Military in Post Deng China 

-M.V. Rappai, Fellow, IDSA


The demise of Deng Xiaoping, China's paramount leader, once again brought the question of succession to the forefront, even though most of the China watchers do agree on one point that for the time being the issue is settled and a peaceful transition to the third generation 'core' has been successfully accomplished. But they are not at all sure about how long this system can work. While some predict a peaceful transition there are others, maybe a minority, who predict a chaotic transformation. However, for the time being, one important cause for the immediate transfer of power can be attributed to the long hibernation of Deng himself further, it will not be right if one forget the deliberate and persistent effort put in by the 'paramount' leader himself to break the age-old tradition of one unquestioned 'emperor' ruling over the destinies of the middle kingdom. However, due to the highly complicated nature of China's political system it will be naive to believe that everything is hunky dory. The fight to control the destinies of such a great power will be there, and in all probabilities it is going to be an ongoing process. Under this scenario the Military, generally known as the People's Liberation Army (PLA), is bound to play a vital role in this struggle for power. Due to the changed conditions of both domestic and international atmosphere the degree of visibility may vary from time to time, but its impact and role cannot be ignored.

Deng Xiaoping remained a pragmatic materialist till his end hence it cannot be said that he chose his destined hour. However, it


M.V. Rappai is a Fellow at IDSA



seems the timing of his death has come as a boon to his anointed successor Jiang Zemin. Three major political events were scheduled for this year, viz., the Fifth session of the Eighth National People's Congress(NPC), the Chinese parliament, scheduled transfer of Hong Kong and the 15th Party Congress in the coming fall.

Usually Beijing political scene gets activated around Chinese Spring festival, this year it fell on 7th Feb '97, and goes on till end of the annual NPC session in March. All top politicians, Military brass and influential people in various circles gather there; the world media and Sinologists also keep an eye on China's capital.

Deng's death on 19th Feb '97 and the formal six day mourning period ended two days before the scheduled opening date of the main advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) on 27th Feb. These chain of events gave little reaction time to the actors in succession drama. Among other various internal and external factors, Jiang Zemin and his supporters cashed in on this crucial time factor too.

Starting with his emotion choked memorial address widely carried by airwaves right into the living rooms, workplaces and barracks of Chinese people across the world and others who bothered about China; including BBC all the major networks that covered the event live, depended on China TV for their footage, where camera positions were fully utilised for Jiang's advantage. On 26th Feb 97 the 459 strong high profile funeral committee pledged its support to the 'party center with Jiang as its core'. This committee comprised all important veterans and the people who mattered in administration and Military. Almost all the 29 generals of PLA (a list is given as Table -I) who got their promotion after Jiang took over the reins of China's Military through his position as the Chairman of Central Military Commission and all those former generals who mattered in PLA hierarchy.

Table - I

----------------------------------------------------------------------Sl No. Name Known position

---------------------------------------------------------------------- 1. Zhang Wannian Vice Chairman, CMC

2. Yu Yongbo Member, CMC and Chief of GPD

3. Fu Quanyou Member, CMC and Chief of General Staff

4. Zhu Dunfa

5. Zhang Lianzhong

6. Cao Shuangming

7. Shu Huizi President, Academy of Military Sciences

8. Li Jing

9. Yang Dezhong

10. Wang Ruilin Member, CMC and Dy. Director of


11. Zhou Keyu

12. Ding Henggao 13. Dai Xuejiong

14. Li Wenqing

15. Wang Ke Member, CMC and Chief of General Logistics Department (GLD)

16. Li Laizhu Commander, Beijing M R

17. Gu Shanqing

18. Liu Jingsong Commander, Lanzhou M R

19. Cao Pengsheng

20. Zhang Taiheng

21. Song Qingwei

22. Gu Hui

23. Li Xilin

24. Shi Yuxiao

25. Li Jiulong

26. Zhou Ziyu Dy. Director, GPD

27. Yu Zhenwu

28. Ding Wenzhang Pol. Commissar, PLAAF

29. Sui Yongju Pol. Commissar, Second Artillery

---------------------------------------------------------------------- This list of the Generals was updated on the basis of the information available with the 'China aktuell' March 1997, published by the 'Institut For Asienkunde, Hamburg', Germany. And out of this only 11 generals hold important positions now, which means the other 18 has been shifted out or got retired. This also further complicates to give an objective assessment for future prediction, but broadly speaking almost all the new appointees/promotees owe their allegiance Jiang himself or some of other groups close to him.

