Restructuring the Military: Drivers and Prospects for Xi’s Top-Down Reforms

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 3

PRC leaders have outlined requirements to restructure the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and national defense to better accord with China’s new economic situation, new military missions, and trends in modern warfare. The announcement coincides with other signs that the Xi administration is pursuing a centralization of power to enact a major restructuring of the economy, government administration, and military. Limits to the traditional methods of implementing major policy change and the severity of restructuring required likely underpin the turn to a more centralized approach to reform. The biggest obstacles will likely come from the resistance of powerful interests which stand to lose from Xi’s efforts to centralize power, a possibility which will be challenging for the PLA to avoid.

At the Third Plenum Decision of the 18th Party Congress, central authorities announced a broad array of reforms to the country’s armed forces and national defense (Xinhua, November 15, 2013). The announcement of an impending military reorganization shares many features in common with previous such reforms.  The intervals between major reorganizations have ranged from six to twelve years, with the most recent reorganization haven taken place ten years ago. PRC media describe PLA structural reforms in the post-Mao era in terms of three major efforts:

In 1985, the PLA cut 1 million enlisted personnel. Reforms in this period focused primarily on reducing the size of the force and streamlining the ground combat forces. The PLA reduced military regions from eleven to seven, and cut the numbers of units in general departments, services, and branches. The PLA cut the ratio of officers to enlisted and reorganized branch corps into group armies.

In 1997, the PLA cut 500,000 personnel. In this period, the PLA began to transition to a force featuring stronger services and raising the quality and capability of weapons and equipment. The PLA revised the composition of the branches and increased the strength of the services. It also established the General Armaments Department and formed the four department structure within the Central Military Commission (CMC).

In 2003, the military cut another 200,000 personnel. Reorganization in this period focused on optimizing and upgrading the technological and joint capability of the force. The PLA optimized the structure of services and branches and increased the percentage of specialized and high-technology equipped units. The period also saw a gradual introduction of joint operations command institutions and systems (Jiefangjun Bao, October 17, 2008).

The previous major reorganizations shared several features in common. Each typically moved in an incremental style, following experimentation at the local level. As an example, the CMC began experimenting with reorganizing a few motorized army corps in 1983. Subsequently, all of the military was organized into group armies by 1985. Military reorganizations have also tended to be components of broader drives to restructure government, the economy and politics.

Political capital accumulation and policy implementation

In all cases of restructuring, the CCP provides the leadership and discipline to overcome opposition and implement policy changes. The PRC regime leverages many political, administrative, and legal tools for this work. These tools and measures aim in part to build consensus, or “unify thinking” (tongyi sixiang) in CCP parlance, around a policy program based on a system of theoretical logic, which the party calls its “socialist” or “party” theory (dangde lilun). The theory is crucial to this process because the basis of the party’s legitimacy fundamentally rests on its claim to possess an intellectual methodology that uniquely privileges the CCP with access to the truths of China’s social and economic condition. The CCP’s strategic and policy guidance at its core consists of the application of insights drawn from this theory, formally called the “theory system of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”  As the 18th party congress report explained, all of the party’s achievements “depended on guidance drawn from the party’s theory, path, guiding principles, and experiences” (Xinhua, November 17, 2012).

A major change in the theory therefore requires changes in the policy guidance. The reverse is equally true- any major change in policy guidance requires changes in theory to carry legitimacy. The process of building consensus around the party’s theory and policy program is therefore central to any major reform effort.  As the party leadership leverages its revised theory to build consensus around the imperative for policy change, it generates the political capital needed to motivate bureaucrats and officials to carry out the new policies. This process takes an enormous amount of time and energy, as it consists of at least four important steps: 1) strategic assessment; 2) theory development; 3) guidance; 4) implementation.

Strategic assessment: Following extensive research, Party analysts distill strategic assessments of major trends and developments related to China’s domestic and international situation. These are typically written in the form of a series of “principal contradictions” (zhuyao maodu) which describe obstacles to the country’s development. By 2002, the party leadership had agreed on a series of strategic assessments which it associated with the “new century” in the “new period” (reform and opening up era). The assessments appeared in the 16th national party congress work report and other official documents.

Theory concepts: Party leaders articulate a theoretical interpretation and policy response to the strategic assessment in the form of major strategic concepts (zhongda zhanlue sixiang).  The major strategic concepts are authoritative, theoretical judgments of China’s current situation and prescribe policy responses for all fields of policy, including economics, party, government, culture, and the military. In 2003, Hu introduced his signature major strategic concept, the “scientific development concept,” to resolve prominent contradictions derived from the country’s uneven and imbalanced development.

Guidance: The party leadership derives strategic and policy guidance based on conclusions derived from the major strategic concept. The 17th national party congress set the stage for the current round of structural reforms when it outlined new policy guidance based on the party’s adoption of the scientific development concept as the “guiding principle for all social and economic development.” (Xinhua, December 24, 2007).

Implementation: Implementation consists of two main efforts: 1) political work to socialize party officials and public to the new theory concepts and related guidance; and 2) planning and task implementation to enact the new policies. Party leaders employ a wide array of tools, drawing heavily from traditional Leninist organizational techniques such as indoctrination (now called “mandatory training and study”), political campaigns (“educational activities”), and criticism sessions (“democratic life meetings”), to build political consensus in support of the new theory concepts and associated guidance.  Planning and task implementation consists of work meetings, the issuance of plans, outlines, and other implementation documents, and inspections and other measures to ensure compliance.

