Party Commands the Gun?

-M.V. Rappai, Fellow, IDSA

 "Party commands the gun" is an oft repeated quote familiar to the students of China's military affairs, According to Mao Zedong's concept the "revolution is to come through the barrel of a gun" and that gun is to be controlled by the Party. If we look at the historical changes in China, the military or the "gun" has played a vital role its affairs. Therefore, it will be useful to look at this complex relationship between the Party and military in China. According to modern concepts, this relation is defined as, "the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is an armed group (Chinese: wuzhuang ji tuan) which carries out the revolutionary political mission under the leadership of the CCP. It is the strong pillar of the people's democratic dictatorship. It is an important guarantor of the state's security, social stability, and the unification of the motherland."1 This clearly gives a crucial role to the PLA and allows it to adopt a more vital role in crisis. Therefore, this article is an attempt to understand this symbiotic relationship between two complex sets of organs functioning under the broad umbrella of the Party.

The recently concluded 15th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has once again brought forth the leadership issues of China into focus. On the whole one may broadly agree that the leadership under Jiang Zemin as its core has decisively seized control of the largest party apparatus in the world as of today. If we accept this as so, there are still many grey areas. In such a vast organisational set-up comprising human beings such grey areas are nothing but genuine. The highly secretive nature of this behemoth organisation makes any reasonable analysis a very complicated process. Then if we come to the relation between the Party and the military, it becomes all the more complicated a problem. The purpose of this article is to generally understand the Party-military relations in modern China under the Communist Party rule, and especially take a look at some of the trends that emerged in this Party Congress. If we go by the semantics, a larger consensus has been evolved on major issues relating to the Party-military relations. However, it will be too simplistic an approach to accept them at their face value.

If we look back into the history of the CCP it will be clear that in the earlier period, the relations between the Party and military were so close, it is almost impossible to draw a distinguishing line. Before proceeding further into the details of the PLA's (People's Liberation Army) relations with the CCP it will be useful to take a general look at the role of ideology in fighting a war. In our own Indian tradition we can see that in the war of "Kurukshetra" an unarmed Sri Krishna fights along with the "Pandavs" for righteousness. This tradition can be found in ancient China also. Sun Zi talks about a final round of meeting in the temple before actually launching the attack.2 However, the relationship between the Party and the military emerged and grew in China more out of the traditions of the Red Army of the erstwhile Soviet Union and other fighting arms moulded in Communist doctrine.

In the early days of the PLA, the demarcation between the Party and the military was almost non-existent. Most of the first gereration leaders were both political leaders and fighters. Therefore, this sort of a separation was beyond imagination. Later on, while entering into the genera of the current leadership which is generally known as the third generation core leadership, this concept became more visible. In the PLA's history there were some tussles between the Party and military leadership like the Korean war, the removal of Peng Dehuai at the Lushan Plenum in 1959, the sacking of the then PLA Chief of Staff, Luo Ruiqing, in 1965, etc. But in all these issues the Party could ascertain its supremacy. Even in the January 4, 1989, incident at Tiananmen, the decision of the Party authority was upheld and implemented. Perhaps one exception to this was the post-Cultural Revolution scenario where there was some objection at some provinces, but this cannot be taken as a case in point as at that point of time circumstances were very fluid.

When we come to the recently concluded 15th Party Congress, basically there is no change in the pronounced position of the Party vis-à-vis the PLA. The Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin's political report to the Party Congress states that, "strengthening national defence and army building is the basic guarantee for national security and the modernization drive. Deng Xiaoping's concept of army building in the new period is the continuation and development of Mao Zedong's thinking on military affairs, as a scientific guide to building the army and national defence. The Party's strong leadership is the most fundamental cause of our army's being able to withstand various tests in its 70-year glorious career and to continue to grow in strength. Under new historical conditions, the army must steadfastly uphold the Party's leadership, be in agreement with the Party Central Committee ideologically and politically, obey the Party Central Committee's orders in all actions, and uphold the nature and purposes as a people's army. It should implement a military strategy of active defence, improve its quality, and take the road of building fewer but better troops with Chinese characteristics." Apart from stressing this accepted line, Jiang also lays stress on its ideological and political role: "It should exercise strict discipline, vigously strengthen itself ideologically and politically, carry forward its fine traditions, and lead the entire society in spiritual civilization. In keeping with profound changes in the world's military sphere, it should strengthen education and training, and upgrade modern technology, particularly defence and combat capability in a high-technology environment."3

The above statements generally stick to the traditional pattern of the accepted Party-military relations and do not indicate any drastic change in the known positions. But one or two points which need our attention are, the announcement made by Jiang regarding the reduction of China's military strength by another half a million by the end of this century and the non-inclusion of any serving PLA man in the Party's highest decision making body i.e. the Politbureau Standing Committee (PBSC) of the Central Committee.

