Hu Jintao’s Doubtful Future on the Central Military Commission

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 16

Central Military Commission Chair Hu Jintao in Army Green

With the Beidaihe retreat coming to a close this week and Chinese leaders reemerging from behind closed doors, China’s leaders are in the home stretch for deciding the outcomes of the 18th Party Congress. Some of the issues at stake are the size of the Politburo, who will make it into the Politburo Standing Committee, and a miscellany of other important personnel appointments, like Shanghai’s party chief. One of the most consequential questions is whether President Hu Jintao will hold onto the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC), which oversees the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), after he resigns as general secretary this fall. Some speculation suggests Hu will follow his predecessor’s path and oversee military affairs in quasi-retirement (Ming Pao, July 22; Apple Daily, May 30). The idea of precedent looms large for a China-watching community starved of reliable, current information. President Hu, however, appears unlikely to retain the CMC chairmanship past the 18th Party Congress based on the factors that allowed Jiang Zemin to continue in that capacity after resigning as general secretary.

The idea of President Hu staying on as chair of the Central Military Commission has precedent with both Deng Xiaoping and Jiang. In 1987, Deng resigned from all of his posts except for the CMC chairmanship, ostensibly to turn governance over to the rising generation, led at that time by the ill-fated General Secretary Zhao Ziyang. As Hu Jintao took the party reins in 2002 at the 16th Party Congress, then-President Jiang Zemin did not relinquish the CMC chair, following in Deng’s footsteps [1].

Around the first National People’s Congress after the 16th Party Congress, the PLA started to express some reticence about Jiang’s continuing leadership of military affairs while another leader, Hu, ostensibly led the rest of the party and government. In an editorial by a senior PLA Daily editor, the PLA suggested this arrangement was not helpful: “Having one center is called ‘loyalty,’ while having two centers will result in ‘problems.’  Having multiple centers is the same as having no center, and having no center results in having no success in any area” (Asia Times, March 12, 2003; PLA Daily, March 11, 2003). That this became an important issue is suggested by Jiang’s remarks at the time his resignation was announced. Jiang said the three key positions of Chinese power—party general secretary, state president and CMC chair—most appropriately and necessarily should belong to the same person (Xinhua, September 20, 2004).

There is little reason to suggest the PLA has changed its position on the perils of a divided command. Since at least March, the propaganda line has been a consistent statement about the clear relationship between the party and the army—not between a civilian leader and the PLA. The recognition of Hu Jintao’s role as leader of the party and the role of the party’s general secretary also suggests the PLA stands by Jiang’s reasoning for unity of command (“Army Day Coverage Stresses PLA’s Contributions and Party Control,” China Brief, August 17; The Diplomat, July 3).

The next question is whether Hu would have the support of the military to overcome this reluctance. When Jiang retained the CMC chair, the PLA was one of the strongest institutional supporters of his contribution to Chinese ideological canon, the “Three Represents,” promulgated on July 1, 2001. Through the next year, senior PLA generals—including the ambitious Cao Gangchuan and then-CMC Vice Chairmen Chi Haotian and Zhang Wannian—fell over themselves to endorse the concepts in the PLA Daily, Qiushi [Seeking Truth], Xinhua and other outlets, elevating Jiang Zemin to positions comparable to Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping for his contributions to Marxist thinking and China’s development (“The PLA and the ‘Three Represents’: Jiang’s Bodyguards or Party-Army?” China Leadership Monitor, Fall 2002). Although the PLA did not quite declare fealty to Jiang, this propaganda blitz raised questions about the re-personalization of the military and suggests the PLA supported retaining Jiang on the CMC. The PLA’s endorsement of Hu’s “scientific development concept,” by comparison, is rather pro forma, suggesting he lacks the same kind of institutional support.

A second and related question is whether Chinese leaders believe the international situation is sufficiently dangerous that the ostensible uncertainty caused by a CMC leadership transition would be undesirable. This was the reason given in 2002 that justified Jiang’s continued CMC chairmanship (Xinhua, September 19, 2004; Wen Wei Po, September 16, 2002). In July, Hong Kong media suggested tensions in the South China Sea could be used by Hu to do just that (Ming Pao, July 22). Beijing’s aggressive but adroit diplomacy, however, seems to have settled the latest round of territorial spats that began this spring at Scarborough Shoal (“Sansha: New City in the South China Sea,” China Brief, August 17; “China Pushes on the South China Sea, ASEAN Unity Collapses,” China Brief, August 3). Given the seemingly paranoid views of Western cultural infiltration, the “five poisons,” and “Western hostile forces,” it is difficult to get a clear grasp of what Beijing’s threat perceptions truly are at any given time (Red Flag, May 24; Qiushi, January 1). The ostensibly most authoritative recent public assessment of China’s threat environment comes from the well-connected Beijing University professor Wang Jisi. Wang, however, while noting China’s more constrained international situation, did not endorse a sense of crisis in Beijing’s position (Global Times, June 13).

If Hu Jintao retains the CMC chair, then it probably will have been the result of a power play that demonstrates Hu has had more power than is typically ascribed to him. He has seemed to float between rhetorical inconsequence and the ability to target individual opponents within the Chinese system, such as Chen Liangyu and Bo Xilai (“The Soapbox and the Truncheon: Hu Jintao’s Amorphous Power,” China Brief, July 19). Retaining the CMC chair would allow Hu to play a lasting role in Chinese national security policymaking, but the position probably would be limited in terms of promoting the members of his China Youth League faction up the ranks—except as a one-time bargaining chip to trade away. Given the reports of a contentious relationship with some military leaders—including one he promoted to general—the former may not be sufficient reason for Hu to want to stay on (New York Times, August 7; Ming Pao, July 22).

On balance, however, the prognosis does not look good for Hu Jintao retaining the CMC chair for the next two years unless new signs of the PLA rallying behind him in the coming weeks amid some sort of crisis. Whether Hu steps down or not, it may not indicate anything important about the institutionalization of Chinese politics. Nevertheless, if the positions of party general secretary, state president and CMC chair transition smoothly to Xi Jinping at the 18th Party Congress, then China still will have seen its first clear transition of power under the Chinese Communist Party.


  1. The best analysis of the CMC transition from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao appeared in James Mulvenon’s articles for the China Leadership Monitor from 2002 to 2005, especially issues 4, 5, 7 and 13.