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Xi tightens grip on the military, but at what cost?

The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) recently concluded 19th Party Congress all but confirmed Xi Jinping’s status as China’s new paramount leader since Deng Xiaoping. Alongside the promotion of his key aides – namely, Li Zhanshu and Zhao Leji – to the apex of Chinese politics that is the CCP Politburo Standing Committee, a bevy of new civilian leaders associated with Mr Xi also gained membership in the elite 25-member Politburo.

Xi tightens grip on the military, but at what cost?

President Xi has used a combination of psychological intimidation and institutional mechanisms to win the PLA’s backing to dominate China’s political landscape, says the author. Photo: AP

The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) recently concluded 19th Party Congress all but confirmed Xi Jinping’s status as China’s new paramount leader since Deng Xiaoping. Alongside the promotion of his key aides – namely, Li Zhanshu and Zhao Leji – to the apex of Chinese politics that is the CCP Politburo Standing Committee, a bevy of new civilian leaders associated with Mr Xi also gained membership in the elite 25-member Politburo.

Most media analyses have focused on the incorporation of the Chinese leader’s eponymous governance philosophy Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era into the Party constitution as well as Mr Xi’s rejection of the succession norms established by Deng as conclusive evidence of his unassailable position in the CCP regime.

To be sure, Mr Xi’s pre-eminent status in China’s domestic politics is more patently reflected in the revamped Central Military Commission (CMC) – the highest military authority that runs China’s nearly 2.3 million-strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Apart from reducing the number of uniformed members on the CMC from 10 to six – Xu Qiliang, Zhang Youxia, Wei Fenghe, Li Zuocheng, Miao Hua and Zhang Shengmin – Mr Xi, who chairs the CMC as its chairman, has further boosted his own politico-military clout whilst enhancing the efficiency of Chinese national security and foreign policymaking.

THE NEW CENTRAL MILITARY COMMISSION

It is no coincidence that the new CMC membership is stacked with Mr Xi’s favoured generals. While the two CMC deputies – Xu Qiliang and Zhang Youxia – share a long association with Mr Xi, the remaining members had either served in the former Nanjing Military Region encompassing Mr Xi’s former Fujian and Zhejiang strongholds; or have been groomed for higher office since Mr Xi became CMC chair.

The career path of Xu Qiliang – now the first vice-chair – had crossed with Mr Xi’s when the former PLA Air Force (PLAAF) commander was based in the 8th Corps in Fuzhou.

As Mr Xi’s trusted general, Mr Xu was made executive deputy leader of the Leading Group for National Defence and Military Reform even though he was then ranked below general Fan Changlong in the CMC.

Indeed, knowledgeable sources also attest to the PLAAF’s role in providing Mr Xi’s security detail when he first assumed the CMC chairmanship. Additionally, in appointing Mr Xu as China’s top soldier, Mr Xi has underscored that the PLA will shift from being a predominantly land-based power to a ‘joint’ military force.

The second vice-chair Zhang Youxia is another core member of Mr Xi’s military allies. As a fellow Princeling, Mr Zhang shares close family ties with Mr Xi, as their fathers had been comrades-in-arms during the Chinese Civil War.

An experienced and influential army officer, Mr Zhang is believed to have been a key supporter of Mr Xi’s efforts to dismantle and reorganise the PLA’s former general headquarters, military regions and service branches.

As the former director in charge of military hardware, Mr Zhang can be expected to play an important role as the PLA continues to improve its ability to conduct informationised warfare.

As the first officer to be promoted by Mr Xi to the rank of general, Wei Fenghe, who oversaw China’s nuclear arsenal as chief of the PLA Rocket Force; and Miao Hua, a political commissar who rose from the 31st Group Army in the former Nanjing military region, are expected to improve the PLA’s combat readiness and tighten the CCP’s political control over the PLA, respectively.

Given how former political officers had failed in their duties to uphold the Party’s ideological guidelines amongst the troops, Mr Miao’s role in strengthening CCP control over PLA organisational cohesion and personnel management will be especially crucial to Mr Xi.

In keeping with the commander-in-chief’s calls for the PLA to become a modern military by 2035 and a world-class force by 2050, Li Zuocheng’s inclusion in the CMC also comes as no surprise.

Appointed the head of the Joint Staff Department just prior to the congress, Mr Li is a decorated war hero and one of two CMC members with combat experience (the other being Zhang Youxia), and would be a good candidate to enhance PLA professionalism.

Lastly, the elevation of Zhang Shengmin to the grade of CMC member also bestows the highest bureaucratic rank on the discipline and inspection commission, and would empower the lieutenant general and his department to supervise officers at the highest levels.

RISKS OF POWER CENTRALISATION

Whilst some pundits have questioned Mr Xi’s ability to assert civilian control over the PLA – with one analysis going as far as speculating that the recent China-India standoff in Doklam was the result of willful disobedience on the part of a former CMC member – such an assumption cannot be further from the truth.

Truth be told, the CCP’s civilian oversight over the PLA in the post-Reform era has never been stronger.

Since becoming CMC chairman, Mr Xi has assiduously worked to harness the PLA as his personal powerbase by emphasising the ‘CMC Chairman Responsibility System’ (军委主席负责制) as well as enhanced the power of his office.

Indeed, the trimming of the CMC follows his previous criticism that military elites (prior to the recent PLA reforms) had “accumulated too much power, gained too much autonomy and affected the CMC’s unified leadership”.

Just as Mao Zedong and Deng had owed their political longevity to absolute authority over the CCP’s armed servants, Mr Xi – via a combination of psychological intimidation and institutional mechanisms, embodied respectively in his signature anti-corruption campaign and unprecedented military reforms – also appears to have won the PLA’s backing to dominate China’s political landscape for the foreseeable future. In China, then, as it is now, whoever commands the gun controls the Party.

Notwithstanding the reliability of the new CMC in enacting their chairman’s directives to the best of their abilities, however, the risk of groupthink cannot be entirely discounted.

Furthermore, Mr Xi will also need to reconcile the competing needs for the Party’s army to be both red and expert – as the politicisation of an increasingly professional corps continues to intensify.

The real problem for Mr Xi then, perhaps, is that when he does decide to retire, the centralisation of power in himself will lead to challenges for his anointed successor.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

James Char is an Associate Research Fellow with the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU). He is the inaugural Wong Wai Ling Scholar in the Masters of Arts in Contemporary China (MACC) at NTU. Along with Richard A. Bitzinger, he is the editor of A New Direction in the People’s Liberation Army’s Emergent Strategic Thinking, Roles and Missions (forthcoming in The China Quarterly).

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