PLA’s “Absolute Loyalty” to the Party in Doubt

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 9

China’s military forces crossed a watershed when the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) celebrated its 60th birthday by holding a parade of state-of-the-art hardware such as indigenously developed nuclear submarines. That the 2.4-million strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has attained quasi-superpower status was also supported by the fact that defense delegations from 29 countries attended the festivities in the port city of Qingdao (Guardian, April 22; Time [Asia edition], April 21). Paving the way for preparations for an even bigger event on October 1—an unprecedented large-scale military show at Tiananmen Square to mark the 60th birthday of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Two factors underpin the PLA’s ostensible salience in China’s political life. Demonstrating military might is an essential component to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership’s recent decision to aggressively project hard power worldwide. With the 20th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 crackdown moving closer, the Hu Jintao administration is playing up the fact that the PLA, as well as it sister unit, the People’s Armed Police (PAP), is ready to deal a frontal blow to dissidents, separatists and other “destabilizing elements.”

Yet, speeches by President Hu since early this year have betrayed the CCP leadership’s doubts about the key Communist-Chinese tradition that, “the army must be absolutely loyal to the party.” Hu, who chairs the policy-setting Central Military Commission (CMC), has masterminded an ideological campaign to promote “core values of contemporary revolutionary soldiers.” The commander-in-chief has enunciated the following five crypto-Maoist norms as the army’s foremost values: “Be loyal to the party, love the people, serve the country; devote yourself to [the party’s goals]; and value honor.” Hu’s instructions have been eulogized by the PLA’s General Political Department as “the scientific summation of the historical experience of the political construction of the armed forces.” In indoctrination sessions nationwide, political commissars have stressed that military units “must, in areas of ideology, politics and organization, remain a people’s army that is under the absolute leadership of the party.” Furthermore, while inspecting PLA divisions around the country since the spring, Hu and his military aides have emphasized that “the PLA must never change its [political] nature” of being the party’s faithful defenders and executioners (Xinhua News Agency, April 7; Liberation Army Daily, March 16 & April 27).

Yet it is obvious that the moral and ideological standards of officers as well as rank and file are hardly up to scratch. PLA Chief Political Commissar General Li Jinai, who is in charge of ideological indoctrination, warned in an article in the early April issue of the theoretical journal Seeking Truth that officers and soldiers must never succumb to the “erroneous” concepts of the West. The latter include the de-politicization of the armed forces, and that they should be a “national army,” instead of a “party army” as in the case of China and other Communist countries. “Upholding the party’s absolute leadership is [the basis of] our army’s political superiority and its unchanging quintessence,” General Li said. “This is also the political guarantee of our army’s development and aggrandizement.” “We must take the party’s will as our will, the party’s direction as our direction,” added General Li, who is deemed personally close to Hu. “For each and everything, we must abide by the instructions of the party central authorities, the CMC, and Chairman Hu” (China News Service, April 1; People’s Daily, April 2).

Last week, President Hu admonished Chinese military attachés attending a Beijing conference to be “resolute in politics and to be pure in ideology and morality.” He called on the top brass to “uphold and develop the superior traditions of our party and army” by ensuring that overseas-based staff would pass muster regarding “the core values of contemporary revolutionary soldiers.” “Military attachés must be a high-quality corps that is loyal to the party, willing to make self-sacrifices, and strict in observing discipline,” the supremo added (Xinhua News Agency, April 17). Earlier this year, Hu noted when meeting military delegates to the National People’s Congress that “ideological and political construction”—code-word for fostering obedience and “absolute loyalty” among officers and soldiers—must remain the PLA’s priority task. He pointed out that defense personnel must have “four types of consciousness,” meaning awareness of politics, awareness of the requirements of the party and state, awareness of dangers and pitfalls, and consciousness about their mission of serving the party (Liberation Army Daily, March 12).