Without question, implementation is the most difficult part of the process. It typically takes years and consumes enormous amounts of political energy. As early as 1997, for example, the 15th party congress report recognized the imperative to transform the mode of economic growth in a more balanced, scientific, and comprehensive manner. Hu Jintao articulated the main features of the strategic assessments, theoretical concepts, and derived guidance under the overarching “scientific development concept” in 2003. The rest of Hu’s tenure consisted of efforts to implement strategic and policy guidance through consensus-building efforts and incremental reforms. The leadership persistently reinforced these efforts through work conferences, study sessions, official meetings, and political campaigns. While Hu’s team oversaw considerable progress in implementing aspects of the agenda, it did not enact important economic and government structural reforms.

A similar process occurred with the PLA during the same period. Months after assuming the chair of the Central Military Commission in 2004, Hu articulated the implications of the scientific development concept for the military’s development. The guidance included a new set of missions and tasks, known as the “historic missions.” Hu also outlined guidance to carry out “four innovations”—innovations in military theory, technology, organization­—and management in 2006, which the central authorities codified in the 17th party congress work report. For the rest of Hu’s tenure, the PLA carried out efforts to build consensus behind this agenda and carried out incremental reforms. However, the PLA did not enact needed structural changes to truly enable the military transformation envisioned in Hu’s guidance.

Limits to political process drive centralization

The limited progress in enacting a restructuring of the economy, government, party, and military may in part reflect a deliberate design to constrain the power of outgoing CMC chairs. As in the preceding two cases of restructuring, the recent Third Plenum announced major reforms only after the outgoing CCP general secretary had departed and the incoming general secretary had taken office. The simplest explanation for this pattern is that major reorganizations must wait until the theoretical concepts upon which they are based have been fully endorsed by the party leadership via adoption as part of the guiding ideology at a national party congress. The CCP incorporated “Deng Xiaoping Thinking” into the guiding ideology in 1997, Jiang’s “Three Represents” in 2002 and Hu’s Scientific Development Concept in 2012.

However, developments related to China’s economy and politics suggest that deeper issues may be at play. The traditional incremental, consensus-building approach to reform had by 2009 proved insufficient to resolve the country’s mounting, increasingly severe problems stemming from its rapid growth, – problems exacerbated by the global financial crisis. The exhaustion of the decades-old model of export- and investment-driven growth required painful structural economic reform, yet many powerful interests vested in the old model resisted reform. The examples of the “jasmine revolutions” underscored the imperative to restructure obsolete, sclerotic government services to improve responsiveness and competence. In the PLA, an obsolete command structure, optimized for industrial age combat, impeded its ability to carry out joint operations. However, powerful generals and bureaucracies which benefited from irregularities in the old system resisted reforms.

Xi Jinping hinted at these challenges following the Third Plenum when he noted the “exceptional contradictions and challenges” facing the country, including the “lack of balance, coordination, and sustainability in development” and an “increase in social problems” (Xinhua, November 15, 2013). The challenges have been compounded by the complexity of reform needs. At the 2012 National People’s Congress, then-premier Wen Jiabao observed that it had become “more difficult” to solve institutional and structural problems because “some long-term and short-term problems are interwoven; structural and cyclical factors affect each other; domestic and international problems have become interrelated; and our macro-control work faces a more complex situation” (Xinhua, March 5, 2012).

China’s leaders have concluded that a comprehensive, top down approach to implementing structural reforms across the economic, political, government, and military sectors has become necessary to supplement the shortcomings of traditional party processes. The Third Plenum Decision was merely the most public symbol of Xi’s determination to centralize power in pursuit of major structural change. The Politburo recently announced the formation of a small leading group to oversee “overall reform.” The group will “design reform from an overall basis, arrange and coordinate reform, and supervise the implementation of reform plans” (Xinhua, December 30, 2013).

Obstacles to Reform

The fact that the PLA has taken years to pursue reorganization and other structural reforms is not in itself unusual. The traditional CCP approach to major change typically requires years of intensive political and planning work to build the consensus needed to implement new policies. More remarkable is the fact that the Xi administration senior leaders appear to have concluded that traditional political processes are not sufficient to carry out the kinds of reforms needed today.

As refined by Mao, traditional political processes drew heavily from a repertoire of Leninist organizational techniques, backed by a readiness to employ terror and brutality to crush opponents and ensure the “consensus” needed to further the party’s agenda. The country’s pursuit of a more stable model of governance has resulted in a refinement of the process. Party leaders now rely more on control through manipulation of promotion and other incentives to gain compliance and minimize the need for violence. Chinese authorities have also supplemented traditional Leninist techniques with more modern administrative measures such as performance evaluations and professional training to build political consensus and ensure policy implementation. However, these methods have, in recent years, proved inadequate for purposes of persuading powerful interests to support reforms. Moreover, the traditional consensus-building approach is ill-suited for enacting major comprehensive reforms crossing multiple policy fields and characterized by a high degree of technical complexity.

The prospects for PLA structural reform hinges on how well Xi and his administration centralize political power to carry out the broader structural reforms of the economy, government and other areas of policy. The impediments plaguing efforts to carry out structural reform in the military are the same problems plaguing efforts to enact overall structural reform. The most important of these lies in the potential opposition from powerful individuals and interests who stand to lose from reforms. As a political military, the PLA is not immune from being drawn into power struggles. Indeed, the PLA has already provided a disturbing precedent in the form of Deputy Director of the General Logistics Department, General Gu Junshan, who reportedly defied PLA efforts to enforce discipline. General Gu was only removed when then-President Hu Jintao directed the Central Committee’s disciplinary body to intervene by going around the military’s discipline organ. [1] How Xi’s administration manages the political opposition to its efforts to carry out extensive structural reform bears directly on the stability and prospects for the world’s largest military.

  1. John Garnaut, “Rotting From Within,” Foreign Policy, April 19, 2012.