PLA in the political structure of China

China celebrates People’s Liberation Army’s 85th anniversary.


PRC is somehow in the period of the power transition. What kind of role, if any, PLA’s leadership play in this? How would you describe the position of military in the structure of power in China?


Roy Kamphausen, Adjunct Associate Professor of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, Senior Associate for Political and Security Affairs, The National Bureau of Asian Research

A couple of points:

1) The PLA’s role
and influence in Chinese domestic politics has been gradually waning for the last two decades, ever since what some call an attempted coup by the PLA in the early 1990’s.  The PLA will retain its limited representation on the 25 person Politburo (2-4 members) this Fall, but it has not had representation on the Politburo Standing Committee for at least the last two Party Congresses and is not expected to gain a seat at the Fall’s 18th PArty Congress, especially if the overall number of PBSC slots is reduced.

2) There are many rumors that the PLA was involved in the sacking of Bo Xilai a few months back, but while it may be true that Bo was actively seeking PLA support for his own political ambitions to become a PBSC Member (per Mao’s statement that political power comes from a gun), and also true that Bo was said to be courting fellow “princelings” within PLA leadership, it remains unclear what the broader leadership of the PLA might have been willing to do.  In short, some press has sought to cast the Bo incident as indicative of a return to factional politics in which the PLA played a deciding role, but the evidence (at least to me) does not support that judgment.  And moreover, it doesn’t really suit the PLA’s interests – they have fared quite well in the last two decades in terms of budget and decision making autonomy, so what is the incentive to return to a more indeterminate past?

3) The PLA does have large amounts autonomy on matters of national security and defense. The organization does respond to Central Military Commission Chair, who is also head of the Party and government, but the PLA sees no need to work with other entities on the formulation of foreign and defense policy (particularly, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which routinely needs to clean up after the PLA).  But too much can be made of the autonomy.  The PLA is not a rogue actor, that pursues its own goals.  Rather, its autonomy is best understood as being in determinign the operational details of how to carry out broad policy outlines.

Put simply, the PLA is not a major player in the decisions of who will fill the remaining top Party positions in the PBSC (after presumptive new president Xi Jinping and new Premier Li Keqiang).

David Lai, Research Professor of Asian Security Affairs, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College

Chinese leadership transition is going to take place in late September or early October (the Chinese Communist Party has not announced a specific date for the 18th party convention). Hu Jintao is to step down. Xi Jinping is expected to replace Hu, but until it actually happens, there is no guarantee that the transition will go that way.

The highest level of authority is the CCP’s standing Polit-bureau, with its current 9 members. There is rumors that the number could reduce to 7. All of the standing members of the Polit-bureau are “civilians” with no service in the PLA. The CCP holds a strong position to keep the PLA under the Party’s control. It is a tough battle. In recent years, as the PLA undertakes transformation, there are calls for the PLA to become nationalized rather than staying as the Party’s tool. The CCP has taken heightened measures to reject those calls.

The PLA is to be kept in a subordinate position in the Chinese political power structure. However, at times, the PLA appears to do things with its own agenda, the EP-3 military airplane collision in 2001, the ASAT test in 2007, and the showing of a stealthy fighter jet in 2010 for instance. But one say that these are operational acts. In principle, the PLA is kept under the CCP’s tight control.

Lawrence C. ReardonAssociate Professor of Political Science, Coordinator, Asian Studies Minor, University of New Hampshire

The recent promotions of four PLA military officers to full general and the upcoming replacements on the CMC offer Hu Jintao/Xi Jinping the opportunity to put more of their supporters into place.  This is obviously crucial, as the military connections enjoyed by the first-third generation of elite leaders have almost disappeared, and the military must also be coopted in the upcoming the political transition.  The new incoming civilian Party leadership will undoubtedly continue to provide the PLA with more favorable budget treatment and a more limited degree of policy freedom.   Thus it is not surprising that CMC Vice Chairman Xi Jinping and the rest of the incoming leadership are trying to reinforce its control over the PLA by promoting certain favorable military supporters, who undoubtedly will be assuming positions within the CMC.

M. Taylor Fravel, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The PLA is an important constituency within the CCP.  It has about 20 percent of the seats on the Central Committee and 2 on the Politburo.  I don’t think that it will play a major role in the transition, as it is an increasingly professionalized force that does not want to become involved in politics.  None of the contenders for the Politburo Standing Committee would pose a threat to PLA interests, either.  I suspect that leadership transition decisions will be made primarily by top CCP leaders, not PLA ones.

Fei-Ling Wang, Professor, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology

The PLA has always been a key component and a major source of legitimacy and power to the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in China. However, PLA has not been directly involved in the change of Chinese political leadership for several decades since the 1980s. It is unlikely for the PLA leadership to play any direct or obvious role in the scheduled change of top leadership of the CCP this year.


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