Following this, various leading organs of PLA like the General Staff department and others adopted resolutions supporting Jiang's position. A Xinhua news item dated 26th Feb 1997 stated that, "after watching the live broadcast of the memorial service for Comrade Deng Xiaoping, officers and men of organs and units directly under the General Staff, Political and Logistics Departments and their affiliated military academies held party committee meetings and forums to study comrade Jiang Zemin's memorial speech. They said: Comrade Xiaoping pointed the way to army building and national defence construction during the new period. As leading organs in the armed forces, we must maintain a high degree of unity with the party Central Committee and CMC; resolutely follow Deng Xiaoping's thinking on army building during the new period and Jiang Zemin's important directives on army building in leading troops throughout the military along the path of building a top quality army with Chinese Characteristics; and strive to build our army into a strong revolutionary, regular and modernised army. While studying the speech, officers and men from the party committees and organs of the National Defence Science, Technology and Industry Commission; the navy; the airforce; the 2nd artillery corps; the Academy of Military Sciences; the National Defence University; Shenyang, Beijing, Lanzhou, Jinan, Nanjing, Guangzhou and Chengdu Military Regions; and the PAP Force said; Before his death, Comrade Deng Xiaoping left an important political instruction (zhong yao zheng zhi jiao dai) urging us to safeguard the authority of the party Central Committee with comrade Jiang Zemin as the core; resolutely follow the command of the party Central Committee and CMC; maintain unity with the party Central Committee and CMC at all times and under all circumstances; do a better job of accomplishing the various missions entrusted by the party Central Committee and CMC; and do quality work in army-building, so as to provide strong security guarantees for reform, opening up and socialist modernisation...."

This clearly reveals the level of commitment on the part of various leading organs to protect the party leadership with Jiang as its core.

During the recently concluded NPC session also the PLA delegation declared its allegiance to him. As customary during the panel meeting of the PLA deputies to NPC held on different occasions in between the session they further reiterated the PLA's unequivocal commitment to the core leadership. To a greater extent we can see this reflected in the confidence he had when he addressed the PLA deputies on 4th March, where Jiang declared that, " the most fundamental way to strengthen unity is to safeguard the Party Central Committee's authority and conscientiously to maintain unity with the party Central Committee ideologically, politically and action....Upholding the Party's absolute leadership over the army is our army's fundamental political system. In the new situation, we must enhance our sense of responsibility to the party, unswervingly uphold the party's absolute leadership over the army, and follow the command of the party Central committee and the CMC in all our actions."

On the start of the NPC session itself the NPC delegation in its group discussion on 1st Mar 97 categorically declared that "the PLA will unswervingly obey the orders of Party Central Committee with Jiang Zemin at the core". It is notable that this statement was made by Zhang Zhen, vice chairman of the CMC. As some analysts speculated that he is the veteran leader of the other powerful group in the PLA hierarchy which group is commonly known as the 'Shandong Faction'. It may also be an indication of the factor that some sort of agreement has been reached at the top level regarding the transition process.

Further, it seems that Jiang's efforts to canvas support among the Military started even before Deng's death; on Jan 1st this year while China TV covered the new year party it projected a handshake between Jiang and Gen. Yang Baibing, a politbureau member and half brother of influential military veteran Yang Shangkun. A news item regarding this handshake summed it up as, "indeed, Jiang has effectively consolidated his support within the army - witness the public handshake with the purged Yang Baibing. It was a safe gambit. Yang's military supporters have been largely removed , and a mere tea-party handshake is no great boon. "It's appropriate for Jiang to show he's not eliminating any faction in the runup to the party congress" in the fall, says an embassy political watcher."