During recent times, if one looks at these relations in a time-frame of the post-Cultural Revolution period, then also one may observe that these relations have taken a full circle. Since the important third plenum in 1978, the overall control of the Party machinery came under the influence of the"second generation core leadership" led by Deng Xiaoping. He tried to bring considerable reform and improvement in the military field also. In the mid-Eighties, the PLA underwent a major restructuring." A quarter of its existing strength, almost one million personnel, were reorganised, 11 military Regions (MRs) was reorganised into 7 and 36 Field Armies were reconstructed into 24 Group Armies." Thereafter, the PLA was striding towards becoming a professional Army, but this direction was fraught with various hurdles. If one looks back, the reasons for such drastic changes in military-Party relations are multifarious.

The planned reforms in the PLA like the reduction in force (RIF) etc., had more or less been achieved by end 1987-88. The on-going political developments in China, especially its strides in the reforms and opening to the outside world had started showing the desired results. These events resulted in more openings in the strategic field also. By the end of the Eighties, the PLA had even started some sort of formal strategic linkage with the US military. But, the sudden developments in Eastern Europe and the June 4, 1989, incidents at Tiananmen totally changed this scenario. The Chinese establishment in general and the military leadership again came under a spell of paranoia. This was further complicated by factual and exaggerated reporting about the Tiananmen incidents in the world media.

Apart from these domestic issues, the above cited developments in the socialist bloc led by the erstwhile Soviet Union also influenced the military- political relations in China. The sudden collapse of Communist regimes in East European nations and the ultimate disintegration of the Soviet Union opened the eyes of Chinese leaders to the new realities; this further strengthened their ideological and political grip over institutions, especially over the military apparatus. The internal issues further hardened these positions. During and immediately after the June 4 incidents, there were various reports suggesting the unwillingness of the local, Beijing based PLA troops to open fire on the unarmed crowd gathered in the Tiananmen Square. At this juncture, troops loyal to Gen. Yang Shangkun, the then military strongman and a confidant of paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, were brought in. This in a way helped the Yang brothers (Gen. Shangkun and his half brother Gen. Yang Baibing) to enhance their clout among the PLA circles.

The June 4 incidents further complicated the Party-military relations, the paranoia of the leadership about a subversion from within or an eventual success of the forces of" peaceful evolution" gained more currency and the leadership tried to prevent any possible chance for the same in the future. The political leadership is well aware of their limitations in this aspect. They know that they lack the charisma of Mao and the strong ideological clout of Communism that prevailed during the Cold War era. Therefore, they are trying to whip up nationalist sentiments to new levels. As a result of these peculiar ideological and socio-political circumstances, the hold of the Party over the military machinery became more tight. The 14th Party Congress in 1992 again saw a change in these equations. Deng was well known for his pragmatic approach to issues. He understood that if Yang Shangkun were to remain with his powerful allies inside the PLA, it could pose a formidable challenge to his chosen successor, Jiang Zemin, who was a comparative newcomer to the murky power game in Beijing.

Deng could successfully achieve this aim through manipulating the retirement age in the case of the elder Yang and by sidelining Yang Baibing through elevating him as a member of the powerful Politbureau and dropping him from the Central Military Commission (CMC) These manoeuvres by Deng came in more handy for Jiang during this Congress. After taking over the control of the Party apparatus in October 1992, Jiang started his efforts to consolidate his hold over the PLA. In this it is notable that, "even though Jiang started as an outsider to the system, as time progressed, he mastered the system through a carefully calculated mixture of factors. He not only played with the people and transfer policies he also introduced certain legal measures. While there may be other pressing needs for such measures, however in the process it helped him a lot for the present in getting his plan to get an upper-hand in the military matters."4

As noted earlier, the one major change in this Party Congress is that the current Politbureau Standing Committee does not include any serving PLA representative. Regarding this there are various differing view points. In the early periods, the demarcation between a Party leader and the military commander was more of conjecture. Now with the demise of almost all the first generation leadership and parting from the active life by the second generation core, this is a new phase. But it seems that for all practical purposes this absence is not going to make such a vital difference. The PLA operates through a complicated web of organs in the decision making process, therefore, it retains many leverages to influence the decision making process in China.5

