People’s Liberation Army and political power in China: Civilian-Military Relations with „Chinese Characteristics”



Analiza CIM no. 5/2011

Czerwiec 2011

When Jiang Zemin rose into power as Deng Xiaoping’s successor in 1989 without any major obstacles from the People’s Liberation Army’s leadership it became evident how enormous evolution has the Chinese military undergone. From the Maoist “party-army” of the Long March and the beginning of People’s Republic of China (PRC) it was transformed into an ever-modernising force with its relations with the state organisation more likely to be characterised as resembling those “civil-military”. [1]

This trend was even reinforced by Hu Jintao’s succession in 2002, again under similar circumstances. Truly, the nowadays’ People’s Liberation Army (PLA) plays significantly less important role in Chinese public affairs than it used to play before. This includes army’s engagement in issues of political ascendancy and the switch in power. The paper aims to give some reasons for a limited influence of the army on the succession to both Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin with an insight into a matter of today’s links between the army, the Party and the state in China. It traces an evolution of PLA’s status in Chinese internal politics from the time of Mao until the present day and describes some basic features of the current model of “civil-military relations with Chinese characteristics”.

Maoist legacy and Dengist reform

As mentioned above, the military involvement in Chinese politics has a rich tradition. Even though party-army relations have always been characterised by a classic Mao’s wisdom that “Political power grows out of the barrel of the gun. (…) The party must always control the gun, the gun must never control the party”, the PLA’s role in public matters in some periods was deeply appreciated.[2] Both Mao and Deng could use the military force in critical moments in order to strengthen their position with almost undisputable certainty of the military leaders’ compliance.[3] Consequently, the military was always subject to the absolute sovereignty of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under the Maoist model of “Party-army”. Under such a guidance, role of the military was supposed to be one of “a tool used in order to achieve certain political objectives”. Its features embraced inter alia promoting soldiers’ political indoctrination over their combat readiness, maintaining strict linkages between the army and society, adopting the strategy of “People’s War”, introducing some sort of “intra-army democracy”, obliging the military to fulfil certain economic duties in favour of the people, treating the army as “an example” for the society and, what is crucial, maintaining no distinct division between civilian and military leadership.[4] Largely, the PLA was manoeuvred into the internal political conflict and became a basis of Mao’s revolutionary strategy. Despite the fact that the military circles had dared to express their dissatisfaction with entering the Korean war in 1950, despite the criticism of the Great Leap Forward by Marshal Peng Dehuai and an unusual growth in power of Marshal Lin Biao, the Party managed to control the military continuously and to prevent the PLA from intervening into politics on its own.[5]

The policies of Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, brought the country necessary modernisations and a long-desired internal order.[6] Traditionally, according to Harry Harding, the PLA used to be more active when both the Party and the state were weaker and, respectively, more autonomous when these two structures appeared to be stronger.[7] As soon as the latter situation prevailed, the army had no choice but to retreat to its original role of country’s defender. The generals’ confidence was obviously reinforced by the authority on military affairs possessed by war-experienced Deng Xiaoping. However, his “Four Modernisations” eventually left the reforms of the army at the last place, while the leader himself suggested the generals to seek an economic self-reliance, what eventually brought a unique business empire driven by soldiers and known among the scholars as “PLA Inc.”[8] As a result, during the 1980s PLA was diverted by two different activities: engagement in already mentioned army-owned enterprises and the modernisation of armed forces.[9] The former resulted both in an increase of internal funds of the military organisation but also in such negative outcomes as corruption, decrease in soldiers’ morale and a fall of image of the army among the Chinese people.[10] The latter was at the same time a still developing process, motivated by an enormous technological gap between the PLA and other, especially Western militaries. An insufficient progress of these efforts, caused among all by PLA’s non-military internal involvement, resulted in a ‘shock’ Chinese commanders suffered in 1991, observing the performance of the American-led coalition forces during the Gulf War.[11] The PLA, by that time having been made self-sufficient by Deng’s policies, had to deal with many other peculiar problems, e.g. a decrease of recruits among the peasantry (caused by economic growth in agriculture, making this sector more profitable than military service) and a struggle with educating the officer corps.[12]