It is a fact the PLA with a combined strength of over three million men in uniform play a very vital role in China's political life, it influences not only defence policy but its sphere of activity extends from service industry to foreign policy and perspective planning. And in any possible future power struggle it is bound to play a key role and most probably it may act as the kingmaker. In view of this fact it is quite right on the part of any aspiring political leader to carve out a nieche for himself in this complicated powerstructure. Even though Jiang started as an outsider to the system, but as time progressed he mastered the system through a carefully calculated mixture of factors. He not only played with the people and transfer policies but he also introduced certain legal measures, there maybe other pressing needs for the same, however in the process it helped him a lot for the present in getting his act together.

Since last few years China started enacting various laws aimed at strengthening the legal basis of its Military in its system, over a period this has served two purposes, firstly, to the outside world China can project that their military, essentially an instrument in the hands of the ruling party, is run on the basis of a valid legal proviso. Secondly, within the party mechanism this gives an added advantage to a leadership core like the present one which do not enjoy its own legitimate power base within the military system.

The official statistics reveal that during the year 1996, "China has scored abundant achievements in military legislation in the first year of the Ninth Five Year Plan, with 16 military laws, rules and regulations promulgated over the past year". These laws as well as some of the other legal measures adopted by NPC during its last session can also play a vital role in deciding the future course of PLA.

Among these legal measures definitely the 'National Defence Law' qualifies as the number one. This Law was formally passed in the recently concluded 5th plenary session of the 8th NPC. The 'National Defence Law' was basically drafted in last April '96, after the saber-rattling in Taiwan straits in order to have the required legal authority to tackle any internal crisis, as they consider Taiwan as a 'renegade province' of mainland. This coupled with the rising splittist tendencies along China's border region inhabitated by Tibetans, Uighurs and other minorities China required a strong legal measure to tackle such heresies. Further, one complaint of western nations were the lack of proper laws in China. Now the Defence Law provides it this legal authority. It stipulates that, "this law applies to military activities carried out by the state to guard against and resist aggression, to check armed subversion, to safeguard the sovereignty, unification, territorial integrity, and security of the country as well as the political, economic, diplomatic, scientific and technological, educational and other activities related to military affairs."

On the whole this Law provides a legal basis for China's military apparatus which was lacking hitherto. But one the other hand it perpetuates the duality of PLA's loyalty, The Article 1, of its General Provisions states that, "this law is formulated in accordance with the constitution in order to build and consolidate national defence and to ensure the smooth progress of socialist modernization."

Further, the Article 10 empowers the NPC by giving it the authority to "decide on questions of war and peace in accordance with the provisions of the constitution and exercise other functions and powers in national defence as prescribed in the constitution."

But interestingly this also law legally formalises the role of the overlordship of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over the military and firmly places PLA under its control. "The armed forces of the People's Republic of China are subject to leadership by the Chinese Communist Party(CCP). CCP organizations in the armed forces shall conduct activities in accordance with the CCP constitution." Which means this law has accepted all the party organs functioning at various levels as per the rules for its 'political work system', basically the predominance of the political commissars and party committees. Under the present condition wherein the Party apparatus as well as the administrative units for the control and command of PLA under the NPC is same then there may not be any clash of interest. This also ensures the tight control of Party over the gun.

Apart from this the law has covered a series of issues from recruitment and training to finance allocation for defence purposes.

As expected the provisions of this law has already raised panic in Taipei, a somewhat muted reaction to this in an official journal states that, "the revised National Defence Law has also raised eyebrows in Taipei because of unprecedented stipulations that opposition to Taiwan independence and foreign aggression against the island is now a codified component part of Peking's defence policy. ROC military planners are concerned that this could prompt Peking to exert greater military pressure on Taiwan to achieve its political goals."