Further, the PLA is sufficiently represented in the highest organ of the Party i.e., the Central Committee (CC)—42 members of the newly elected CC are serving PLA personnel; this constitutes 22 per cent of the total CC with its 193 members (a list of these 42 personnel is given at Annexure-1 along with their official posts and known military ranks)6 Apart from this, China is a nation state which still follows the principle of" compulsory conscription." This adequately ensures enough supporters for the PLA in the higher level decision making bodies. Another cause for the exclusion of the PLA from the PB may be due to the fact that both the contenders, Gen. Zhang Wannian and Gen. Chi Haotian (brief life sketches of these two Generals are given at Annexure-2) are neither so senior nor that much politically well connected to stake a claim in the PBSC. The earlier incumbent in the PBSC, Gen. Liu Huaquing (81) is a veteran of the "Long March," a pioneer of China's military modernisation and the first sea-faring General and an advocate of its forward" naval policy" Hence, his case cannot be taken as a purely military appointment. Further, that was the time (1992-93) when Deng Xiaoping was looking for a person who could provide an able grounding to Jiang Zemin in the emerging power struggle and could match the deft manoeuvres of a seasoned Hakka warrior like Yang Shangkun. Then there were also reports that if Jiang was to select one and leave out the other, it might have further complicated matters for him. As a result, both were kept outside.

If we look to the future, it is not easy to make any studied guess about the emerging scenario in the field of Party-military relations. As these relations are very complicated and secretive by nature, we may only hope that the PLA will emerge as a more professional Army at a future date. But to assume that it will change its basic colour will only be a preposterous assumption. If one takes a close look at the emerging trends in this complex web of relations, one can observe that at a future date, the enhanced professionalism of a well trained "lean and mean" fighting machine may lessen its political role.But with the pending issues like the "Taiwan unification" and the Chinese leadership's persisting doubts over the eventuality of the forces of" peaceful evolution," a total separation of the PLA from politics is almost impossible in the near future. Further, since the PLA also enjoys a certain leverage and benefits due to this relationship, it may not be to keen to forego such a position.



1. Summary of World Broadcasts (SWB), Part-3 August 4, 1997.

2. Sun Zi, The Art of War (Beijing: People's China Publishing House, 1995) p. 25. This shows that the close linkages between the military and ideology existed since ancient times.

3. SWB-3, Part-3, September 15, 1997.

4. M.V. Rappai "The Military in Post-Deng China, Strategic Analysis, vol. XX, no. 4, July 1997.

5. For details, see Michael Swaine, The Role of the Chinese Military in National Security Policymaking, (Santa Monica CA: RAND. MR-782-OSD, 1996).

6. For a full list , see China Aktuell September, 1997 published by the Institut For Asie Asienkunde Hamburg; Germany



A List of Active PLA personnel in the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party

Following is a list of 42 known PLA personnel who are full members of the 15th CCP CC elected at the 15th National Party Congress on (September 18, 1997), with their respective year of birth and present positions (first Party, then government Post). For abbreviations, see the explanations at the end of the list:

1. Cao Gangchuan 1935 N; Chairman of the State Commission of Science, and Industry for National Defence (Lt. Gen.)

2. Chen Bingde ? N; Commander of Nanjing MR (Lt. Gen)

3. Chi Haotian 1929 CC; member of the CCP CC Politburo; Vice- Chairman of the CCP CC Central Military Commission and Vice Chairman of the PRC CMC; State Councillor; Minister of National Defence (Gen.)

