Hu’s Tightening Grip: CMC Personnel Shifts and Increasing the PLA’s Budget

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 11

Chinese President Hu Jintao is strengthening the People’s Liberation Army’s command structure even as the Pentagon has spotlighted its rapid modernization in its recently released report on China’s military power. As chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) since late 2004, Hu is expected to rejuvenate this top policymaking organ—and to induct a number of his protégés into the commission in the process—at the 17th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress slated for this October. The 64-year-old leader, the only civilian in the CMC, is also placing a priority on strengthening his grip over the generals. The most notable personnel change within the 11-member CMC will be the replacement of the second-highest-ranked (of the three) vice-chairman: 71-year-old General Cao Gangchuan, who is also a Politburo member and the Minister of Defense. According to CCP tradition, two Politburo seats are reserved for top military officials. The other Politburo slot is currently held by the highest-ranked CMC vice-chairman, General Guo Buoxiong, 65, who will likely secure a second five-year term at the 17th Congress.

Given that General Cao was among the first of the high-ranking generals to have switched allegiance from former President Jiang Zemin—who served as CMC chairman from 1989 to 2004—to Hu, the latter is anxious to ensure the loyalty of Cao’s successor. (In comparison, General Guo is seen as much closer to Jiang; only after Hu succeeded in forcing Jiang to leave the commission did Guo begin to cooperate with the current Chinese president.) Based on the practices of seniority, the lowest-ranked CMC vice-chairman, General Xu Caihou, is next in line to assume Cao’s three titles. Yet, sources in Beijing with connections to the military state that Xu’s elevation has been hampered by a series of factors. Xu, a career political commissar, has had no field or command experience. Moreover, while Xu has earned Hu’s praise for engineering a quasi-personality cult on his behalf, the propagandist had been no less obsequious during Jiang’s tenure.

It is likely that a Hu protégé, Director-General of the General Armaments Department (GAD) General Chen Bingde, is slotted to replace Cao in October. General Chen, 66, was the first general that Hu had promoted to the CMC after he became its chairman. Moreover, Chen oversees the portfolio—arms procurement and research and development—that General Cao had previously been responsible for prior to his promotion to CMC vice-chairman in 2002. Equally significant is the fact that like General Guo, Chen is considered an authority on Taiwan. Before his induction into the CMC, Chen served as the commander of the Jinan Military Region (MR) as well as the Nanjing MR. While running the Nanjing MR—which, according to military literature, has oversight over the Taiwan Strait—from 1993 to 1999, Chen conducted numerous war games along the coast just opposite the “breakaway island.”

General Chen is also renowned for his role as the head of China’s manned space flight program, an essential aspect of the CCP leadership’s strategy of prolonging its “mandate of heaven” through the boosting of national pride in the country’s world-class achievements. Additionally, the GAD has been responsible for the country’s ambitious “space warfare” establishment, and Chen oversaw the development of the Chinese military’s anti-satellite capabilities, which was fully demonstrated by the direct ascent anti-satellite missile test in January (China Brief, January 24).

While Hu has disagreed with Jiang on a number of policy issues concerning the direction of the country’s development, he has faithfully adopted his predecessor’s strategy toward winning—or rather buying—the support of the military. Due to the annual double-digit increases in the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) budget, the armed forces have continued to revel in their status as a “state within a state.” In addition, senior PLA officers, together with those serving in the affiliated People’s Armed Police, are expected to obtain approximately 20 percent of the seats on the CCP Central Committee at the 17th Congress. As with Jiang, Hu consistently attends the graduation ceremonies of senior cadres who have finished their pre-promotion training at the National Defense University. Newly elevated major-generals are routinely invited for private talks with him, and on occasions when Hu conducts inspection tours within China, he frequently visits local regiments, demonstrating concern regarding the living standards of the soldiers and posing with them for photographs.

President Hu’s anxiety to consolidate his hold over the PLA brass is thrown into sharper relief given that personnel developments have heretofore indicated that the Hu Faction—consisting largely of Communist Youth League affiliates as well as cadres from western provinces who have personal ties with the leader—will not be able to secure a majority in either the Politburo or the Politburo Standing Committee at the 17th Party Congress (China Brief, April 18). This is in spite of the fact that compared with the other cliques, such as Jiang’s declining “Shanghai Faction,” Hu’s followers form the largest bloc within the CCP’s top echelons. The president’s dependence on the generals’ fealties is thus understandable. Aside from the arrest of the Gang of Four shortly after Chairman Mao Zedong’s demise in 1976, as well as the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989, China’s defense forces have not had a pronounced record of interfering in domestic affairs. Yet, as in the days of Mao, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang, the PLA remains a pillar of support for the CCP in general, and more consequentially, its most seminal faction.

