Power Pact: Hu’s Symbiotic Relations with the PLA

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 15

As the People’s Liberation Army celebrates its 80th birthday on August 1, President and Commander-in-chief Hu Jintao will have myriad reasons to feel elated. Since becoming chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) three years ago, the military-affairs neophyte has not only consolidated his grip over the generals but also delivered a body of dictums that are being eulogized on par with those of Chairman Mao Zedong and late patriarch Deng Xiaoping. Given Hu’s anxiety to consolidate power at the pivotal 17th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress this fall, the 64-year-old president is not overly concerned with criticisms that he is indulging in the CCP chieftains’ age-old tradition of using the army to buttress their standing. In return for supporting Hu, the generals are afforded not only larger budgets but also a voice in foreign policy decisions, a development that will have notable consequences for China’s relations with the world.

Displaying more of a Machiavellian streak toward the end of his first five-year term, Hu has used three strategies to secure the loyalty of officers as well as enlisted personnel. The first was to award the 2.3 million-strong military—in addition to the paramilitary People’s Armed Police (PAP), which number around 660,000—with hefty annual increases in expenditures. Secondly, in the past year, the CMC chairman masterminded a series of reshuffles, transfers and promotions mainly to reward generals who have sworn allegiance to himself. Thirdly, Hu mobilized the PLA’s formidable propaganda machinery to erect a quasi-personality cult around himself.

Following the tradition of former president Jiang Zemin, Hu has consistently given the PLA yearly budgetary boosts of 15 percent or more. Even more so than Jiang, however, Hu, deemed an admirer of Mao’s military theories, has faithfully implemented Mao’s aphorism about “the synthesis of the [needs of] peace and war.” This means that party-and-government authorities have urged civilian ministries and state-owned enterprises to make available to the PLA products, services and expertise at little or no cost. Recent advancements in missile and space technology, for example, have been attained through the close cooperation between central government units as well as the Air Force and the Second Artillery, China’s strategic missile force. Also significant is the fact that Hu has demonstrated a concern for livelihood issues within the PLA, especially the salaries and living conditions of China’s servicemembers. Since becoming CMC chairman in September 2004, Hu has given the PLA personnel sizeable pay raises and improved the quality of military meals.

Earlier this summer, the CMC raised the standard of meals for the enlisted personnel by roughly an extra 1 yuan per soldier per day. Depending on the regions and divisions, officers and soldiers are entitled to four food plans, which range from 11 yuan to 39 yuan per day. The more expensive categories are reserved for “hardship posts,” for example, those in mountainous, snow-bound areas or on board submarines. Hu’s largesse is estimated to cost the PLA an extra one billion yuan a year. Furthermore, in the run-up to the PLA’s August 1 festivities, officers from all divisions changed into uniforms that use lighter, warmer and even “high-tech” materials. This 10 billon-yuan effort to improve the soldiers’ image has proved highly popular among the servicemembers (Wen Wei Po, July 8; Xinhua, June 28).

As far as buying the support of senior officers is concerned, promotions are the most effective means of doing so. This is especially true given the age-old PLA tradition whereby an officer will proffer life-long fealty to the superior who has enabled him to climb the career ladder. In June, the CMC chief elevated three relatively young generals, Lieutenant Generals Fang Fenghui, Zhao Keshi and Wang Guosheng, to become the commanders of the Beijing, Nanjing and Lanzhou military regions (MR), respectively. Formerly, they had served as the chiefs of staff in the Guangzhou, Nanjing and Lanzhou regions. It seems certain that these three rising stars will remain especially loyal to Hu, because they had in fact been given “double promotions.” The usual career track is for the chief of staff of a regional MR to be promoted to the post of vice-commander of the MR, instead of directly to commander. Of the three, the 56-year-old General Fang is the youngest and is a well-published strategist on IT-enabled warfare. Given the importance of the Beijing MR, which guards the capital and the strategic Bohai Sea area, General Fang is deemed a candidate for further promotions (Ming Pao, July 25).

Even while serving as the CMC vice-chairman, Hu had modernized and streamlined the personnel structure of the top military organs. For example, it was under Hu’s watch that the commanders of the navy, air force and missile forces were inducted into the CMC. Previously, the elite commission had been limited to the ground forces. This summer, Hu introduced other changes, including the rotation of officers based in headquarters with those running regional commands. Last month, Vice Director of the General Staff Department (GSD) General Zhang Qinsheng changed jobs with the Commander of the Guangzhou MR, General Liu Zhenwu. Also, earlier this month, the director of the Division of Mobilization at the General Staff Department in Beijing, Lieutenant General Zhao Jianzhong, was named Vice Commander of the Lanzhou MR. Likewise, the director of the Propaganda Division of the General Political Department, Lieutenant General Wu Changde, was named Political Commissar of the Chengdu MR (Wen Wei Po, July 10).