4. Ding Wenchang 1933; CCm; Political Commissar of the PLA Air Force (Gen.)

5. Du Tiehuan 1938 N; Political Commissar of Beijing MR (Lt. Gen)

6. Fang Zuqi 1935 N; Political Commissar Nanjing MR (Lt. Gen.)

7. Fu Quanyou 1930 CCm; Chief of the PLA General Staff; member of the CCP CC CMC and member of the PRC CMC (Gen.)

8. Guo Boxiong ? N; Deputy Commander of Beijing MR (Lt. Gen.)

9. Jiang Futang 1941 N; Political Commissar of Shenyang MR (Lt. Gen.)

10. Kui Fulin 1938 N; Deputy Chief of the PLA General Staff (Manchu) (Lt. Gen.)

11. Lei Mingqiu 1942 CCm; Deputy Political Commissar Nanjing MR (Lt. Gen.)

12. Li Ji' nai 1942 N; Cca; Political Commissar of the COSTIND (Lt. Gen.)

13. Li Lianghui 1939 N; Commander of Xinjiang AR MD (Mqj. Gen.)

14. Li Xinliang 1936 N; Commander of Shenyang MR (Lt. Gen)

15. Liang Guanglie ? N; CCa Duputy Commander of Beijing MR (Lt. Gen.)

16. Lio Xilong 1940 N, Commander Chengdu MR (Lt. Gen)

17. Liu Jingsong 1933 CCm; Commander of Lanzhou MR (Gen.)

18. Liu Shunyao ? N; Commander of the PLA Air Force (Lt. Gen.)

19. Liu Shutian ? N; Deputy Political Commissar of Guangzhou MR (Lt. Gen.)

20. Qian Guoliang 1939 N; Ca; Commander of Ji' nan MR (Lt. Gen.)

21. Qian Shugen 1939 N; CCa; Deputy Chief of the PLA General Staff (Lt. Gen.)

22. Shi Yunsheng 1940 N; Commander of the PLA Navy (V. Adm.)

23. Sui Mingtai ? N; Director of the Political Department of the PLA Second Artillery Corps

24. Tang Tianbiao 1940 N; Deputy Director of the PLA General Political Department (Lt. Gen.)

25. Tao Bojun 1936 N; Commander of Guangzhou MR (Lt. Gen.)

26. Tao Siju 1935 CCm; Minister of Public Security; Chairman of the National Narcotics Control Commission; First Political Commissar of the Headquarters of the Chinese People's Armed Police Force.

27. Wang Ke 1931 CCm; Director of the PLA General Logistics Department; member of the CCP CC CMC and member of the PRC CMC (Gen.)

28. Wang Maorun 1936 N; CCIDm; Political Commissar of the National Defence University (Lt. Gen.)

29. Wang Ruilin 1929 CCm; Deputy Director of the PLA General Political Department; member of the CCP CC CMC and PRC CMC, (Gen.)

30. Wen Zongren 1940 N; CCm; Political Commissar of Lanzhou MR (Lt. Gen.)

31. Xing Shizhong 1938 N; President of the National Defence University (Lt.Gen)

32. Xu Caihou 1943 N; Political Commissar of Ji' nan MR (Lt. Gen.)

33. Xu Yongqing ? N; Political Commissar of the Headquarters of the Chinese PAP (Lt. Gen.)

34. Yang Guoliang 1938 CCm; Commander of the PLA Second Artillery (Lt. Gen.)

35. Yang Guoping 1934 N; Commander of the headquarters of the Chinese PAP (Lt. Gen)

36. Yang Huaiquing 1939 N; Political Commissar of PLA Navy (V. Adm.)

37. Yu Yongbo 1931 CCm; Director of the PLA GPD; member of the CCP CC CMC and PRC CMC (Gen.) [Manchu]

38. Zhang Gong 1935 CCm; Political Commissar of the Academy of Military Sciences (Lt. Gen.)

39. Zhang Wannian 1928 CCm; member of the CCP CC PB and member of the CCP CC Secretariat; Vice Chairman of the CCP CC CMC aand PRC CMC.

40. Zhang Zhijian 1934 N; Political Commissar of the Chengdu MR (Lt. Gen.)

41. Zhou Kunren 1937 CCm; Political Commissar of the PLA GLD (V. Adm.)

42. Zhou Ziyu 1935 N; Deputy Secretary of CCID; Secretary of the Commission for Inspecting Discipline under the CCP CCP CMC; Deputy Director of the PLA GPD; member CC Commission of Politics and Law; member of the CC leading Group for Party Building; deputy head of the National Double Support Group; Vice Chairman of the Secrets Protection Committee of the PRC CMC (Gen.)


CC Central Committee

CCa Alternate Member of the previous 14th CCP CC (1992-1997)

CCID Central Commission for Inspection Discipline

CCIDm Member of the previous Central Commission for Inspecting Discipline (1992- 1997)

CCm Member of the previous 14th CCP CC (1992-1997)

CCP Chinese Communist Party

CPPCC Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference

CYL Communist Youth League

N Newcomer in the CCP CC (as compared to the previous 14th CCP CC)

NPC National People's Congress.

Note: This list is prepared on the basis of information contained in China Aktuell September 1997, published by the Insitut for Asienkunde, Hamburg, Germany.