Another reason for the army’s non-involvement in internal politics was its changing operational doctrine. In 1985 the Central Military Commission (CMC), a Chinese ‘supreme command’, issued a new set of guidance finally approving the most recent step in the evolution of Chinese security concept. A Maoist doctrine of “People’s War”, although still serving as a foundation of the entire strategic thinking in the PRC, was eventually upgraded into an all-new concept of “local, limited war” along the country’s borders fought with a high-tech weaponry.[13] As the following years showed, this shift in doctrine was of profound significance for army modernisation. The current “National Military Strategic Guidelines for the New Period”, believed to be approved in 1993, readjusted Mao’s concept of “active defence” and “non-war use of force”, which assume a quick and offensive reaction for a threat to national sovereignty and territorial integrity.[14] This doctrine requires a rapid development of Chinese poor capabilities of power-projection and thus seems to pose a major task attracting attention of Chinese military leaders for a long time to come.

Additionally, the PLA might have been ousted from the succession to Deng Xiaoping because of a major internal restructuring of its leadership at the final stage of his rule. This refers to changes following the Tiananmen incident, including a purge within the CMC and the PLA officer corps.[15] During the crisis, the army was expected to execute direct political orders; consequently, the officers not eager to comply with the supreme command’s directives were removed or reshuffled.[16] The hardliners: Yang Shangkun and his half-brother Yang Baibing, who briefly dominated the CMC were eventually removed by Deng in 1992 with an approval from the PLA.[17] These actions have strengthened the position of an emerging new leader: Jiang Zemin. Being aware of the fact that the military leaders had opposed a perspective of Hu Yaobang becoming the supreme leader, Deng even held a personal meeting with high-ranked generals in March 1995 (with his health conditions deteriorating) in order to assure them about Jiang.[18]

Jiang and Hu: Civilians taking over

Under such circumstances Jiang Zemin assumed the top party and state positions in 1989 as the first supreme leader of the PRC lacking any military credentials. In order to gain and solidify his power over the military, Jiang made a “bargain” with the military leaders: as long as the Party supports PLA’s budget, the army does not question his leadership.[19] Additionally, Jiang has built his power over the army in a classic Chinese style: deriving it from the overall power he possessed within the party and state structure.[20] This possibility to ‘hire and fire’ tends to be crucial in maintaining control over any organisation, the military one in particular. Jiang used it perfectly by retiring those generals reluctant to him and promoting younger ones, who did not have any advantage of age over him.[21] Probably the best proof of success of such policy was strong support Jiang received from the generals both in 2002 and 2003 when he was still a chairman of CMC, even though Hu Jintao had already replaced him as a head of state.[22] However, during a series of crisis outbreaks regarding Taiwan between 1993 and 1996, the PLA establishment expressed its dissatisfaction with a line adopted by Jiang; the latter evidently tried to appease the military by giving the generals a right to participate in a key party body dealing with Taiwan affairs: Taiwan Affairs Leading Small Group.[23] All these actions have finally achieved their anticipated objectives: Jiang’s power over the military was big enough for him to order a long-desired divestiture of army enterprises in 1998 and to move a bargain of financing national defence expenditures from the military and party structures directly and officially to the state budget.[24]

Hu Jintao took over from Jiang in 2002, becoming the second leader without any military background. Circumstances surrounding his growth into power constitute a strong point justifying army’s retreat from high-level internal politics, known as a breakdown of so called “interlocking directorate” in key party structures. Originally, under a Leninist model of Party-army relations, military officers used to have a significant share in membership of CCP’s Central Committee and its Politburo, resulting in the PLA’s influence on party and state politics. This influence was balanced by the existence of Party committees and cells within army units and cultivation of the “nomenclature” system tying together the issues of professional career with party membership and support.[25] However, due to succession of new generation of leaders (so called ‘the fourth’), inexperienced in military affairs, this unique symbiosis of Party and army structures broke down: an amount of armed forces’ representatives in Central Committee has fallen to about 20 per cent without any single one left in the Standing Committee of the Politburo (after the Sixteenth Party Congress).[26] In 2002 only two PLA generals in the central command level possessed any satisfying experience in the supreme-level national politics.[27] Additionally, the issues of career opportunities and promotion were becoming more and more professionalised, with more and more officers being promoted to higher ranks thanks to their personal achievements rather than party background.[28] Under such circumstances, direct influence the army was able to exert on matters of political succession seemed to be faint. James Mulvenon predicts that this trend can even deepen with a succession of the non-technocratic ‘fifth generation’ of leadership, totally pulling out the remaining army technocrats.[29]

