The PLA will always be the Party’s army. China’s latest national defense white paper, released on July 24, highlights the imperative of adherence to the Party’s “absolute leadership” (绝对领导). Tellingly, the requirement that the PLA must “obey the Party’s commands” (听党指挥) is always prioritized ahead of preparing to “fight and win wars” (能打胜战) in Xi’s frequent exhortations. Although the PLA today is pursuing historic reforms and undergoing unprecedented transformations as China attempts to build a “powerful military” that is “commensurate with its global standing,” certain concerns over Party control remain consistent nonetheless. “China’s National Defense in the New Era” includes an incongruous juxtaposition of an agenda for reform and innovation with the persistent insistence that “ideological and political work” remain “the first priority” for China’s armed forces. Our assessments must recognize the influence of the Party’s control in constraining and conditioning the trajectory of Chinese military modernization.
Xi Jinping has been leading the PLA into this “new era.” Indeed, the titular notion of a “new era” (新时代) itself comes from Xi Jinping’s personal ideology, which is obscurely and grandiosely described as “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” which has been written into the Party and national constitutions. Although the precise content and contours of “Xi Jinping thought” remain rather anodyne and expansive, this phrasing has become nearly ubiquitous. So too, the PLA has been called upon to study and implement “Xi Jinping thought on strengthening the military” (习近平强军思想). As a core feature of this agenda, the “strong military dream” (强军梦) has been characterized as essential for the achievement of the “China Dream” of “national rejuvenation.” In particular, Xi Jinping’s report to the 19th Party Congress in the fall of 2017 had called upon the PLA to become a “world-class” (世界一流) military by mid-century, while establishing 2035 as a target for “basically completing” military modernization. “China’s National Defense in the New Era” continues this articulation of Chinese military power as an instrument for the Party to achieve its strategic objectives.
Xi Jinping’s ideology is featured front and center within this latest national defense white paper. This document directly connects China’s national defense policy to the concept of a “community of common destiny for humanity” (人类命运共同体), which has been a frequent feature of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy and discourse, while calling for China’s armed forces to “actively participate in the reform of the global security governance system.” Strikingly and perhaps significantly, this is the first of China’s national defense white papers, to mention the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and chairman of China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) by name so many times and so prominently. Xi Jinping is mentioned five times in the text of this document, in which “Xi Jinping thought” on a strong military and on military strategy is described as having guiding standing (指导地位) for the PLA. This latest defense white paper declares:
“It is imperative to comprehensively implement Xi Jinping’s thinking on strengthening the military, thoroughly deliver on Xi Jinping’s thinking on military strategy, continue to enhance the political loyalty of the armed forces (坚持政治建军), strengthen (and revitalize) them through reform and technology (改革强军、科技兴军), run them in accordance with the law, and concentrate on the capabilities to fight and win...”
Xi Jinping’s personal prominence is quite striking, reflecting a significant departure from past norms. To be sure, signature concepts of the Hu Jintao era, such as the new “historic missions” (历史使命) were taken up by the PLA. During Hu’s tenure, “Hu Jintao thought on national defense and military construction” was frequently referenced, as was that Jiang Zemin, Deng Xiaoping, and Mao Zedong before him, but Xi’s new emphasis on his own “thought” has since eclipsed the legacies of their ideologies.
Xi Jinping’s influence and supposed guidance in shaping the direction of the Chinese military modernization seems singular. In some respects, his influence appears to hearken back to the highly personal authority of Deng Xiaoping. The frequent invocation of “Xi Jinping thought” in this context seems intended to characterize him as responsible for the progress that has been achieved to date. Xi Jinping, who has taken on the title of Commander-in-Chief in a first, seems to have placed his mark upon the PLA to an extent that is unique, including appearing in uniform and frequently reviewing military parades and institutions. In this regard, the personalistic and ideological undertones of this defense white paper are unsurprising in their consistency with themes that have become highly prevalent under his leadership.
“China’s National Defense in the New Era” confirms the changes and progress of historic military reforms that Xi Jinping has overseen. Despite his being given credit, it is important to note the reforms that the PLA has implemented since 2015 do not appear to have been unique to Xi’s tenure or thinking. Nonetheless, Xi Jinping’s forceful assertion of his command over the PLA appears to have enabled or contributed to real progress on reforms that had been clearly necessary and long contemplated but had remained long overdue in implementation, seemingly due to bureaucratic and organizational impediments. To some extent, the consolidation of power that was actualized through the Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, which appears to have purged not only the corrupt but also those suspected of disloyalty, perhaps or at least loyalty to his predecessor, may have cleared the way for these reforms.
