defense policy that is defensive in nature” (Global Times, December 28, 2020). Such depictions paint the United States as an aggressor or force of resistance (挫折 cuozhe) against which the PRC must struggle. Despite these rhetorical defenses, the recent revisions to the Law signal a China more willing to assert its interests militarily toward Taiwan and the United States.
The updated National Defense Law appears to signal a greater willingness to use force in protecting China’s “core interests” (核心利益, hexin liyi). The Law’s emphasis on MCF and the CMC’s newly granted authority to mobilize national resources at the expense of the State Council shows that the Chinese leadership under Xi sees its core interest of economic development under growing threat from U.S.-led calls for decoupling and sanctions against Chinese entities such as Huawei and ZTE, which must be protected at all costs.
Multiple sources have brought up the idea that “China’s success at controlling the Covid-19 pandemic has been seen by Beijing as an endorsement of the Communist Party’s authoritarian rule, particularly as many democratic countries are still struggling with rising numbers of infections” (SCMP, January 3). Such optimism may be encouraging China’s leadership to speed up more aggressive actions and reforms across a variety of sectors from a position of relative strength. Despite this, Beijing’s program is being met with rising international opprobrium, with global public opinion on China reaching historic lows last year (Pew Research, October 6, 2020). Indeed, this law is also part of Xi’s effort to push the People’s Republic through a period of increasing resistance largely triggered by his aggressive policies. This maximalist program suggests he is going for broke.
Ben Lowsen is China Strategist for the U.S. Air Force’s Checkmate office and adjunct faculty at the National Intelligence University. He is a retired U.S. Army officer who has served previously as Assistant Army Attaché in Beijing and Asia advisor to the U.S. Navy. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
 See: “National Defense Law of the People’s Republic of China: 中华人民共和国国防法 zhonghua renmin gonghe guo guofangfa,” webpage dated January 1. Posted on the website NPC Observer at https://npcobserver.com/legislation/national-defense-law/.
 See: Alice Miller, “The Central Military Commission,” chapter in Kevin Pollpeter and Kenneth W. Allen, eds., The PLA as Organization Reference Volume v2.0 (Defense Group Inc. Publications: 2015).
 See: “Explanation of the National Defense Law of the People’s Republic of China (Revised Draft)” [关于《中华人民共和国国防法（修订草案）》的说明 guanyu “zhonghua renmin gonghe guo guofangfa (xiuding cao’an)” de shuoming], document dated October 13, 2020. Posted on the website of the National People’s Congress [全国人民代表大会] at: https://www.npc.gov.cn/npc/c30834/202012/5885631c17984d58a1eb58d45ff850b6.shtml. All translations are the responsibility of the author.
See: Xia Zhengnong, Chen Zhili, et al., eds, Cihai: 6th Edition, reduced format (Shanghai Cishu Chubanshe, 2015), pp. 1311, 2477-8.
See also Elsa B. Kania and Lorand Laskai, “Myths and Realities of China’s Military-Civil Fusion Strategy,” Center for a New American Security, January 28, 2021.
See: “Explanation…,” October 13, 2020, https://www.npc.gov.cn/npc/c30834/202012/5885631c17984d58a1eb58d45ff850b6.shtml.
See: CCP CCDI, PRC Ministry of Supervision, “What Does It Mean that the Revised Party Charter Clarifies that CMC Will Carry Out the Chairman Responsibility System?” [党章修正案明确中央军事委员会实行主席负责制的意义何在? dangzhang xiuzheng an mingque zhongyang junshi weiyuanhui shixing zhuxi fuze zhi de yiyi hezai?], March 7, 2018, https://www.ccdi.gov.cn/special/zmsjd/zm19da_zm19da/201803/t20180302_165186.html.
See: “The Three Protects” [三个维护 san ge weihu], September 6, 2017, https://theory.people.com.cn/n1/2017/0906/c413700-29519622.html.
 See: “The Origins and Development of Mao Zedong’s ‘Political Power Flows from the Barrel of a Gun’” [毛泽东“枪杆子里面出政权”的来历与演变 maozedong “qiangganzi limian chu zhengquan” de laili yu yanbian], June 13, 2017, https://dangshi.people.com.cn/n1/2017/0613/c85037-29335727.html.
 See: “Explanation…,” October 13, 2020, https://www.npc.gov.cn/npc/c30834/202012/5885631c17984d58a1eb58d45ff850b6.shtml.