According to David Shambaugh, the 16th Party Congress of 2002 brought the most comprehensive “turnover” of the Chinese military leadership in history; and what is more, this change was carried out in an entirely peaceful way.[30] After the Congress, the CMC’s size was reduced from 11 to 8 members, most of whom are now experienced army professionals who truly deserved their current positions due to their personal achievements.[31] Obviously, such a development can be regarded as a milestone in the professionalization of Chinese civil-military relations. What particularly matters to Hu Jintao’s rise to power is the fact that Jiang Zemin was reappointed to the post of CMC chairman. While Hu, similarly to Jiang, had not managed to gain the PLA’s respect by the time he succeeded Jiang as the state and party chief, Jiang’s decision to remain PLA’s commander-in-chief can be examined as a sort of ‘favour’ towards his political successor during this ‘transitional period’. Eventually, after Hu had succeeded Jiang on a chair of CMC in 2004, there were no signs of the PLA’s discontent.

Legal, financial and institutional aspects

Legal documents adopted by key state organs of the PRC also contain some crucial stipulations regarding relationship between the Party, the state and the military. However, before going into detail one must acknowledge the provisions of the 1982 PRC constitution which subordinates the entire state structure to the CCP and underlines Party leadership over the military. At the same time, current Chinese legal doctrine establishes the precedence of legislation in favour of the National People’s Congress which is clearly a state body. This potential clash of authority can be explained in no other way than by existence of a total control of state structures by the CCP. According to Jeremy Paltiel, political role of the PLA defines the monopoly of the ruling CCP on power; this power is eventually maintained with resort to military force.[32] One of the most crucial documents describing contemporary civil-military relations in China is National Defence Law (NDL) adopted by National People’s Congress in 1997. This regulation provides general guidelines on functioning of the armed forces within the PRC with a special emphasis on a de facto nominal subordination of the PLA to the state. In this context, according to NDL, PLA comes under scrutiny of various governmental bodies; terms of introducing the state of emergency and martial law are defined; responsibilities of the military towards the state are enumerated; the matters of leading the armed forces are presented.[33] In sum, the rhetoric layer of the document suggests at least some shift towards more Huntingtonian, state-military relations in legal terms, but still under an overwhelming control of the dominant party. At the same time, with a division of power between CCP and the state structure just emerging, the army seems to be taking a neutral stand, counting on some likely benefits in the future.[34]

More specific, PLA-oriented documents seems to follow the established guidance. As far as an issue of supervision over the military is concerned, the Military Service Law of the People’s Republic of China (adopted in 1984 and last changed in 1998) in its article 10 reads:

Responsibility for military service work throughout the country shall be assumed by the Ministry of National Defence under the leadership of the State Council and the Central Military Commission.[35]

This regulation seems to name state institutions under the guidance of the CMC as a watchdog of PLA activities. Similarly, according to the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Officers in Active Service (adopted in 1988), “Officers constitute part of the State functionaries” (article 3).[36] However, recent amendments to this document (accepted in December 2000) inter alia require the PLA officers to be “. . . loyal to the motherland and to the Communist Party of China”.[37] All things considered, these examples of Chinese military guidelines can suggest a slow and careful nominal shift of army’s loyalty from the CCP to the state structure. Nonetheless, the nature of a one-party political system of today’s PRC leaves no doubt on who really controls “the gun”.

A question worth asking is a price the Party had to pay for the military to stay out of politics. Basically, after an unavoidable divestiture of PLA-held business holdings ordered in 1998, CCP was obliged to provide the army with higher budgetary funds in order to satisfy its enormous modernisation needs. Indeed, according to the SIPRI database, military expenditure in China rose by nearly 15 per cent year to year (1997 to 1998) following the dismantling of army enterprises. This particular growth, initiated even one year earlier, could be interpreted as a sort of incentive towards the military at the time of major restructuring of their sources of income. The year of 1998 started a period of almost steady growth of military budget, in comparison with only occasional rapid injections occurring especially after the Gulf War (almost 21 per cent in 1992), crisis in the Taiwan Strait (nearly 11 per cent in 1996) or later, in response to worsening relations with the United States following an EP-3 plane incident in 2001. General trends in financing Chinese military are presented in the table and a chart below. However, a real amount of money spent on the PLA remains a matter of controversy; data estimated by international institutions such as SIPRI are continuously about 1,7-1,8 times China’s officially announced military budget, [38] while the US Department of Defense calculates ‘China Expenditure Low Estimate’ and ‘China Expenditure High Estimate’ as double or even triple their official announcements, respectively.[39] US DoD eagerly speculates that most of these additional funds have been spent on new armaments which are a key factor of the PLA’s modernisation.[40] General observation, though, is that a switch to a state-founded military budget has assured a stable income for the PLA and strengthened the army’s loyalty to China as a whole.