Brief life sketches of Gen. Zhang Wannian and Gen. Chi Haotian who represent the PLA in the Party's highest decision making body i.e. the Politibureau of the 15th CCP CC

Zhang Wannian

(Born August 1928, Native of Longkou, Shandong)

Vice Chairman of PRC Central Military Commission; Vice Chairman of Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Military Commission, Chief of PLA General Staff, General.

Joined Eighth Route Army, 1944; CPC, 1945. Served as deputy company political instructor of Northeast Democratic United Army, 1947-48; chief of Regiment Communication Section of Northeast Field Army, 1949-50. Fought in Xinkailing, Liaoxi- Shenyang, Peiping —Tiestin, Hengyng-Baoji and Guangxi campaigns. Served as Chief of Regiment Combat Section and Army Combat Staff Officer, 1950-51, Deputy Regiment Commander and Chief of Staff, 1956-58. Graduated from Basics Department of PLA Military Academy, 1961-66; Deputy Director of Combat Department of Military Area Command, 1966-68; Division Commande, 1968-78; Deputy Corps Commander, 1978-81, Corps Commander, 1981-82; Deputy Commander of PLA Wuhan Military Area Command, and Commander of PLA Guangzhou Military Area Command, 1982-90; Commander of PLA Jinan Military Area Command, 1990-92, member of CPC Central Military Commission and Chief of PLA General Staff, 1992; member of PRC Central Military Commission, 1993, Representative to CPC 9th National Congress, 1969; alternate member of CPC 12th and 13th Central Committee, 1982 and 1987, member of CPC 14th Central Committee, 1992; deputy to 8th NPC, 1993.

Granted rank of Lieutenant General, 1988; General 1993. Won top Merit Citation 5 times. Awarded Order of Liberation, 3rd Class.

General Zhang is a career soldier, who is known for his operational capabilities. During the last major Chinese joint operations conducted across the Taiwan Straits, it was reported that General Zhang was commanding these massive military manoeuvres consisting of 150,000 PLA personnel drawn from different arms. Further, he is known to be a protégé of Gen. Liu Huaquing, the well known advocate of China's military modernisation programme who retired during this Party Congress. He was promoted to the rank of the Vice Chairman of the CCP CC Central Military Commission in September 1995, with the retirement of the other two senior Vice Chairmen, Gen. Liu Huaquing and Gen. Zhang Zhen. During the current session he became the senior most PLA cadre after Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin.

Chi Haotian

(Born July 1929, Native of Zhaoyuan, Shandong)

State Councillor Minister of National Defence ; Vice Chairman of PRC Central Military Commission; Vice Chairman of Military Commission of the CPC Central Committee; General. Joined Eighth Route Army, 1944. Joined CPC, 1946. Served as Secretary of Battalion Headquarters, East China Field Army; Company political instructor of Third Field Army. Took part in Laiwu, Menglianggu, Weixian, Jinan, Huai-Hai, Crossing Yangtse and Shanghai campaigns. Awarded title of East China People's hero, 3rd Class, 1949. Went to war to resist US aggression and aid Korea, 1950, and served as battalion political instructor of Chinese People's Volunteers. Commended by Merit Citation, 1st Class, 1952. Returning, served as Director of Regiment Political Department of the PLA. Graduated from PLA Military Academy, 1960, Later served as Regiment Political Commissar, Divisional Political Commissar, Deputy Political Commissar of Beijing Military Area Command, Deputy Chief of Staff of PLA and Director of Political Department of PLA General Staff Headquarters; Political Commissar of PLA Jianan Military Area Command; Chief of PLA, 1987; member of PRC Central Military Commission, 1998; member of Military Commission of the CPC Central Committee, 1992; member of PRC Central Military Commission, State Councillor and Minister of National Defence, 1993. Representative to CPC 9th and 11th National Congress, 1969 and 1977; member of CPC 13th and 14th Central Committee, 1987 and 1992; Deputy to 2nd, 3rd, 7th and 8th NPC, 1959, 1964, 1988 and 1993.

Granted General, 1988. Awarded Order of Liberation, 3rd Class.

Gen. Chi Haotian is a professional Political Commissar. Considered to be very close to Jiang Zemin. He is also the son-in-law of Gen. Yang Shangkun, an influential Hakka General of yesteryears, who is above 90 and still very active. But General Chi is not generally cited as a camp follower of Senior General Yang. Chi got promoted to the rank of the Vice-Chairman of CCP CC CMC in September 1995 and after the Party Congress he is the third ranking leader of 1995 PLA in China.

Note: These life sketches are prepared on the basis of Who's in China-Current Leaders, 1994 edition published by the Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, China and writer's own notes.