Commander-in-Chief Xi Jinping Raises the Bar on PLA “Combat Readiness”

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 2

Xi Jinping Visits the PLA

General Secretary and Commander-in-Chief Xi Jinping has lost no time in establishing his stamp of authority over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which is deemed an important power base of the princeling leader. Barely two months after he took over the chairmanship of the policy-setting Central Military Commission (CMC) from President Hu Jintao, Xi has passed a series of regulations on “administering the army with strictness and austerity.” The 59-year-old Xi has with lightning speed presided over a large-scale reshuffle of senior staff in the four general departments as well as the seven military regions (MRs). More significantly, the CMC chief has put significantly more emphasis than his predecessors on combat readiness, reiterating that it is the calling of every solider to fight and win wars.

On different occasions in the past month or so, Xi has demanded that the 2.4 million-strong PLA’s profess “absolute loyalty” to the party leadership. The Xinhua News Agency last Sunday released a set of instructions from the General Political Department (GPD) and the PLA Disciplinary Inspection Commission on “solidly implementing the objectives of administering [military] party organizations with strictness and administering the army with strictness.” The instructions stated “Through studying and education, we must hoist high the flag [of the party] and heed the instructions of the party…We must run [military] party organizations with strictness and strictly oversee [the conduct of] officers.” The series of dictums also pointed out that officers and enlisted alike must “safeguard a high level of concentration [of authority] and unity among the troops” (Xinhua, January 13; PLA Daily, January 13).

Apart from unquestioned loyalty to the “CCP Central Committee with comrade Xi Jinping as General Secretary,” the PLA is asked to distinguish itself in frugality and austerity. It is a common perception among Chinese public intellectuals that PLA officers are at least as corrupt as CCP cadres. Last month, military authorities passed the so-called “Ten Regulations on Improving the Work Style of the Army.” PLA personnel, particularly mid- to senior-level officers are forbidden from holding big banquets and to give or receive gifts. Liquor is banned for all occasions. Also proscribed are red carpets and “empty talk” when senior officers tour the regions. Moreover, military personnel have to seek the approval of the CMC General Office before giving views on “major and sensitive issues” in the public media. “In terms of its code of ethics, the PLA should live up to the people’s expectations and stand high in Chinese society,” the official PLA Daily commented when reporting on the Ten Regulations (PLA Daily, December 28, 2012; Wen Wei Po [Hong Kong], December 25, 2012).

Just before the start of the 18th CCP Congress on November 8, the CMC announced a new slate of leaders for the four general departments, the Navy, Air Force and Second Artillery as well as the seven military regions (MR). This major reshuffle was presided over by President Hu and reflected his desire to promote at least several of his key PLA protégés prior to his retirement. In the past fortnight, however, Xi has masterminded the appointments of a few dozen deputy heads of the four general departments, the Navy, Air Force and Second Artillery as well as the deputy commanders, deputy political commissars as well as the chiefs of staff (CoS) within the seven MRs.

A dozen-odd senior staff in the General Staff Department (GSD), GPD, the General Logistics Department, the Second Artillery, as well as the Jinan, Lanzhou, Shenyang and Guangzhou MRs have been reshuffled. The official Chinese media has paid much attention to the promotion of the PLA’s youngest lieutenant general, the 54-year-old Yi Xiaoguang from deputy commander of the Nanjing MR to Assistant Chief at the GSD. Also significant is the appointment of Major General Qin Shengxiang, a former head of the GPD Organization Department, to the post of Director of the CMC General Office. Because the CMC General Office is the de facto nerve center of the entire military, its director most often is considered a protégé and confidante of the CMC Chairman. Apart from continuing the tradition of the frequent personnel movements between headquarters units and the field command, Xi has a record of favoring officers with professional and academic credentials. For example, Deputy Commandant of the National Defense University Major General Wang Xixin early last month was appointed deputy commander of the Shenyang MR (, January 10; Ming Pao [Hong Kong] January 9; Ta Kung Pao [Hong Kong], January 9).

Moreover, the CoS of six of the seven MRs have been changed. These new chiefs—whose posts are deemed launching pads for future promotion to MR commanders as well as senior slots in the four general departments—are all former heads of group armies. For example, Ma Yiming, the former commander of the renowned 26th Group Army, which falls within the jurisdiction of the Jinan MR, was promoted the CoS of the MR in early January. His predecessor, Lieutenant General Zhao Zongqi had late last year been elevated to the post of commander of the same MR. While Chairman Xi obviously values veterans with solid command experience, he also has given the nod to rising stars from less traditional backgrounds. For example, the only MR-level CoS who has never been the commander of a Group Army—Major General Yang Hui of the Nanjing MR—has rich foreign intelligence gathering experience. The 49-year-old Yang, who is also the only MR CoS born in the 1960s, had worked as a military attaché in the Chinese embassies in Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and, later, the Russian Federation (Ta Kung Pao, January 10; Hong Kong Economic Journal, January 10).