Table 1. China’s military expenditure 1989-2008

Calculations based on: The SIPRI Military Expenditure Database,
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, <>.

Chart 1. China’s military expenditure 1989-2008

Calculations based on: The SIPRI Military Expenditure Database,
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, <>.

A short look on the institutional layer of civil-military relations in China unveils their local characteristics. The paramount body governing the army in today’s PRC remains Central Military Commission (CMC) which is an organ of the CCP. Even though the 1982 constitution introduced a state Central Military Commission, they are composed of the same officials and effectively duplicate their works; consequently, one can easily acknowledge the existence of both CMC-s but functioning only of the Party one. This nominal division serves only as a cover for a CCP’s strict control over the military. [41] CMC works as a core political leadership of the PLA and coordinates the entire spectrum of national defence policy.[42] CMC is formally led by the General Secretary of the CCP (and concurrently the President of the PRC) but its day-to-day duties are supervised by a powerful and influential Vice-Chairman.[43] In contrast, the actual role of the Ministry of National Defence (MND) in administering the armed forces looks much weaker, especially in comparison with Western, civil-led and publicly controlled national defence bureaucracies. MND is traditionally led by a PLA general who at the same time serves as a member of the CMC. The Ministry’s role is limited to organising foreign representation of the military.[44] More powers were given to the State Council (the government of the PRC), including preparation of national defence budget and administration of military resources.[45] In sum, clearly the Party circles retain the most profound influence on the functioning of the military; state organs as such still seem to be undervalued.


Contemporary relations between the military and the civilian sector in China are at the stage incomparable to anything before. Some most distinct conclusions are especially worth pointing out. First, even though the PLA does not determine the issues of political succession any longer, the military has retained a considerable power within country’s politics. Despite the fact that the matter of who becomes a paramount leader of the PRC is no longer decided with a crucial approval of the army, it is still not possible to succeed on this post completely without the PLA’s support.[46] Second, one may not overestimate a range of political change in China; a one-party system must rely on military power, even though the latter is becoming assigned to duties more and more resembling those known on Western grounds. The Party still controls the gun regardless some occasional ambiguities. A major indicator of the tendency describing army’s involvement in politics will be the next paramount succession scheduled for 2012. Time will show whether the PLA with its alleged enormous progress in professionalization will be able to accept a new generation of leaders, again lacking any significant military credentials. Third, even though any political engagement of the army would interfere with its modernisation trends, the PLA remains a sentinel of CCP’s unity and PRC’s integrity.[47] A threat to these supreme values can trigger generals’ actions in the future; a more capable PLA will likely serve well as a country defender in the time of peril.[48] Will it support the Party in case of any major future internal turmoil, though? This question remains open. Fourth, in terms of shaping PRC’s foreign and security policy, the military’s influence is a function of its capabilities and doctrine. Whenever PLA’s actions are entwined with the main objective of China’s Grand Strategy: The Great Renaissance of the Chinese Nation (Zhonghua minzu weida fuxing, 中华民族伟大复兴), the army serves as a tool of national policy. As in the Clausewitzian logic of political ends and adequate means, the military becomes increasingly assigned to executing orders of the state rather than the Party and acting in the interest of the former. This delicate issue of allegiance has become a distinct feature of civil-military relations in today’s China.

