An agency of the EU
Photo: Hu Jintao inspects lines of troops of the People's Liberation Army.

The role of the military in China’s leadership transition

29 August 2012

Chris Hughes

The military has played a key role in almost every one of China’s leadership transitions. Control over the Red Army allowed Mao Zedong to rise to the top of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the 1930s; generals brought down the Gang of Four and supported Deng Xiaoping’s return to power in the 1970s; in 1989 Deng looked to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to crush the Democracy Movement and install Jiang Zemin as General Secretary. The 2002 transition from Jiang to Hu Jintao was only a partial exception, because Jiang held on to his position as chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) for two more years. With the Bo Xilai affair hitting the headlines at the start of 2012, it is not surprising that rumours have spread about dramatic interventions by the military, possibly even a coup, in the run-up to the transition scheduled for the end of the year. More important for long-term developments are signs that elements of the military are shaping the political context within which political decisions are made as the legitimacy of the CCP fades.

When members of the armed forces began to air their views in the late 1990s, they started by focusing on military strategy. Since Hu Jintao became Party leader, this discussion has come to include issues such as reform of the political system, political corruption and the need for strong leaders who can ensure China’s rise to world leadership. From a broader perspective, this is consistent with the positive trend of social pluralisation and the movement towards consensus-based leadership. Yet when the military tries to influence foreign policy, the situation can become more delicate. Events like China’s first anti-satellite test in January 2007, the maiden flight of a stealth fighter during the visit of US Defence Secretary Gates in January 2011, and the sea trials of the country’s first aircraft carrier later that year constitute growing evidence that increased pressure from the military is feeding through into real action, especially when top leaders and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs appear to have been left outside the loop. Most recently, a new assertiveness over claims to disputed maritime territories has harmed relations with neighbours and undermined the constructive diplomacy that has won China much credit since the end of the Cold War.

The possibility that such events reflect pressure from the military is strengthened by the perception that Hu Jintao has had a relatively weak grip on the armed forces. Although military personnel were removed from the Standing Committee of the Politburo before he assumed the leadership, as head of the CMC he has been boxed in by vice chairmen appointed by his predecessor. Lacking military experience and personal connections with the armed forces, his role is widely seen as having been reduced to little more than signing documents prepared by the generals. One consequence is that defence spending has begun to rise faster than GDP since Hu came to power, putting it on a trajectory to equal that of the US by 2050. This year it is up 11.2 per cent, while GDP is expected to fall below 8 per cent.

China’s government claims the expanding budget is largely to improve living conditions for the armed forces. In addition to a series of big pay hikes, that makes good sense for a leadership that needs to ensure loyalty. Astute observers also point out that high-prestige programmes such as the building of a carrier fleet are more expressions of a kind of ‘naval nationalism’ than geared to defence needs. Moreover, the on-going programme of professionalisation of the military has slowed considerably. Whereas Jiang Zemin became well enough entrenched to cut 700,000 jobs during his tenure, Hu’s most ambitious initiative has been the production of an ‘Outline for the Development of Military Personnel by 2020’. This is supposed to envision 800,000 more job losses, the centralisation of command and control in Beijing and even the use of foreign experts. That this will have a negative impact on powerful interest groups, especially the ground forces, not to mention the large number of non-combat organisations ranging from hospitals to troupes of ‘singing generals’, may be why the report did not appear until April 2011.

Any such reforms always involve complex bargaining. Past cuts have been sweetened by permission to start up enterprises and transfer personnel to paramilitary organisations and various bureaucratic sinecures. The consequences of these deals were widespread corruption. The arrest of naval commander Wang Shouye in 2007, followed by a string of high-level cases, shows how malfeasance has already become endemic again. Yet Hu has backtracked on corruption too, with the only hard hitting report on the issue to have appeared under his leadership being quickly reduced by the media to a campaign against wastage.

Assuming Xi Jinping will be the new Party leader, optimists hope he will have more control over the military because he is the son of a famous general, acted as a secretary to the CMC from 1979 to 1982 and is married to an army singer. Known in China as the ‘military hugging’ cadre, however, could mean that Xi is also relatively dependent on the military for support. In local politics he always took a leading role in various Party-military committees, appeared at parades, joined the troops in recreational activities and granted them privileged access to amusement parks and festivals. He also built a reputation for being concerned about military welfare, boasting a 97.7 per cent rate of employment for demobilised soldiers when he was Party boss of the city of Fuzhou. Such a close relationship with the military may explain why he was only made a vice chairman of the CMC as late as October 2010. After that, he quickly overshadowed Hu at a conference on the 60th anniversary of start of the Korean War, where he described the conflict in his keynote speech as the "self-righteous war to preserve peace and oppose invasion". This was seen as a step back towards orthodoxy just when Chinese historians seemed to be getting more leeway to reveal that the war was actually started by North Korea. While it may have been music to military ears, this statement just antagonised the South Koreans and fed speculation that Xi will adopt a tough foreign policy.

If Hu Jintao follows the precedent of holding on to the chairmanship of the CMC, it will signal that there is still mistrust at the highest level over Xi’s relationship with the military, although avoiding the task of military reform may be a strong incentive for Hu to retire. His soft line on corruption has done nothing to calm veterans and others from expressing their impatience with inaction. This presents a rising generation of articulate and influential members of the armed forces with an opportunity to build their own political positions by taking up the crusade for change. The most prominent of these is General Liu Yuan, the ‘princeling’ son of former President Liu Shaoqi, who put his opinions on this issue into practice by instigating the arrest of the deputy head of the General Logistics Department of the PLA in February 2012. Such figures are not isolated, but part of an emerging coalition of discontents that extends beyond the military and spans the political spectrum.

The fact that five out of six generals promoted this August are political commissars indicates that the leadership is gearing up to engage with this tendency. The best known of these appointments is Liu Yazhou, a strategist who moved up through the air force to become Political Commissar at the National Defence University. He is well known for boldly speaking out in favour not only of professionalising the armed forces but also of systemic political reform. However, a condition for his promotion appears to have been a public commitment to the principle of Party leadership. In foreign policy Liu describes himself as a “realist”. This seems a reasonable description for someone who has written extensively on how to fight the United States over Taiwan, face off against India and expand into Central Asia.

Rather than pigeonhole such figures as reformers or conservatives, it makes more sense to see them as contesting the longer tradition of Chinese nationalism, with its belief that political reform is the key to building a ‘wealthy nation with a strong army’. As for all Chinese political leaders, it will be important for Xi to boost his legitimacy by appropriating this discourse. He most sensationally displayed a proclivity to appealing to popular nationalism during a tour of Mexico in February 2009, when he dismissed concerns over human rights issues expressed by “a few foreigners, with full bellies, who have nothing better to do than try to point fingers at our country”.

As far as the EU is concerned, more work needs to be done to understand how the manoeuvring for power among China’s leaders is allowing the military to gain traction over policy making. Looking at domestic politics, this situation creates challenges and opportunities to engage with emerging actors in ways that can ensure that any growth in militarism is not at the expense of meeting China’s commitment to international human rights standards. In foreign and security policy, the incoming team will be tempted to continue bowing to demands for advanced weapons and a more assertive posture, especially if painful economic reforms are initiated. As the EU is a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum and has an interest in the freedom of navigation, pressure will build for it to take a position in the contests over maritime territory between China and its neighbours. Because the Chinese military frames this as a struggle with the US, it will be all the more important for the EU to explore the possibilities for playing a constructive diplomatic role in building embryonic initiatives for reducing tensions that have begun to emerge from the region.

Chris Hughes is a Professor with the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.