Sunday, June 04, 2006

Party Control of the Chinese Military

The Chinese Communists recognized that they had, and still have, the same problem that bedeviled dynastic leaders throughout Chinese history. That problem is how to maintain sufficiently strong forces in all regions of the country yet maintain centralized control to prevent any one army from becoming so strong as to challenge central rule.

The solution has been to inculcate the entire army with the notion that the army does not serve the state, but rather, serves the interests of the Communist Party. Mao himself wrote that “Our principle is that the party controls the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to control the party." Guided by this principle, the officers of the Army were selected by the Communist Party more for their commitment to the party than for their military acumen. Additionally, Mao and the Communist Party assembled a parallel organization of military commissars who reported directly to the party and who ensured that the officers and men maintained their allegiance to the party. This system produced the results Mao wanted, but not because of the wisdom of the structure. Rather, Mao and his leadership cohort had a high level of mutual trust and commitment that recognized the supremacy of the Communist party. As this senior level of leadership began dying off, the men who replaced them did not share the experiences and outlook that would allow Mao’s system to perpetuate.

In recent years, the military has become more assertive in pursuit of its own prerogatives. As the military has become less fettered by the dictates of the party and has become more professional, the military has developed domestic and foreign policies independent of those desired by the CCP. Additionally, the regional groupings of the PLA have developed their own policies, with some regions developing in ways that make them more amenable to central control, and others, less so.

In 1989, the locally garrisoned troops of the 38th Army Group commander was relieved because his troops lacked the stomach to fire on their fellow Beijing ren. The Chinese Communist Party called up the 27th Army Group, a more reliable army, with roots that went back the 8th Route Army, filled out with provincial troops who spoke a dialect of Mandarin almost unintelligible by the Beijing residents in Tiananmen Square. In simple terms, the 38th was loyal to the nation, the 27th was loyal to the party.

There was a much touted initiative promulgated by Jiang
Zemin in 1998 that the PLA was to divest itself of all businesses and return to the barracks. There is doubt whether the Army has actually taken this step. The fact that the Army was so heavily involved in business ventures, and may still be, albeit in a camouflaged fashion, has implications for the party’s control. The party’s inability to force the Army to divest its business holdings is further evidence that the Army does not necessarily take orders from the party, and retains its advantage of firepower. It seems that the Mao’s principle of party control of the military may be in the process of inverting.