The role of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in communist China has always been important and is reinforced by statements of senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders that the “Party must firmly control the gun”. In recent years and, more so with the departure from the scene of ‘Long March’ veterans who commanded great prestige and influence in China’s armed forces, command of the PLA has become more important.
Growing popular discontent combined with the fallout of ousted former politburo member Bo Xilai’s efforts to make inroads into the PLA, has compelled top echelons of the party leadership to focus greater attention on the PLA. Party control was facilitated by Deng Xiaoping’s farsighted move of creating the Central Military Commission (CMC) under the chairmanship of the general secretary of the CCP. This effectively made the PLA subordinate to the party. It was reinforced by the arrangement to position the prospective party chief as vice chairman of the CMC, so that he gains influence and establishes his authority before taking over as general secretary of the CCP Central Committee CC, usually five years later. There is space, however, for setting up an independent military commission under the state if required in the future.
CCP CC general secretaries Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao particularly focused on the PLA. Hu Jintao, especially, expanded the CCP and Communist Youth League (CYL)’s presence in the PLA. Today there are at least 90,000 cells of the CCP, comprising five members each, throughout the PLA. The training, role and authority of political commissars in the PLA has simultaneously been increased and their remarks in the dossiers of the PLA’s operational officers now impact the latters’ promotions.
As the PLA’s intake of college graduates and educated personnel increased, the CCP leadership perceived a need for enhanced ideological and ‘political education’ of PLA personnel. A key vulnerability identified was the possible susceptibility of newly recruited and educated personnel to ‘hostile’ foreign propaganda, which argues that the PLA should be an army of the state and not subservient to the CCP. Three successive year-long ‘political education’ campaigns, including one this year, have been launched throughout the PLA to counter this propaganda, which was troublingly noticed to have been also articulated in the run up to the recently-concluded 18th Party Congress by some of the more liberal Chinese economists calling for political reform.
This trend of strengthening the party’s grip over the PLA, started by Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, will be continued by Xi Jinping. In fact, within days of taking over as CMC chairman, Xi Jinping stressed to an enlarged meeting of the CMC on November 16 that “we must unswervingly adhere to the party’s absolute leadership over the armed forces” and emphasised the need to ensure that the “party has a firm grip over the troops ideologically, politically, and organisationally”. “We must have serious political discipline and organisational discipline”.
The CCP branches across the PLA over the last year selected 251 delegates to the party’s 18th Congress held in Beijing from November 8-14. In the wake of the Bo Xilai incident, selection of the delegates was done with care and after at least five central teams conducted investigations in the PLA, and especially its 14th Group Army and the Chengdu Military Region, to assess the political reliability of personnel in these formations. A Xinhua dispatch, which reported that the PLA had finalised selection of its delegates, specifically mentioned that their political records were free of blemish. The high number of political commissars in the list of delegates also reflected the importance accorded to them.
The PLA representatives have additionally been given representation in the CCP’s CC and politburo (PB), thereby reinforcing the party’s control over the PLA since the PLA officers also have a ranking in the party hierarchy. Over the past few years, the PLA has had two representatives in the PB and PLA representatives account for between 18-20 per cent of the total CC membership. This has remained unchanged at the 18th Party Congress.
The percentage of PLA representatives in the 18th CCP’s PB and CC has remained generally constant, indicating that there has been no visible gain in the PLA’s political influence. The number of PLA representatives in the PB remains at two and they are the two vice chairmen of the CMC, Xu Qiliang and Fan Changlong. Excluding these two vice chairmen, there are a total of 65 officers representing the PLA and People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF) who are full and alternate members of the CC. Of the total PLA/PAPF strength in the 18th CC, 41 are full members and 26 are alternate members.
All members of the Military Commission are CC members while the two vice chairmen are members of the PB. The former director of the GAD, Chang Wanquan, who has been retained as a member of the CMC, is also a member of the CC reinforcing reports that he is likely to take over in March 2013, as China’s next defence minister. Commanders of all military regions, except Chengdu, are full members of the 18th CC. Similarly, the political commissars of all seven military regions, except the Lanzhou Military Region, are full CC members. Non-inclusion of these two individuals could be indicative of their imminent retirement. The parity maintained between the commanders of military regions and their political commissars, with the inclusion of both as full members of the 18th CC, is reflective of the party’s continuing to retain a tight grip on the PLA/PAPF. This is borne out by the inclusion of 24 political officers as members of the CC — 18 as full members and 6 as alternate members.
The 18th Party Congress appears to have made a determined effort to elect new representatives from the PLA to the CCP’s CC. Twenty-six of the 41 full members of the CC have been elected for the first time. There has, though, been a noticeable influx of first timers as alternate members of the CC. Of the 26 alternate members, 23 have been identified as new comers. In view of their numerical superiority, the PLA’s ground forces have the majority representation. There are nine representatives of the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and five of the PLA Navy (PLAN). Seven ‘princelings’ have been identified among the 67 CC members. None of the PLA’s CC members has been identified as belonging to an ethnic minority nationality and there is only one female among them. Some of those inducted as alternate members of the CC clearly appear destined for higher office.
Jayadeva Ranade is a former additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat,Government of India