Another important legal measure which can play a vital role for the future political and strategic role of PLA is the "Interim Regulations on the Appointment and Removal of Leading Cadres at and Above the Regiment Level of the People's Liberation Army (PLA)." This regulation recently signed by the the CMC chairman empowers that, "the Party Committee and its political organs shall carry out the duties of appointing and removing leading cadres in accordance with their authority regarding cadre manangement. The principles to follow with regards to appointment and removal are adhering to the policy of party's supervision over cadres and the party committee making decisions after group discussions; laying equal stress on integrity and ability, emphasizing actual merit, and putting political standards in first place; being fair and honest, appointing people by merit, and persistently selecting people from all corners of the country; abiding by the mass line, and practicing democratic supervision; making reasonable assignments and timely transfers to optimize the overall structure of the leading body; and rigorously implementing the provisions on authorized strength and ranks." This amply reflects the role to be played by the Party in promotion and transfer of senior PLA cadres which makes sure that only a loyal party cadre can come up in the ranks and take vital decisions regarding it. By this way the Chinese leadership intends to make sure the superamacy of party over the military.

The third relevant regulation is the creation of the fourth municipality directly under the Central government viz. Chongqing. Primarily this may look like an innocuous administrative piece of legislation to facilitate the on going work on the mammoth three gorges project, and largely it maybe so. But this new municipality "embracing Chongqing, Wanxian and Fuling cities as well as Qianjiang Prefecture in east Sichuan Province, has jurisdiction over 43 districts, cities and counties with a total land area of 82,000 sq. kms and a population of 30.02 million." The vehement opposition and dissent voting against this legislative measure in the NPC by the Sichuan deputies clearly shown their unhappiness over this. Because, this legal provision has not only lowered the prestige of Sichuan as the most populous province in PRC but it has also sheared a sizable chunk of political clout with it. Further, way back in November 96 when this legal provision was firstly announced the media quoted some sources in the economic planning apparatus and said that they have drawn up a list of 30 cities in different parts of China for possible elevation to the directly administered status. Even if China's central leadership makes 5 to 10 more such 'municipalities' can make a lot of difference to the center and regional equation and balance. As a routine process these cities will be stationing a number of troops under the direct control of the CMC, this together with the whole paraphernalia of a central administrative machinery can take care of anyfissiparaous tendency in the future on the part of powerful provincial satraps.

The growing amounts of money allocated through Defence budgets coupled with profits from its vast industrial and sideline production activities, naturally the PLA commands a lot of economic clout too. This year's official budget has provided it an amount of $9.7 billion but the authorities on China's defence budget opine that the actual figures maybe three times higher than this amount. Even if we accept the standard argument that China spends very little in proportion to its GDP, then also the burgeoning growth rate can provide PLA vast amounts.

Under a totalitarian system of information dissemination it is very difficult to get even nearly satisfactory data on PLA's involvement in the 'third-line' business, but the available information is mind boggling. A recent book on the subject quotes "according to official reports, which are uniformly glowing, since 1979 the military industry has produced more than 700 kinds of civilian goods, which include cars, motorcycles, freight trains, train axles, refrigerators, cameras, chemical products and firearms for civilian use. Also included are aircraft, tankers and container ships, as well as various kinds of household appliances, textiles, foodstuffs and medicines. One fifth of the cameras produced in China, 65 percent on the motorcycles, and three fourths of the passenger vans that move in the streets of Beijing - all these come from the military industries." Further the book reveals, "the output value of civilian goods rose by an average of 25 percent from 1979 to 1989. More than 100 types of products were exported in 1989 with a value of more than $300 million."

