Xi Jinping reforms China’s armed forces—to his own advantage
CHINA’S biggest military shake-up in a generation began with a deliberate echo of Mao Zedong.
Late in 2014 President Xi Jinping went to Gutian, a small town in the south where, 85 years before, Mao had first laid down the doctrine that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is the armed force not of the government or the country but of the Communist Party. Mr Xi stressed the same law to the assembled brass: the PLA is still the party’s army; it must uphold its “revolutionary traditions” and maintain absolute loyalty to its political masters. His words were a prelude to sweeping reforms in the PLA that have unfolded in the past month, touching almost every military institution.
The aim of these changes is twofold—to strengthen Mr Xi’s grip on the 2.3m-strong armed forces, which are embarrassingly corrupt at the highest level, and to make the PLA a more effective fighting force, with a leadership structure capable of breaking down the barriers between rival commands that have long hampered its modernisation efforts. It has taken a long time since the meeting in Gutian for these reforms to unfold; but that reflects both their importance and their difficulty.
The PLA itself has long admitted that it is lagging behind. It may have plenty of new weapons—it has just started to build a second aircraft-carrier, for instance—but it is failing to make effective use of them because of outdated systems of command and control. Before any substantial change in this area, however, Mr Xi felt it necessary to strengthen the party’s control over the PLA, lest it resist his reforms and sink back into a morass of money-grubbing.
The reforms therefore begin with the main instrument of party control, the Central Military Commission (CMC), which is chaired by Mr Xi. On January 11th the CMC announced that the PLA’s four headquarters—the organisations responsible for recruiting troops, procuring weapons, providing logistics and ensuring political supervision—had been split up, slimmed down and absorbed into the commission. Once these were among the most powerful organisations in the PLA, operating almost as separate fiefs. Now they have become CMC departments.
Power to the party
The political headquarters was the body through which the party kept an eye on the ranks and ensured they were up to speed on Maoist texts and the party’s latest demands. The loss of its autonomous status may suggest that the party’s role is being downgraded. Far from it. Now the party’s CMC (there is also a state one, which exists only in name) will be better able to keep watch. The body’s 15 new departments will include not only departments for politics but also for logistics, personnel management and fighting corruption. Mr Xi has already turned his guns on graft, imprisoning dozens of generals.
The second reform has been to put the various services on a more equal footing. The land forces have hitherto reigned supreme. That may have been fine when the PLA’s main job was to defend the country against an invasion across its land borders (until the 1980s the Soviet Union was considered the biggest threat). But now China has military ambitions in the South China Sea and beyond, and wants the ability to challenge American naval and air power in the western Pacific. A recent editorial in the Liberation Army Daily, a PLA mouthpiece, berated the armed forces for their “army-centric mindset”.
In addition to those for the navy and air force, a separate command has now been created for the army, which had previously run everything. On December 31st the CMC also announced the formation of a command responsible for space and cyberwarfare, as well as one for ballistic and cruise missiles (previously known as the Second Artillery Force, part of the army). There is also a new joint command with overall control of the various services, a little like America’s joint chiefs of staff.
Big changes are also afoot in regional command structures. China used to be divided into seven military regions. These were powerful and relatively self-contained; sharing or swapping troops and equipment was rare. Now, according to reports in the South China Morning Post, a newspaper in Hong Kong, the number will be reduced to five. Troops will be recruited and trained by the various services before regional deployment. This will ensure greater central control over the regions.
China has been talking about military reform for decades, but change has been glacial. Opposition within the armed forces has been intense. “If [reform] is not done properly,” wrote Sun Kejia and Han Xiao of the PLA National Defence University last month, “it could affect the stability of the armed forces or even all of society.” (The article was promptly removed from the Liberation Army Daily website.) Demobbed soldiers could make trouble—Mr Xi wants the number of troops to be cut by 300,000. State firms have been ordered to reserve 5% of jobs for laid-off veterans.
The recent reforms are more extensive than most Western observers had expected after the Gutian conference. But even so, they are incomplete. The army still holds sway over some appointments (all five chiefs of the new regional commands are army generals, for instance). The PLA has traditionally given higher status to combat units than to those providing communications, logistics, transport and the like, a misplaced emphasis in an age when information and communications are crucial in warfare. The reforms do little to correct that bias. Moreover, many details about them remain unclear. No one knows, for example, where the troop cuts will come from or what units will go into the new space and cyberwarfare command.
The first result of the reforms is likely to be confusion in the ranks, until the new system settles down. Dennis Blasko, an American observer of the PLA, says no one can be sure of the results until they are tested in battle. Amid the murk, only one man clearly seems to have got his way: Mr Xi.