Thursday, 31 August 2017

Is Politics Really In Command of the Chinese Military?

There’s a very long essay this morning on civil-military relations in Nanjing Daily, entitled “Politics Builds A Fighting Force: Consolidate The Original, Open The New, Forever Forward” [政治建军,固本开新永向前].

Pretty much every major Party and military media outlet is running the piece, which isn’t surprising given Beijing’s deepening control (read: centralisation) of news here.

What is striking is that someone here seems to feel the need for such a lengthy essay to appear.

The reason is found in what problems the essay propounds.

Like many similar expositions, this one proceeds—at least at first—chronologically, highlighting the evolution and certain achievements of the People’s Armed Forces. While the piece refers to the faith in the measures being undertaken to “build a world-class military” [建设世界一流军队], it’s clear that the Party leadership thinks that the Chinese military needs to respond to two political challenges.

The first challenge is from outside powers messing about with Chinese society.

“There’s an undercurrent surging of ‘color revolutions’ and “cultural transmutation [文化转基因],” the essay intones, echoing claims by Beijing hardliners that foreign forces are trying to subvert Party authority over society. 

According to the editorial, “anti-China forces are intensifying efforts to do everything possible to get Westernization to take root in China, trying to pull the People's Army away from the flag of the Party.” And because Chinese society itself is becoming more diversified, “hostile forces are accelerating ideological and cultural infiltration [文化渗透], the essay warns. Therefore, “officers and soldiers must always maintain political firmness and ideological and moral purity, and enhance their immunity [政治免疫力]” to such influences, including those who engage in “online distortions of our party and army history, and attempt to discredit our heroic martyrs and other heroes.”

To mention this issue signals that the military’s methods of combatting this threat have thus far fallen short.

The second problem for China’s armed forces, according to the essay, is that military corruption hasn’t gone away.

The essay reminds readers that “an army is always faced with two kinds of tests: One is the battlefield and the life-and-death duel with the enemy; the other is the risk of being destroyed by their own camp. [一支军队永远面对着两种考验:一个是战场上与敌人的生死对决,另一个是阵营内被自己打垮的危险.]

The second struggle isn’t done yet, though the piece is at pains to point out the progress made in identifying large-scale graft by the upper echelons, and gives the current Party leadership well-deserved credit for confronting the level and scale of corruption among some high-ranking officers. What’s still in process, according to the essay, is the construction of a comprehensive system of supervision—that is, institutional oversight by the political powers-that-be.

Whenever State media highlights circumstances and conditions, they’re almost always actually identifying illnesses. So while many in the international media are looking at China’s rising military capabilities, the Party leadership remains concerned about the institutional shortcomings of the armed forces here.

The way to address those deficiencies, according to the essay, is for the military to “intensify command consciousness” [强化号令意识]—that is, strengthen the armed forces’ allegiance to the Communist Party.[1]

That this matter needs more than just mentioning implies that questions of loyalty and support for the Party core evidently remain. If this essay is coming from Xi’s camp, then he and they are uneasy, and probably a bit unhappy. What direct action—if any—might be forthcoming isn’t made clear.

Still, this essay has a larger meaning. It could well be the start of a series of pronouncements—conclusions, really—about what was discussed at the Beidaihe meetings and what was agreed on there. Identifying what’s been resolved—and what hasn’t been—should indicate what sort of Party Congress the 19th session is going to be. Already, it’s looking less simple and straightforward than some might have wished.

[1] “The Party's absolute leadership of the armed forces is the essential distinguishing feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” [党对军队的绝对领导是中国特色社会主义的本质特征.] Later in the essay, there’s a particularly pointed reminder that the armed forces here belong to the Party, not the nation, and thus the need to continue to fight against “military nationalization” [军队国家化]. Apparently, that debate isn’t dead.


  1. as the nation grows and diversifies ownership of the military may become an issue. My sense would be, if they're talking/writing about it, some one is worried. The {ARTY still has a good hold on the country so at this time it may not be an issue, but later this century, it will be. If history has taught us nothing else, it is that eventually China changes, not quickly, but it changes.

  2. There is a post here [] that is clearly drawn directly from this particular blog piece. But it is presented as if the writer--Professor Farley of the University of Kentucky--also read the original piece and that my take above is simply, as he puts it, "good supporting analysis".

    The problem is that the article that I analysed above addresses none of the issues that the blog post by Professor Farley says it does. Readers of his post may believe that his piece is based on an analysis of the same article. But if that's the case, then why are Professor Farley's conclusions so unconnected from and unrelated to that which the original article in Chinese actually says? The focus of that original piece in Chinese (which not only appeared in Nanjing Daily, but other Chinese media here, though Professor Farley links only to the former) was what my post says, not the topics that Professor Farley writes of. Even a cursory reading of the original will bear that out. Given that fact, I would be curious to know from Professor Farley how he reached his conclusions.