[1] D. Shambaugh, Civil-Military Relations in China: Party-Army or National Military?, Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies, 16 (2002), p. 11.
[2] Quote from: J. T. Dreyer, China’s Political System: Modernization and Tradition, Pearson Education, New York 2008, p. 191.
[3] E. Joffe, The Chinese Army in Domestic Politics. Factors and Phases, in: Nan Li, Chinese Civil-Military Relations. The Transformation of the People’s Liberation Army, Routledge, London 2006, p. 13-15.
[4] Dreyer, p. 191.
[5] Dreyer, p. 196-200. Nan Li, p. 10. J. C. F. Wang, Contemporary Chinese Politics: An Introduction, Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River 2002, p. 241.
[6] Joffe, p. 12.
[7] H. Harding, The Role of the Military in Chinese Politics, in: Citizens and Groups in V. Falkenheim, Contemporary China, University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, Ann Arbor 1987, p. 213-56, quoted in Shambaugh, p. 18-19.
[8] T. J. Bickford, The People’s Liberation Army and Its Changing Economic Roles. Implications for Civil-Military Relations, in Nan Li, p. 161-2.
[9] Joffe, p. 12.
[10] Bickford, p. 166-68.
[11] Dreyer, p. 204.
[12] Wang, p. 249-51.
[13] D. J. Blasko, The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation of the 21st Century, Routledge, Abingdon 2006, p. 5 and 11-12.
[14] Annual Report on Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, The US Secretary of Defense, 2008,
p. 16-17.
[15] Wang, 243. See also: D. Shambaugh, Modernizing China’s Military: Progress, Problems and Prospects, University of California Press, Berkeley 2002, p. 21.
[16] Wang, p. 244. Shambaugh, Modernizing China’s Military. . ., p. 21.
[17] You Ji, Sorting Out the Myths About Political Commissars, in Nan Li, p. 114.
[18] Wang, p. 242 and 255.
[19] Shambaugh, Civil-Military Relations. . ., p. 20.
[20] Joffe, p. 15.
[21] Joffe, p. 16. See also: Dreyer, p. 125.
[22] J. Fewsmith, China Since Tiananmen: From Deng Xiaoping to Hu Jintao, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2008, p. 250 and 254.
[23] Nan Li, 16. Tai Ming Cheung, The Influence of the Gun: China’s CMC and Its Relationship with the Military, Party, and State Decision-Making Systems, in: D. M. Lampton, The Making of Chinese Foreign and Security Policy in the Era of Reform, Stanford University Press, Stanford 2001, p. 67 and 85.
[24] Bickford, p. 168.
[25] Shambaugh, Civil-Military Relations. . ., p. 13.
[26] D. Shambaugh, The Changing of the Guard: China’s New Military Leadership, in: Yun-han Chu, Chih-cheng Lo and R. H. Myers, The New Chinese Leadership: Challenges and Opportunities after the 16th Party Congress, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2004, p. 90-91.
[27] Shambaugh, Civil-Military Relations. . ., p. 12. These two were generals Chi Haotian and Wang Ruilin.
[28] Ibidem, p. 13.
[29] Mulvenon, p. 277.
[30] Shambaugh, The Changing of the Guard. . ., p. 89.
[31] Shambaugh, The Changing of the Guard. . ., p. 90-6.
[32] J. T. Paltiel, PLA Allegiance on Parade: Civil-Military Relations in Transition, The China Quarterly, 143 (1995), p. 786-7.
[33] Shambaugh, Civil-Military Relations. . ., p. 20-23.
[34] Ibidem, p. 26.
[35] Military Service Law of the People’s Republic of China, Military Laws and Regulations
[36] Law of the People’s Republic of China on Officers in Active Service, Military Laws and Regulations
[37] Decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on Amending the Regulations of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on the Military Service of Officers in Active Service, Military Laws and Regulations
[38] Shaoguang Wang, The Military Expenditure of China, 1989-98, in: SIPRI Yearbook 1999: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1999, p. 349.
[39] Annual Report. . ., p. 32.
[40] Ibidem, p. 33.
[41] Paltiel, p. 786.
[42] Tai Ming Cheung, p. 62-3 and 68.
[43] Shambaugh, The Changing of the Guard. . ., p. 90-6. Tai Ming Cheung, p. 71-3.
[44] Tai Ming Cheung, p. 86. K. W. Allen, China’s Foreign Military Relations with Asia-Pacific, Journal of Contemporary China, 10 (2001), p. 653.
[45] Tai Ming Cheung, p. 88-9.
[46] T. Saich, Governance and Politics of China, Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills 2004, p. 150.
[47] Joffe, p. 20.
[48] Joffe, p. 20. Saich, p. 151.

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