Hu Jintao’s Driving Influence on Chinese Military Modernization

Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 17

The People’s Liberation Army is on course to become a much more potent and aggressive force, enabling Beijing to better achieve the ambitious diplomatic and security goals set forth by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s Fourth-Generation leadership. And while the Pentagon’s just-published annual assessment of the PRC’s defense capacities largely focused on weaponry and other hardware, it is as important to probe the thinking and strategy of Commander-in-Chief Hu Jintao and his colleagues in the Central Military Commission (CMC).

Even though Hu had had scant military experience before taking the CMC Chair last September, the 62-year-old party chief and state president lost no time in imposing his stamp on the PLA as well as the para-military People’s Armed Police (PAP). And given that, according to the division of labor within the CCP Politburo Standing Committee, Hu is directly responsible for security, military and foreign affairs, the brainy and energetic leader is taking a more hands-on approach to defense matters than his predecessor, ex-president Jiang Zemin.

Since last year, Hu has masterminded a series of changes in the military establishment, particularly its staid command-and-control apparatus. The primary goal of Hu’s CMC was to lick together a leaner – and more combat-ready – force with special emphasis on air, naval and missile prowess. Thus, Hu has overseen the further demobilization of about 200,000 PLA personnel, mainly from the ground forces and non-combat divisions. While the archaic military-region command structure has been preserved for the time being, the great majority of local-level commands in the Air and Naval Forces have been abolished. Most importantly, Hu has decided to earmark more funds for the digitization of operations as well as the development and procurement of weapons. In fact, the 12.6% hike in military outlays announced at the National People’s Congress last March did not do justice to the much-augmented funding because spending in the area of development and purchase of hardware is usually not covered by the “official budget.”

Hu became Head of the CCP Leading Group on Foreign Affairs in early 2003 and has been the driving force behind the aggressive campaign to persuade the European Union to lift its 16-year-old embargo on arms sales to the PRC. While that has so far proven unfeasible, Hu and his Soviet-trained Defense Minister General Cao Gangchuan are gunning for large-scale imports as well as co-production of advanced Russian weaponry. The task of Hu and Cao, who is a former chief of the PLA’s General Equipment Department, has been made easier by the nation’s more than $710 billion in foreign-exchange reserves. Moreover, given the closer defense relationship between Beijing and Moscow, particularly in the wake of the formalization of the “triangular strategic relationship” between China, Russia and India last June, President Vladimir Putin and his generals are more inclined toward selling China top-of-the-line fighters and submarines.

Yet perhaps the most salient aspect of what some PLA propagandists have called “Hu Jintao’s Military Thought” is the high place that the party chief has accorded the defense forces in the nation’s economic – and overall – development. President Hu’s concept of the army’s functions goes way beyond “traditional” tasks such as protecting the nation’s vast borders or ensuring the safety of sea lanes through which China-bound oil tankers must pass. As the CMC Chairman put it in an address last May, the PLA must, in addition to normal national-defense functions, “provide substantial liliang (power and force) to ensure the consolidation of the CCP’s ruling-party status; to provide strong security backing for the nation’s development,; and to provide forceful strategic support for ensuring national interests.” [1]

It is instructive to compare the military thinking of Hu and allies such as Premier Wen Jiabao and that of the president’s late mentor Deng Xiaoping. Ironically, Deng, who distinguished himself as a military strategist during the country’s “Liberation Warfare” in the 1940s, wanted to stop the PLA from standing in the way of the country’s economic take-off. Thus Deng slashed the PLA budget by big margins under the principle that military modernization must take a back-seat to overall economic growth. Although Hu has never been a professional solider, he sees a lips-and-teeth relationship between military development on the one hand, and economic progress as well as domestic political stability on the other. Indeed, while much of the world seems mesmerized by “China’s economic miracle,” the Hu-Wen team is paranoid about “hostile foreign forces” sabotaging economic expansion or subverting the CCP’s leadership. In a speech to PLA officers last March, Hu noted that the country faced “severe challenges” both at home and abroad, adding that “we must boost our consciousness of [impending] dangers, and enhance our ability to handle mishaps and crises.” And Hu called upon the PLA and PAP to do their all in “safeguarding national interests regarding [the nation’s overall] development.” [2]