While issues about the PLA’s fealty toward the CCP may seem an internal Chinese affair, the Middle Kingdom’s neighbors may feel justified in showing concern about the apparent discrepancy between Commander-in-Chief Hu’s views on the nation’s pacifist tradition on one hand, and the hawkish sentiments of a number of military officers on the other. After all, failure to toe the line of the commander-in-chief clearly constitutes a breach of discipline. Take, for example, the oft-repeated doctrine of the “peaceful rise of China.” While officiating at the military parade in Qingdao last week, Hu reiterated his administration’s commitment to “the path of peaceful development.” He pointed out that the PLA would remain “an important force in safeguarding world peace,” and that “China will never be a threat to other nations.” “China would never seek hegemony, nor would it turn to military expansion or arms races with other nations,” he indicated (Liberation Army Daily, May 24; People’s Daily, May 24).

Leave aside for a moment the issue of whether a no-holds-barred modernization of PLA weaponry has spawned a virulent arms race among China, India, Japan and the United States. Pronouncements made a bevy of officers and military strategists, most of which have made it to military mouthpieces, suggest that a sizeable sector of the defense forces holds views on war and peace that are markedly different from those of the Hu-led party leadership. Take for instance, the doctrine of “shelving sovereignty disputes and focusing on joint development,” which was first laid down by late patriarch Deng Xiaoping and is still honored by the current party leadership. This principle has been used to defuse tension with countries that have territorial disputes with China. Yet it seems evident that a younger generation of PLA officers wants Beijing to play hardball while handling sovereignty conflicts with its neighbors.

According to naval officer Yang Yi, who teaches at the National Defense University, Deng’s dictum about shelving disputes “must be based on the premise that sovereignty [over disputed areas] belongs to China.” He warned unnamed countries that it is “dangerous” to assume that Beijing would not resort to force simply due to its anxiety to foster peaceful development and to polish its international image. “Strong military force is a bulwark for upholding national interests,” Yang pointed out. “The Chinese navy is a strong deterrent force that will prevent other countries from wantonly infringing upon China’s maritime interests” (International Herald Leader [Beijing paper], March 3). Equally significantly, strategist Huang Kunlun has raised the notion of “the boundaries of national interests.” Huang argued that China’s national interests had gone beyond its land, sea and air territories to include areas such as oceans traversed by Chinese oil freighters—as well as outer space. “Wherever our national interests have extended, so will the mission of our armed forces,” Huang indicated (see “China Flaunts Growing Naval Capabilities,” China Brief, January 12). These assertions of naked power have raised fears particularly in countries such as Japan and the Philippines, which have had recent run-ins with Beijing regarding sovereignty claims over islands in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.

While President Hu and his civilian advisers may have reservations about provocative statements made by the likes of Yang and Huang, however, it seems unlikely that the CMC—which is after all dominated by generals—would rein in the hawks. The 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre has again reminded the CCP leadership that had it not been for the “protection” of the armed forces, the party might in 1989 not have survived the onslaught of hundreds of thousands of protestors. Particularly given the likelihood that social unrest may escalate this year due to reduced living standards and growing unemployment, the Hu-led Politburo is eager to retain the loyalty of this most potent “pillar of the dictatorship of the proletariat” (Apple Daily [Hong Kong], April 24; Strait Times [Singapore], March 9). That the Politburo has given the army budget boosts averaging around 15 percent the past decade shows that while the party leadership is often seen cracking the whip on disobedient officers, it is at the same time anxious to win over the support of the top brass.

In a commemorative article on the “historic and glorious path” taken by the PLAN, the Xinhua News Agency disclosed details about how CCP leaders from Mao Zedong onward had lavished stupendous amounts of material and human capital on expanding China’s fleet. The commentary pointed out that the first major cash injection into the Chinese navy of $150 million—which enabled it to procure its post WWII-vintage frigates and airplanes—came from the $300 million that Beijing had borrowed from the Soviet Union in 1950. In that same year, revenue for the entire central government was as little as $2.27 billion. It was Chairman Mao, one of the founders of the Red Army, who made the fateful decision to divert the nation’s scarce resources to army construction (Xinhua News Agency, April 22). It was also under the same spirit that even though millions of Chinese were suffering from malnutrition in the 1960s, the Great Helmsman earmarked generous funds for building China’s first A-bomb and long-range missiles. While it is true that Hu and his Politburo colleagues may feel uncomfortable about grand-standing PLA officers, it is unlikely that the party leadership will go against the long-standing Communist-Chinese tradition of giving the military a disproportionately large share of the economic and political clout.