Xi Jinping’s programme to reform the Chinese military has been characterized as a high-risk venture by a strongman leader and as a radical break with the past. But this dominant narrative is flawed. Xi has avoided overt confrontations, and the management of the reforms so far is in line with historical precedents.

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The announcement of China’s far-reaching military reform package on 1 January 2016 set off an avalanche of news reports and scholarly debate. Amid disagreements over the motivations behind the reform initiative and its possible consequences, a dominant narrative quickly took shape: the structural changes to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) amount to a radical break with the past. By taking on vested interests in the military, Xi has engaged in his most dangerous venture yet, according to this line of explanation.

More than six months into the implementation of the reforms and with the 6th plenary session of the 18th Central Committee just around the corner, it is warranted to check these assumptions by placing Xi’s management of the reform package and his personal role in a comparative and historical perspective. At least for now, nothing suggests that Xi is breaking with precedent and using the military reforms primarily to expand his own power and authority.

Using Jiang Zemin as point of reference

The impression of a radical break with the past arises when Xi Jinping is compared with his immediate predecessor as Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), Hu Jintao. Indeed, there is a stark contrast between the two: Hu’s hands-off approach delegating the day-to-day running of the PLA to his two CMC Vice-Chairmen differed enormously from Xi’s hands-on leadership style. During Hu’s time as chairman no major military reform took place.

However, we get a different result if we compare Xi Jinping to Jiang Zemin as CMC Chairman. After Deng Xiaoping’s death in 1997, Jiang put his own trusted lieutenants in the position of CMC Vice Chairmen. In 1997 and 2003 he presided over two rounds of ambitious military restructuring, both of which were risky ventures. The size of the PLA was reduced by 700,000 personnel, among them many senior officer and one-star general billets.  Jiang’s opposition to granting the PLA a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee after 1997 and his 1998 order to the PLA to abandon its business operations, were also seen as assertive steps to impose his will on the armed forces.

Getting the titles right: Xi is not on par with revolutionary military leaders

When Xi Jinping was decorated with the new title of “Commander-in-Chief” on the occasion of his visit to the newly established CMC Joint Battle Command Centre on 20 April 2016, media reports speculated that he was now on par with revolutionary general Zhu De who had held this title until 1954. However, this April 2016 visit seems to be the only occasion when Xi was referred to as “Commander-in-Chief” (of the CMC Joint Battle Command Centre) ( 军委联 指总指挥) at all. Ever since, the Chinese press has almost exclusively referred to him by his three standard titles (CCP general secretary, state president, CMC chairman).

Even more importantly, Zhu De’s rank as “Commander-in-Chief” (Chinese translation: 总司令) is never used for Xi, countering the assumption that he claims to be a peer of Chinese military veterans. Outside observers should be careful in equating new titles for Xi with an actual increase in his power or authority. Depicting him in camouflage uniform visiting combat troops or military installations is also part of a new strategy by the Chinese media system of “branding Xi”, i.e. of presenting Xi as an experienced military leader and “hands-on commander” taking care of the PLA’s rank and file.

Cautious personnel management

Of course, Xi Jinping has offered enough evidence of his personal determination and grit with his ruthless anti-corruption campaign in the military. On the other hand, he has so far exercised remarkable caution in his personnel management of the PLA’s top brass. There have been no changes among the eight CMC ordinary members and no one out of the group of military region grade leaders (i.e. the hierarchical level directly below the CMC) has been forced into retirement. Typically, the respective generals were reshuffled on the same level of the hierarchy. For example, four of the seven former military region commanders became theatre command leaders, one was appointed president of the Academy of Military Sciences, one the new head of the Ground Forces, one Deputy Chief of Staff.

It is known that in some cases, Xi had to compromise when replacing top PLA leadership positions. Contrary to common speculations, officers regarded as his close confidants (e.g. Liu Yuan or Cai Yingting) were not promoted to more prestigious positions. In general, the CMC chairman is not totally free to choose when filling top billets, but most of the time has to follow clearly defined bureaucratic procedures

Losers and winners

Highlighting Xi’s personal assertiveness of course makes sense amid rumours of brewing discontent in the PLA over the reforms. However, one should not overemphasize the costs of these reforms: many of the initiatives that are now being implemented have been long planned, and in some cases they even originated from within the armed forces (e.g. the idea to increase “jointness”). There is no doubt that the anti-corruption campaign sent shockwaves through the PLA; but disgruntlement within the military, e.g. concerning the sale of leading officer positions, is also well documented.

One might also claim that for every loser in military reform there is also a winner. In China, there can be no doubt that the former four general headquarters (especially the General Political Department and General Logistics Department) are among the losers. However, the Strategic Support Force, the Politics and Law Commission, the Commission for Discipline Inspection or the Audit Office (the latter three are now all under direct CMC supervision) have come out as the clear winners of this overhaul.

Even the previously privileged Ground Forces, often regarded as among the losers because they are now on the same level as the other service branches, might end up on the winning side. If joint operations between the service branches were really put into practice and the theatre command leaders continued to be Army generals (as is currently the case), these Army leaders would gain in authority by having command and control over Air Force and Navy units in their theatre of operations.

At this point, this latest round of military reform is a work in progress, and much of it is still paperwork. The findings presented here can therefore only be preliminary. The 6th plenum of the 18th Central Committee and the 19th Party congress in 2017 will be a litmus test for Xi Jinping’s future relations with the PLA. If he pushes for structural changes to the CMC and personnel shake-ups that break with Jiang Zemin-era norms, this would indeed add credibility to the narrative that he prioritizes expanding his own power base over improving the effectiveness of the PLA.

The image in the preview is by Imagine China.