Politics and the PLA: Securing Social Stability

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 7

The PAP Not the PLA Are the Primary Guarantors of Stability

Every year, especially around the time of the National People’s Congress, political campaigns are waged to assure the loyalty of all those who carry guns in China and this year is no different (PLA Daily, March 19; Xinhua, March 13). This practice is based upon Mao Zedong’s dictum that “‘Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.’ Our principle is that the Party commands the gun and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party” (“Problems of War and Strategy,” November 6, 1938). Today, in China, the prime operating directive is that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) controls the Chinese armed forces and civilian police force. The CCP demands “absolute loyalty” of the armed forces and police.

In contemporary terminology, the first of Hu Jintao’s historic missions for the Chinese armed forces is to consolidate the Party’s ruling position. Likewise, “maintaining stability in the form of government, political system and social order” is foremost among China’s “core interests.” According to Chief of the General Staff Chen Bingde, these priorities precede maintaining “China’s sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity and national unity” and national economic development (China Daily, May 19, 2011).

Chen’s statement to an audience at the U.S. National Defense University is a clear example of transparency in China’s national strategic intentions. First, maintain the preeminence of the CCP and, second, maintain domestic stability. In doing so, the political system of the People’s Republic of China is preserved and national economic development is possible. In the eyes of Beijing’s leaders, chaos is inevitable without the CCP in control. Since all senior military and police officers are Party members, there is little discernable debate about this perception.

Nonetheless, China’s political leaders perceive a variety of internal and external threats to maintaining China’s political system and its national security. As a result, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Political Department is tasked with maintaining the military’s fealty to the Party.

Roles and Missions of the Chinese Armed Forces

The 1997 Law on National Defense defined the Chinese armed forces as consisting of the active and reserve units of the PLA, the People’s Armed Police (PAP) Force and the people’s militia. The PLA is tasked with “the defensive fighting mission,” that is to say its primary role is external security. When necessary, however, it may “assist in maintaining public order in accordance with the law.” The PAP is charged with “safeguarding security and maintaining public order”—that is, domestic security. The militia provides support to both missions.

According to the 2006 White Paper on National Defense, in performance of its domestic security operations the PAP “is under the leadership and command of the Ministry of Public Security” at the national-level; at the local government level, its forces come under the “command of the public security organs.” In other words, the PAP routinely works with the roughly 1.9 million members of the Ministry of Public Security and its local bureaus to maintain internal stability (Xinhua, February 5, 2009). The PLA is not in the chain of command for these operations.

The 2006 White Paper also states that local PLA commands (at provincial, city and prefecture and county levels) are under the dual-command of their higher military headquarters and “local Party committees and governments at the same level” (China’s National Defense in 2006). As such, it seems likely that PLA leaders are involved in the decision-making process for internal security operations, but public security officials have the lead.

Thus, the formal, legally established order for maintaining domestic stability in China is first the civilian police (at national and local level), backed up by the PAP and followed by the PLA as the third line of defense. In effect, the PLA’s main role in domestic stability is deterrence; however, if deterrence fails, it may become involved after other elements of the government request its help.

Money Talks

Beijing’s preoccupation with maintaining domestic stability has been reflected in reports over the past two years that China’s “public security” budget is larger and growing faster than defense spending. As reported by Reuters, “For 2012, China set combined central and local government spending on "public security" to 701.8 billion yuan ($111.4 billion), compared with 629.3 billion yuan in 2011, when it grew by nearly 13.8 percent” (Reuters, March 5). Meanwhile the defense budget rose by 11.2 percent to 670.3 billion yuan ($106.4 billion).

The “public security” budget includes funding for the police, “state security,” PAP, courts and prison system at the national and local levels of government throughout China. The number of people involved (1.9 million police, up to 1 million PAP and unknown numbers of “state security,” courts and prison system personnel) is greater than the number of active duty PLA (2.3 million) and reserves (over 500,000).

The “public security” budget however complicates part of reasoning behind estimates of “actual” defense spending that conclude it to be significantly higher than the announced figure. Most organizations that attempt to estimate China’s “actual” defense spending usually include the PAP budget in whatever larger amount they finally arrive at, despite the 2006 White Paper’s statement “The [PAP] has an independent budgetary status in the financial expenditure of the state” (China’s National Defense in 2006). If the PAP budget is included as part of “public security,” then it should not be double-counted as part of “actual” defense spending. These budget classifications also suggest the growing distance between the PLA and its direct support to maintaining internal stability.

The PLA’s Focus

Even without including PAP spending in “actual” defense spending, the PLA’s operating budget has grown significantly since 1998. Over these same years, the following reasons for the growth of the announced defense budget have been identified in the series of White Papers: increases in personnel pay and subsidies and improvements in living conditions; new equipment costs; higher training, operations and maintenance costs; compensation for higher prices of food and oil; improvements in the social security system; reimbursement for funds lost as a result of the PLA’s divestiture of commercial enterprises; increased expenses for international cooperation; and expenses incurred during disaster relief operations, anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and international rescue operations. Though the White Papers do not quantify each of these factors, they are indicative of why the PLA’s budget is increasing.