Given the well-entrenched tradition among military officers of professing personal fealty to the commander-in-chief who has given them big raises, Xi’s rapid-fire series of personnel moves seems geared toward augmenting his already formidable authority in the PLA. Another message that the commander-in-chief might be sending his officers may be that, while satisfactory performance can earn timely elevations, heavier demands will be made on their ability to fight and win wars. An much-enhanced degree of combat readiness was the theme of Xi’s visit to the Guangzhou MR last month. It also is significant that the official media used the term Guangzhou Zhanqu [literally Guangzhou War Theater] to describe the military region. In Xi’s first regional inspection trip, the CMC honcho vowed to “comprehensively strengthen military construction from the point of view of being more revolutionary, more modernized and more institutionalized.” He told officers and soldiers to “to firmly remember that following the party’s instructions is the soul of a strong army, while the ability to fight and to win wars is the quintessence of a strong army” (Wen Wei Po, December 13, 2012; Xinhua, December 12, 2012).

Military chiefs from ex-president Jiang Zemin to Hu routinely have called upon the top brass to “prepare for military struggle.” Xi, however, was the first supremo to spell out in no uncertain terms that the PLA must “push forward preparations for military struggle through insisting on using the criteria of actual combat…We must ceaselessly boost the idea that soldiers join the PLA to fight, and that [the calling of] officers is to lead soldiers in combat and to train them for [real] warfare.” In Guangzhou, Xi also said “We must train our troops with tough and strict criteria which are based on the needs of actual combat.” He reiterated that the “core” of the PLA’s multi-dimensional military tasks was “the ability to win regional warfare under IT-oriented conditions.” Indeed, since the end of the Maoist era, Xi is the first PLA chief to have given such graphic instructions about the army’s constant combat readiness: “We must ensure that our troops are ready when called upon, that they are fully capable of fighting, and that they must win every war” (Ming Pao, December 13, 2012; PLA Daily, December 12, 2012).

Xi’s hard-line remarks were repeated by the “Instruction on Military Training in 2013” that was issued by the GSD earlier this week. The Instruction asked all military staff to “bolster their ideological [commitment] to engaging in combat.” Officers and soldiers were asked to “do well in preparations for fighting wars” and “to train the troops under difficult and severe conditions and based on the requirements of actual combat.” The document also read “We must raise our ability in fighting wars and in solving major difficulties that affect training in actual combat” (PLA Daily, January 14; Global Times, January 14). The imperative of heightened combat readiness was evident in the stepped-up training reportedly going on in the newly-established Sansha Military District within the Guangzhou MR, which has responsibility for safeguarding Chinese sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. The PLA Daily reported officers and soldiers in the area had during the New Year Holidays revved up maneuvers, including those relating to “handling emergencies.” The paper stated “The [Sansha] troops are implementing multi-directional and multi-faceted work related to [promoting] safety in combat readiness…Once an emergency arises, [the troops] can spring into action quickly, hold on to their positions, and win battles” (PLA Daily, January 3; China News Service, January 3).

Equally significant is the fact that CMC Chairman Xi has continued the tradition first started by predecessor Hu a few years ago of being much more transparent regarding not only the development of new weapons but also the activities of individual PLA units. For example, the Ministry of National Defense for the past month or so has volunteered information regarding developments in hardware ranging from a new generation of engines for jetfighters to progress in the Beidou Navigation Satellite System. The PLA media also has carried relatively detailed reports on the deployments of China’s first aircraft carrier, the country’s first generation of drones and even the movement of vessels and aircraft near disputed islands in the East China Sea and the South China Sea (People’s Daily, January 7; Xinhua, December 29, 2012; Technology Daily [Beijing] December 28, 2012).

There seems little doubt that as Chinese military commentators have pointed out, the recent flexing of military muscle—and thinly veiled threats of actual combat—is integral to enhanced psychological warfare particularly in view of exacerbated confrontation with Japan over the Diaoyu-Senkaku archipelago. As Shanghai-based international relations expert Professor Ni Lexiong indicated, apparently hawkish instructions released by the PLA since late last year was a form of “counter-intimidation tactics” due largely to the war games staged by Japan’s Self-Defense Forces in connection with guarding Japanese sovereignty over the islets (Ming Pao, January 15;, January 15). The speed and sheer ferocity of the marathon measures taken by the putative “core” of the CCP’s Fifth-Generation Leadership to bolster discipline among PLA officers and to significantly scale up the their combat capabilities, however, could spell a watershed in the way that Beijing is using military prowess to safeguard the country’s national interests as well as its global status as a quasi-superpower.