That the PLA remains at the disposal of the CCP’s dominant faction is a major factor behind the armed forces’ lack of transparency and accountability, a theme repeatedly underscored in the Pentagon’s 2007 assessment of China’s military power. The annual report notes, for example, that the PLA’s real budget could be as large as $125 billion—$80 billion more than the publicized figure [1]. The report has also confirmed various new military doctrines introduced by Hu since late 2004. While the Taiwan Strait will always remain a top priority, Hu has urged the top brass to begin focusing on regions beyond the PLA’s traditional scope of the Asia-Pacific. Since late last year, President Hu has attended strategic assessment sessions conducted by senior military leaders as well as military think tanks. On these occasions, he has underscored the importance of “implementing the PLA’s new historical mission in the new century and at a new phase [of army development].” The “new mission” includes the ability to “win information-enabled warfare” anywhere in the world (Xinhua, March 12). The report notes, “The PLA is pursuing comprehensive transformation from a mass army designed for protracted wars of attrition on its territory to one capable of fighting and winning short-duration, high-intensity conflicts against high-tech adversaries” [2]. The Pentagon has expatiated at length on the long-term implications of the PLA’s acquisition of anti-satellite capacities.

Both the report and the related press briefings by Department of Defense officials have cited new weapons developments that could enable the PLA to mount devastating strikes against the U.S. mainland and other targets. Sophisticated hardware close to deployment includes at least five Jin-class nuclear submarines equipped with long-range JL-2 missiles, as well as the PLA Second Artillery’s DF-31 intercontinental ballistic missile. While briefing the U.S. press last week, General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that it was essential that the United States had the wherewithal to deter and defeat weapons systems deployed by possible adversaries or hostile regimes. Without specifying China, General Pace said the United States needed to “stay well out ahead of any potential adversary so that we are properly prepared, should somebody’s intent change, to deal with that threat when it rises” (Financial Times, May 23; Washington Post, May 26).

The report also emphasized the continued relevance of former CMC Chairman Deng’s 24-character dictum on foreign and military policy: “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” The report notes that the Deng axiom “suggests both a short-term desire to play down China’s capabilities and avoid confrontation, and a long-term strategy to build up China’s power to maximize options for the future” [3]. It is important to point out, however, that Hu has all but recast Deng’s motto to emphasize the doctrine of yousuo zuowei, or “make some contributions” by seizing opportunities. Moreover, the PLA has in many ways no longer considered it either prudent or necessary to hide its strength or to adopt a low-key posture.

Under Hu’s guidance, the PLA has publicized breakthroughs in military technology, with the partial aim of resuscitating its defense industry. Thus, Chinese defense industry representatives are aggressively marketing the Jian-10 jetfighter to Third World countries, including “rogue” African countries such as Sudan and Zimbabwe that have, to some extent, become dependent upon Chinese military hardware (Xinhua, April 8). Moreover, President Hu believes that the unrestrained projection of military muscle will serve the dual purpose of elevating China’s global status as well as enhancing its psychological warfare capabilities against Taiwan and other potential adversaries. The significant leap forward of Chinese diplomatic and military influence has enabled Beijing as well as major state-owned companies to cement trade and energy deals with countries as distant as Africa and Latin America. Various PLA generals’ conspicuous reference to their ability to inflict heavy casualties on U.S. soil seems geared toward persuading the U.S. public and Congress that it would be imprudent for America to intervene in a possible China-Taiwan conflagration.

In the final analysis, President Hu is confident that the grand outlay—in terms of time, energy and resources—that he has lavished on the armed forces will serve to additionally cultivate his own political structure at home, as well as his legacy as “foreign-policy president nonpareil.” By the same token, however, the challenging political role played by the generals has, as the Pentagon’s report alleges, rendered the relentless aggrandizement of Chinese firepower unsettling to parties ranging from the country’s regional neighbors to the United States.


1. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress, The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2007, p. 25.

2. Ibid., p. i.

3. Ibid., p. 7.