These unconventional personnel moves serve to promote better communications between headquarters and the regional commands. They will also allow Hu to offer his protégés opportunities to gain more experience in anticipation of further promotions a few years later. For example, former GSD Vice Director General Zhang was previously the PLA’s senior intelligence and anti-espionage expert. The English-speaking 59-year-old Zhang, however, lacks command-and-control experience. A stint as Guangzhou MR Commander will better qualify Zhang, who is deemed close to Hu, for a top post in headquarter departments.

At the same time, President Hu has proven to be more willing than Jiang to punish errant, corrupt officers. Earlier this month, the PLA Commission for Disciplinary Inspection, the army’s top anti-graft watchdog, announced that personnel with “economic crimes” would have 30 days in which to give an account of their misdeeds—and surrender ill-gotten gains—in return for more lenient treatment. The circular noted that anti-corruption and auditing experts were particularly targeting PLA officers responsible for handling the purchase of equipment and provisions or engaged in engineering and services-related jobs (Jiefangjun Bao, July 7; Wen Wei Po, July 10). Given the lucrative real-estate market in China, a number of senior officers are also being investigated for granting military-owned land to commercial property developers. In the late 1990s, the CMC had forbidden all PLA units to engage in business, with the exception of the buying and selling of military equipment. Different military regions and districts, however, are in possession of valuable assets, especially land. Furthermore, given the disparity in the salaries and fringe benefits between PLA officers and civil servants, the temptation for military personnel to engage in “side-line activities” has risen.

Perhaps most significantly, Hu has managed to establish a reputation as a civilian commander-in-chief that passes muster. In his message celebrating the PLA’s 80th anniversary, CMC Vice Chairman and Defense Minister General Cao Gangchuan put Hu’s military instructions on the same level as those of Mao, Deng and Jiang. General Cao noted that Hu’s dictums had “further answered major questions concerning the [PLA’s] functions, goals, guiding principles, fundamental approaches and strategies for military struggle under new historical conditions.” Veteran political commissar General Xu Caihou, who is also a vice chairman of the CMC, earlier this month called upon all soldiers to “use the teachings of General Secretary Hu to unite their thought and action” (Qiushi [Seeking Truth], July 16; People’s Daily, July 8).

The military media has portrayed Hu as a hands-on leader, particularly concerned with the PLA’s combat-readiness—and its ability to “quickly advance from the mechanized to the digitalized phase” in terms of weapons and strategies. Hu’s instructions that the PLA must “observe the theory of scientific development” and “be able to win information-enabled warfare under new situations in the new era” have become mottos for the men and women in uniform. The vice president of the Academy of Military Sciences, General Liu Jixian, quoted Hu as saying in an internal discussion that “we must manage well the relationship between the preparation for warfare, exercising caution with regard to [possible] warfare, and [the state of] daring to go to war.” The CMC chairman reportedly added: “We shall be cautious about warfare; but once we have gone into combat, we must win [the battle].” General Liu noted that Hu had laid particular emphasis on seeking breakthroughs in equipment and strategy, given China’s limited resources. For example, Hu has underscored the significance of technological innovation, as well as “leap-frogging up the technological ladder” (Jiefangjun Bao, July 10).

While Hu has evidently found it expeditious to use the PLA and PAP—which Deng called “the party’s iron and steel Great Wall”—to buttress his own authority and that of his faction, the nation is paying the price of letting the generals maintain their privileges. Fully 296, or 13.3 percent, of the 2,220 delegates that will attend the 17th Party Congress are from the PLA and PAP (Jiefangjun Bao, July 3). Military officers are expected to take up at least 20 percent of the seats of the CCP Central Committee, as well as two slots on the ruling Politburo. In tandem with the nation’s growing economy and military capabilities, the generals, backed by Hu, have displayed a hearty appetite for power projection. This has ranged from the anti-satellite missile test in January to aggressive efforts to sell advanced weapons such as the JH-7 fighter-bomber to developing countries. Indeed, the military component, including selling arms to rogue regimes sometimes at “friendship prices,” has figured prominently in Beijing’s diplomatic breakthroughs in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The danger certainly should not be overlooked that the power pact between Hu and the generals could nudge the nation toward a more assertive and adventurous foreign and military policy.