Why the Chinese Communist Party maintains a tight grip on the military

This is the third in the South China Morning Post series of explanations about the Chinese Communist Party, ahead of the party’s 100th anniversary in July. In this play, Joséphine Ma examines the relationship between the party and the army.

From a party that waged a guerrilla war to one of the oldest one-party regimes in modern history, the Chinese Communist Party paid great attention to its control over the military, which is now the largest in the world with 2 million active servicemen.

In 1927, Chairman Mao Zedong declared that “political power arises from the barrel of a gun”. It was the year the Chinese Communists organized the Nanchang uprising against the ruling nationalist government.

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At the time, the Communist Party largely existed in the form of an armed rebellion against the ruling Kuomintang party. The revolutionary force, originally called the Chinese Red Workers and Peasants Army, was later renamed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

It was the PLA that brought the Communist Party to power when it won the Chinese Civil War in 1949. In the early years of its rule, all the leaders of the Communist Party – top leaders such as Mao and Deng Xiaoping , to younger figures such as Bo Yibo and Xi Zhongxun – had military experience.

As the founder, operator and leader of the military, the Communist Party has a closer relationship with the military than most political parties around the world.

Since the ideology of the Communist Party declares that the party represents the interests of the people, the party argued that the military serving the party is equivalent to serving the state and the Chinese people.

Part of Mao’s strategy to gain this control over the military was to establish a Communist Party cell in each base military unit, to ensure loyalty to the party’s decisions and ideology throughout.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 further convinced the party that it needed to maintain a tight grip on the military so that its regime was not called into question.

“The Russian Communist Party has relinquished authority over the military and therefore its regime has been overthrown,” warned a 2015 article published in the Army’s official journal. Daily PLA.

The PLA reports to the Communist Party’s Central Military Commission (CMC) and any discussion of nationalizing the military – suggesting that the military would serve any elected political party – can be considered subversive in China.

In theory, the PLA is also accountable to the National People’s Congress, the highest body of state power and the national legislature, through parallel liaison with another CMC reporting to the Council of State, the Chinese cabinet.

But both CMCs are made up of exactly the same members, and the chairman of both is usually the party leader – currently chairman. Xi Jinping.

The cabinet’s real lack of power over the PLA was clearly demonstrated in 2008 when a magnitude-8 earthquake hit Wenchuan in the Sichuan region, leaving 87,000 dead, 370,000 injured and 5 million homeless.

When then Prime Minister Wen Jiabao tried to mobilize the military to help with the rescue operations on the first day, the PLA refused to budge until the CMC ordered him to do so the next day. .

In addition to national defense and aid to disaster and emergency relief efforts, the PLA has also played a particularly important role in the economic and social development of the country. PLA soldiers helped build the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, and worked at Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a paramilitary economic organization tasked with building and operating farms and settlements in the west Xinjiang region.

Unlike the defense ministries of other countries, the Ministry of National Defense in China mainly plays the role of mobilizing foreign countries. The Minister of Defense, General Wei Fenghe, is a member of the Communist Party’s CMC.

In 1938, Mao wrote in an article that “the party commands the gun, and the gun should never be allowed to command the party”.

In addition to making it clear that the party should control the army, Mao also wanted to ensure that the military did not decide who would be the party leader. But in the past, there have been times when the chairman of the CMC has struggled to gain full control of the military.

The position of CMC chairman did not prevent then General Secretary Jiang Zemin from facing a fierce power struggle with Yang Shangkun and his half-brother Yang Baibing – respectively general secretary and vice chairman of the CMC and commissioner. PLA policy – in the 1980s and early. 1990s. The two brothers controlled the army, and it was only with Deng’s support that Jiang finally sidelined them.

When Jiang Zemin passed the baton to Hu Jintao, the latter – a civilian – struggled to command respect as chairman of the CMC. His two deputies, Generals Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, effectively took over the affairs of the army staff right under his nose.

After Xi came to power in 2012, he launched a massive anti-corruption campaign in the military and destroyed the strongholds of many military interest groups.

For decades, the military was known to be rife with corruption from the 1980s, when military personnel were allowed to run businesses to support themselves. Such practices were banned in 1998, but corruption was still rampant in the military.

In 2015, Xi moved to terminate the lucrative activities of the PLA and ordered him to focus on transforming into a modern army it could win wars.

Even though the transition from Hu to Xi was hailed by many as a rare peaceful power transition in the history of the party, Xi continued to see his power called into question.

The threats included the “principle” of the Communist Party Bo Xilai, the son of prominent party leader Bo Yibo, then state security chief Zhou Yongkang, as well as Generals Guo and Xu.

Between 2013 and 2015, Xi purged all of these party threats in a sweep anti-corruption campaign, while accusing his rivals of planning a coup.

In November 2014, Xi used the 85th anniversary of the 1929 Gutian conference to remind 420 generals and senior military officials of Mao’s saying about absolute party control over the military.

Xi also personally headed a commission shake the PLA, and succeeded in uprooting the strongholds of interest groups by reorganizing the headquarters, troops and military regions.

He’s been nominated “commander in chief” in 2016, similar to the US President’s position as Commander-in-Chief of the country’s armed forces, establishing command of the country’s land, naval, air and rocket forces.

In 2017, China changed the party charter to declare that all military forces in China were accountable to the chairman of the CMC, putting black and white in the most important party document that the PLA and paramilitary forces must be absolutely loyal to the chairman of the CMC, who is currently Xi . The president said the reforms were part of his efforts to transform the world’s largest armed forces into a modern army, on par with his Western counterparts.

Reforms were also introduced to bring in the 1.5 million strong paramilitary police force, the People’s Armed Police Force (PAP), under the sole command of the CMC. Analysts said the change put the PAP directly under Xi’s control.

Previously, the PAP came under a dual command structure of the CMC and the Council of State through the Ministry of Public Security.

It serves as a wartime support to the military and plays a national role in suppressing protests and combating terrorism – especially in areas such as the troubled Far West. Xinjiang region – as well as border defense and firefighting.

In January of this year, China revised its national defense law weaken the role of the Council of State in formulating military policy, giving full decision-making powers to the CMC.

All of this expanded the power of the Xi-led CMC to mobilize military and civilian resources in the defense of the national interest, both at home and abroad.

This article was originally published in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most official voice reporting on China and Asia for over a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP application or visit the SCMP Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2021 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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