The emphasis on loyalty may also reflect a response to the coup or challenge that Xi Jinping is rumored to have fended off earlier in his tenure by some accounts. This defense white paper includes the statement: “China’s armed forces are tightening political discipline and rules, investigating and dealing strictly with grave violations of [CCP] discipline and state laws
as in the cases of Guo Boxiong, Xu Caihou, Fang Fenghui, and Zhang Yang.”
The expulsion of these powerful generals has evidently safeguarded Xi Jinping’s leadership. This defense white paper included the assertion “The anti-corruption struggle has achieved overpowering victory” (反腐败斗争取得压倒性胜利). The combination of the anti-corruption campaign and the opportunity to reshape PLA leadership to promote those known to be loyal to him appears to have strengthened Xi’s control. At the same time, despite these "notable achievements," this rumored incident also highlights the apparent brittleness of Party-army relations in China today.
Given this context, it is noteworthy that this new defense white paper explicitly reaffirms Xi Jinping’s personal authority and leadership, with the declaration:
“Firmly uphold General Secretary Xi Jinping as the core of the CPCCC (Communist Party of China Central Committee) and the whole Party, firmly uphold the authority of the CPCCC and its centralized and unified leadership, and follow the CMC Chairman responsibility system.”
The continued emphasis on Xi Jinping as the “core of the Party Central Committee” (党中央的核心) is noteworthy insofar as no prior defense white paper has included such an individual endorsement of a Party leader. This document reinforces the commitment of the PLA to strengthen “core consciousness” (核心意识) and “alignment consciousness” (看齐意识). The reaffirmation of the “CMC Chairman responsibility system” (军委主席负责制) in the course of the reforms not only reiterates a frequent feature in CCP propaganda dating back to late 2014 but also reinforces a significant recalibration of power that has evidently elevated Xi’s personal authority.
Of course, it is striking that in his capacity as chairman of the CMC, Xi Jinping is the only "civilian" in the chain of command. This dynamic raises questions about the durability of Party control in a potential scenario of leadership transition. The prime priority of “ideological and political construction” is the mechanism through which the Party seeks to institutionalize control over the military, including through a series of notable policies and major meetings, including “The Decision on Issues Relating to Military Political Work Under the New Situation” after the fall 2014 Gutian meeting. This defense white paper highlights that China’s armed forces will “uphold a series of fundamental principles for and institutions of the CPC’s absolute leadership over the military,” while “enhanc[ing] the creativity, cohesion and combat effectiveness of their CPC organizations at all levels...” Throughout the PRC’s and PLA’s history, the tension between "red" and "expert" has become prominent. The “new era” continues this tradition of attempting to reconcile ideological considerations and battlefield effectiveness in a manner that may have only limited success. For instance, the time dedicated to studying “Xi Jinping thought” is time not available to “actual combat” training. Interestingly, ongoing attempts to “reinforce and improve political work in the new situation” have extended to attempts to pursue new directions in political work, including experimentation with the use of online platforms, as well as the potential employment of big data to improve precision.
These dynamics of Party-army relations in Xi’s new era will continue to present puzzles meriting analytic attention. Whereas the PLA’s advances in weaponry and equipment development are comparably straightforward to evaluate, it is considerably challenging to establish a reliable understanding of these issues of power and command. The question that should be debated remains whether this personalist command—and the continuation of such rhetoric and propaganda—is a sign of strength or indicator of insecurity for Xi Jinping’s leadership. China’s potential military prowess must be contextualized within the ideological imperatives within which the PLA operates. Today, the PLA is called upon to respond to the ongoing Revolution in Military Affairs and advance an agenda for innovation, including pursuing emerging technologies and theoretical innovations. In the process, the PLA seeks to “encourage the initiative, enthusiasm, and creativity of all members of the armed forces.” These characteristics seem to be at odds with the PLA’s culture as an organization as usually understood. Ultimately, the question remains whether the CCP can reconcile these imperatives of control and ideology with the demands of a new era of warfare in its quest to build a “world-class” military.