Some of the military enterprises might have been failed but even if we accept a modest growthrate of 15 to 20 per cent in the post '89 era then also the impact it can make on PLA's financial clout is tremendous. In addition to this PLA, like other establishments of China is ready to flaunt around this clout and get things turned in its favour. Therefore, the economic muscle and its future use in the overall political system of China needs further study.

Another important feature of Chinese system is that the PLA formally represents itself in the parliament i.e., the NPC, her highest law making body. As per the approved draft in last session the PLA will have a 'delegation of 265 deputies in the coming Ninth NPC' which will be formally constituted in March 1998 and this will be the largest delegation representing a single entity.

After learning the impacts of the 'Gulf War' China currently follows an 'active defence policy' under which it gets itself to fight a 'local war under high tech conditions'. This strategical posture and the PLAs burgeoning role in China's politics and policy making demands the close attention of our authorities. The political work within the PLA still forms a strong basis of is political training, this is basically aimed at ensuring the party loyalty and party theoretical awareness among the cadres. This was further stressed by Jiang Zemin himself during hi speech to the PLA deputies to last NPC session, he emphasized:"our senior cadres must take the lead in studying and applying the party's basic theory and line, and justify the great trust placed in them by the party and people. Comrade Xiaoping always placed great hopes on senior army cadres. In a historical sense, the burden of building the army has fallen on our shoulders. It is up to us to preserve the nature of the People's Army and to ensure that it is always loyal to the party, country, people and socialism and accomplishes its mission in accordance with Comrade Xiaoping's behest."

If we look into the future, it seems that for a short term, say the coming Party Congress and the remaining part of the current century may not witness any major upheaval in the Chinese power structure, therefore, the position of PLA also likely to remain stable. But down the line if any of the present parameters change then the PLA's role is also bound to change. These parameters can be, if we broadly speak from the internal point of view like the emergence of an individual or group which can challenge the present or future incumbent core structure. The second fault line may emerge from the growing disparities, including income and regional imbalances, then also PLA may step in as a restorer.

As mentioned earlier briefly the impact of 'Desert Storm' over PLA's strategic thinking is tremendous. This has given rise to an avowed chase for hi-tech capabilities, and its basic aim is to procure them within a short time from any possible source. And PLA's shopping list ranges from night vision to spectrum analysers and most sophisticated satellite communication equipments. Prof. You Ji in one of his special reports on 'High-tech shift for China's Military' summarised its Gulf war lessons as :-

- "electronic warfare is decisive to the result of the entire war.

- high-tech weaponry is the key to victory in future wars.

- Air and Naval power are the critical arms in modern warfare.

- overall capability is measured by rapid response and fast deployment.

- logistical support capability is as important as actual fighting strength."

If we observe little closely PLA not only made these assessments but over a period of time it put through a complex process to implement this plan, inorder to circumvent various restrictions imposed by western bloc led by USA, China chalked out a multipronged combination of procurement and idigenisation. Through this carefully crated plan the PLA could procure an AT&T switching gear system and a sophisticated field communication facility from USA for the ostensible purpose of upgrading its communication facilities for field hospitals. But on the other hand both these systems can be readily used in increasing the accuracy of her missiles and fieled communication system under a combat scenario. Apart from these clandestine procurement route PLA tapped the technologically sound military hardware manufacturers like Israel, France etc. China's military cooperation with Russia is well known one, but by utilising the porous nature after the disintegration of Soviet empire PLA lured some of the best scientific and technical brains from its ill-paid laboratories. This human resource has started producing its desired results in upgrading China's obsolete weapon systems.

Under the present international scenario the PLA will continue to play a vital role in the making and implementation of China's foreign policy. The current stress on the 'multipolar' structure also seems to be a core issue supported by the PLA. As such a setup can give ample time for PLA's envisaged modernisation effort it will certainly try to this.

But given the enhanced penchant for the national chauvinism neither PLA nor the political setup can brook any splittist tendency whether it may emanate from the minority fringe groups or from Taiwan independence elements; any such move will be dealt with heavily, irrespective of its price.