The PLA leadership understands it may be called upon to support police forces in domestic security operations, as it did in March 2008 when a regiment stationed in Lhasa provided transportation support and manned security checkpoints after the police and PAP quelled rioting [1]. The vast majority of the PLA’s training effort however is focused on preparing for its external security missions and its ever-increasing non-traditional security tasks.

Most of the new equipment entering the force is not designed for domestic security missions and requires a level of technical sophistication not required in decades past. Likewise, while it is possible to find a few reports of PLA troops conducting anti-riot training, the preponderance of PLA training is focused on experimenting with and improving its joint operational capabilities using a new doctrine issued in the late 1990s and modified in subsequent years. “Force protection” measures to defend PLA installations, units and personnel are implemented routinely and vary as threat conditions change (and may include anti-riot training).

On the other hand, increases in PAP funding have resulted in more armored vehicles and helicopters being assigned to the force. Over the past decade both PAP and civilian police forces have established anti-riot forces, equipped with the most advanced equipment available. These forces practice their tactical techniques quite frequently and openly. Anti-riot training, however, often is associated mistakenly with anti-terrorist training and preparations. There are major differences between anti-riot procedures and anti-terrorist actions; combining of the two in practice could lead to disastrous results and the unwarranted conflation of different types of threats.

Threats Do Exist… or Do They?

The Chinese government perceives a threat from domestic and international terrorists in its cities and especially in the western regions of the country. This threat is different in type and intensity from the various threats to domestic stability resulting from political, economic and social inequities as well as religious challenges in all parts of China. The CCP and Chinese government attempt to deter these threats by heavy police and PAP presence in sensitive areas. It is no secret that the Chinese government seeks through a variety of means to prevent any organized opposition to coalesce.

Properly equipped, trained and funded domestic security forces can deter or mitigate many situations that may escalate and endanger stability. Some, not all, PLA units deployed throughout the country provide a third line of deterrence to achieve this goal. Most PLA Navy, Air Force, Second Artillery and many Army units simply are not equipped to conduct anti-riot operations even if some may be useful in anti-terrorist actions.

During the March session of the National People’s Congress, President Hu Jintao called for the PLA and PAP “to pay more attention to safeguarding social stability, including that of military personnel.” He also stated the PLA and PAP must “focus on national defense and army building,” preparation for military struggle (combat readiness), “the development of core military capability and actively engage in military training to increase combat capabilities.” All this (and fighting corruption, too) must be done while prioritizing “ideological and political development and unswervingly [upholding] the [CCP’s] absolute leadership over the armed forces” (China Daily, March 13).

Hu’s comments were directed at all the elements of the Chinese armed forces. Each element understands its primary mission and responsibilities and who has the main mission of “social stability.” Taken in context with the discussion of army building, training and maintaining loyalty to the Party, there was nothing new in this speech. The way it was presented by the Chinese media may have had a deterrent (psychological) purpose for some parts of the population.

Beijing perceives both internal and external threats that seek to change its form of government. The Chinese government consistently states that China faces “strategic maneuvers and containment from the outside while having to face disruption and sabotage by separatist and hostile forces from the inside” (China’s National Defense in 2008). As a result, for the past decade, a major theme pounded into the troops by the General Political Department is the persistent threat from outside forces (non-Party elements) to separate the military from politics, depoliticize the military and “nationalize” the military (PLA Daily, March 19).

It is unclear who, if anybody within the PLA, proposes to separate, depoliticize or nationalize the military, but these warnings often reach high peak around the National People’s Congress, shortly after over half a million new recruits have entered the PLA and PAP. These young soldiers have just finished basic training and are entering their units. They are likely targets of this political education campaign as are other sectors of the society where such “deviant” thought may exist. A political campaign based on a non-existent (or minimally existing) straw man would not be unique to China or the CCP.


With all senior PLA and PAP officers as Party members, it seems likely that most share the Party’s collective worldview and belief in the CCP’s and armed forces’ essential role in protecting China from domestic chaos and external threats. There may be ideological and policy differences of varying degrees among senior Party members and such differences may also be found among senior military leaders. It is unlikely, however, that a senior PLA leader would lead the call publicly for major political reform outside the parameters of the limited discussion allowed. Maintaining social stability is a core interest shared by all of China’s leaders for both public and private reasons. Others disagree.


  1. For a complete description of the PLA’s activities in Lhasa in 2008, see Dennis J. Blasko, The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century, second edition, London: Routledge, 2012, pp. 217–18.