Hu and the PLA

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 12

In its recently published report on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the Pentagon focused on the lack of transparency of the PLA’s budget, as well as the generals’ shift of emphasis from merely tackling Taiwan separatism to also targeting U.S. aircraft carriers and submarines in the Pacific. Yet, worrisome as the rapid modernization of PLA weaponry may be, the fundamental problem of China’s military remains that it reports solely to the dominant faction of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and is not subject to even “Chinese-style” checks and balances. Given that the PLA functions as the CCP’s “private army,” it is not surprising that Beijing has repeatedly used the forces both within China and abroad to maintain its grip on power.

At least superficially, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s criticism of the Pentagon report—that it reflected a “Cold War mentality” and thus amounted to interference in China’s internal affairs—could find sizable support within China. “Given China’s huge area and long boundaries, it is perfectly normal [for Beijing] to adequately increase its military budget and implement defense modernization,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said late last month (China Daily, May 25). And of course, even if the PLA’s budget is US$105 billion—which is the estimate of U.S. experts—and not the officially declared version of $35 billion, it would still be considerably lower than that of the U.S. military budget. Thus, instead of merely blaming the Hu Jintao administration for beefing up the military, PLA watchers should focus on the fact that the armed forces, including the quasi-military People’s Armed Police (PAP), are being deployed by CCP leaders to suppress internal dissent and to extend the party’s mandate of heaven through power projection overseas.

Shortly after President Hu became Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) in September 2004, he issued instructions to the top military commanders to faithfully “provide three kinds of services and fulfill one [important] function.” Foremost among these four tasks was that the PLA and PAP must “provide forceful guarantee to enable the party to consolidate its ruling-party status.” The other three obligations included providing the “security basis” for economic development, protecting national interests and making contributions to maintaining world peace (Xinhua, September 29, 2005). Nowhere in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Constitution, however, is it written that the PLA should devote itself primarily to maintaining the party’s supremacy. After all, the military expenditure comes from taxes paid by all Chinese—not just the 70 million or so CCP members.

The CCP’s reliance on the “tools of the dictatorship of the proletariat” to keep itself in power was evident during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Despite the fact that the hundreds of thousands of college students and professors were merely calling for a faster pace of reform—not an end to party rule—late patriarch Deng Xiaoping panicked and ordered the PLA to suppress the “counter-revolutionary turmoil.” When meeting army representatives five days after the massacre, Deng called the officers “the loveliest people of them all.” The paramount leader added that the PLA and PAP had proven itself well as the “steel Great Wall” of the Communist Party (People’s Daily, June 10, 1989).

While Fourth-Generation leaders such as Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao have carefully cultivated images of being fumuguan (cadres as close to the masses as their fathers and mothers), they have no qualms about mobilizing police and soldiers to eliminate challenges to the regime. After all, Hu’s “resolute” suppression of anti-Beijing riots in Lhasa, Tibet, in March 1989 was a major factor behind Deng’s surprising decision three years later to appoint the then 49-year-old cadre to the Politburo Standing Committee.

Despite the Hu-Wen team’s slogans about “putting people first” and “constructing a harmonious society,” demonstrators, rallies and other forms of confrontation between the masses and the police have increased dramatically the past few years. There were close to 90,000 such “mass incidents” in 2005. In the past year, president and Commander-in-Chief Hu has asked civilian and military cadres to fine-tune their skills in ensuring domestic stability. These included, according to the PLA media, “ability to handle well contradictions within the people and to safeguard social stability” (Guangming Daily, March 23, 2005). In theory, only the PAP, whose strength is estimated at close to one million, is vested with the duty of maintaining law and order in the cities. Nevertheless, the reality of PLA officers urged by the leadership to crush dissent and other forms of opposition is an indication of growing paranoia within the party’s upper echelons.

Yet another disturbing fallout of the PLA’s role as the “private army” of the CCP’s leading faction is that China’s leaders cannot resist the temptation of using the military to boost their own positions. In the 1950s and 1960s, the PLA was at the forefront of ideological movements to erect a personality cult around Chairman Mao. Likewise, Deng’s success in ousting the Maoist radicals in 1978 is attributed to his high standing within the PLA. The relatively liberal patriarch realized that he had to rely upon the backing of the generals in order to pursue his controversial reforms and open-door policy.

There are plenty of indications that since becoming chairman of the CMC in 2004, the savvy Hu has sought the support of military officers in order to strengthen the clout of the Hu Faction, otherwise known as the Communist Youth League Clique. While Hu has never served as a professional soldier, his “theories on army building” have already been touted by PLA propagandists as the primary source of wisdom for “fighting high-tech warfare in the 21st century.” In addition, the latest ideological campaign within the PLA has consisted of learning from the president’s “scientific theory of development,” which was first introduced in 2003 by Hu and Premier Wen as a way of striking a better balance between gross domestic product (GDP) growth and social welfare. At a high-level PLA seminar held last month to study Hu’s theory regarding the “scientific development of the army”—an extension of his economic game plan to the military field—senior generals noted that Hu’s ideas were a “continuation and development” of Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory. The official Xinhua news agency quoted the officers as saying that Hu’s dictums had “pushed the party’s theoretical innovation to new heights” (Xinhua, May 21). In other words, Hu had become elevated to the same status as that of Mao and Deng.

Judging from the slogans currently circulated among military officers, Hu seems to have succeeded in gaining the acquiescence, if not the loyalty of the top military commanders. Almost daily, military mouthpieces such as the People’s Liberation Army Daily quote various generals who declare that they “resolutely abide by the instructions of the party central authorities, the Central Military Commission and Chairman Hu.” The entire country, however, is paying a heavy price for the continuation of Mao-style military institutions and beliefs into the 21st century. In addition to a disproportionately large share of resources and the budget devoted to military expenditures, Hu and other top cadres have also provided the military with a platform to voice their opinion regarding the PRC’s policies. Approximately 20% of CCP Central Committee seats are reserved for PLA and PAP officers and the highest ranking general officers of the PLA are assured two slots in the CCP Politburo. These officers—usually hawkish on policies toward the United States, Japan and Taiwan—are therefore able to significantly influence China’s foreign policy.

More significantly, the CCP leadership’s readiness to use the armed forces to bolster the party’s predominance could have unpredictable and potentially disastrous consequences. In the event of a massive upsurge of dissent similar to the 1989 student demonstrations, the Hu leadership would be tempted to launch another Tiananmen Square-type crackdown. There is also the possibility that the Politburo, together with the CMC, might opt to respond by diverting the country’s attention by seeking military adventures overseas. The latter could include waging “liberation warfare” against Taiwan in order to speed up national reunification—an objective closely tied to the CCP’s legitimacy. Civilian and military leaders might also attempt to defuse an internal political crisis by playing up nationalistic sentiments against the United States and Japan, both of which have been accused by Beijing of pursuing an “anti-China containment policy.”

While the Hu administration has paid lip service to reforming the political structure, it is essential that the PLA and PAP remain at the disposal of the CCP. Particularly since the June 4, 1989 crackdown, Deng, former president Jiang Zemin and Hu have all underscored the importance of “the party’s absolute leadership over the army.” PLA propaganda organs have repeatedly warned against “hostile forces trying to alter the PLA’s nature by advocating the army’s separation from the party as well as its depoliticization” (PLA Daily, August 1, 2005). As long as one of the world’s most formidable military forces remains accountable only to a select handful of leaders, Hu, Wen and their Politburo colleagues will find it nearly impossible to refute theories about the “China threat.”