It is not surprising that Hu has to a large extent revived Chairman Mao Zedong’s doctrine about the “marriage of war-time and peace-time [needs].” This means a closer and more organic integration between civilian-industrial and military production as well as the sharing of R&D facilities and expertise by both sectors. One reason behind the Hu-Wen team’s enthusiasm for the resuscitation of the economy of the three northeastern provinces is that this region is the bedrock of China’s heavy and military industries. Moreover, central authorities have given orders that in the planning of major infrastructure such as ports, airports, highways and railways, both civilian and military needs should be taken into account. Again, this goes against the grain of the teachings of Deng, who wanted the PLA to stay away from the regular operations of the economy.

Of perhaps even more significance is that Deng – and to a considerable extent Jiang – seldom saw the PLA in an aggressive, attack mode; the defense forces were there mainly to prevent other countries from bullying China, or to prevent Taiwan from going down the independence path. Almost from his first day as CMC chief, however, Hu has laid utmost emphasis on the PLA’s combat-readiness, or its ability to win a war “under new conditions” at the push of a button. Hence the oft-repeated slogan raised by Hu: “the PLA must [constantly] get ready for military struggle.” As he noted not long after becoming commander-in-chief, “the most important, realistic and pressing strategic task for the PLA is to concentrate on doing well preparations for military struggle.” [3]

With regards to Taiwan, of course, the combat-readiness of the PLA needs to be enhanced after the passage of the controversial Law on Secession last March. It is probable that, using Hu-style parlance, the “CCP’s ruling-party status” will crumble if Beijing fails to make a forceful and immediate military response in the event that Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian makes a daring dash for independence, say, a few months before the opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Moreover, the Hu-Wen leadership wants the Air Force and the Navy to be at the ready in case, for example, on-going quarrels with Japan over sovereignty rights in the East China Sea were to worsen into a full-fledged crisis. And the dramatic expansion of Chinese influence in Africa and Latin America is predicated partly upon no-holds-barred power projection made possible by fast-expanding, and occasionally saber-rattling, defense forces.

And how about Hu’s views on military modernization – in the sense of making the forces more transparent and compatible with international norms, as suggested by the Pentagon report? The chances of the Fourth-Generation leader picking up some of the threads of military liberalization as proposed by Deng in the early 1980s – such as the gradual transformation of the PLA into a state, not a party, army – are extremely slim. The conservative president has continued to uphold predecessor Jiang’s principle of “the CCP’s absolute leadership over the gun,” meaning that all PLA officers must first and foremost swear allegiance to the party leadership. Since taking over the CMC, Hu has strengthened the function and power of party cells in all branches of the military. He also presided over a thorough reorganization of the party structure within the PAP, whose size and budget have never been publicized.

Beijing has reacted strongly to the Pentagon paper by noting that America’s defense budget is much bigger than China’s – and that the CCP leadership is committed to the goal of the “peaceful rise” of China. Given the PRC’s enormous size, and the growing complexity of the country’s “economic and energy security,” it would perhaps be difficult to fault its leadership for the mere fact of expanding its defense capacity. However, the fact that the PLA is only at the beck and call of the party’s dominant faction – and that there are no checks and balances within the Chinese system – has engendered fears among China’s neighbors that the CCP leadership might for reasons including self-preservation deploy the ever-potent army in an irresponsible, even irrational manner.


1. “Hu Jintao: We must use the principle of scientific development to guide the strengthening of the military forces’ combat ability,” Liberation Army Daily, May 18, 2005.

2. “Hu Jintao on opening up new vistas for the modernization of national defense and the defense forces,” China News Service, March 13, 2005.

3. “Hu Jintao on grasping well the task of preparing for military struggle,” New China News Agency, March 13, 2005; “Hu Jintao’s new thoughts on running the army,” Wen Wei Po (a Beijing-run Hong Kong newspaper), March 14, 2005.