The Remilitarization of Beijing
Image Credit: Colin J

The Remilitarization of Beijing


In recent months—and especially since last December—China has pursued an increasingly assertive foreign policy. At the same time, Chinese flag officers and colonels have been making provocative comments in public on topics normally considered the exclusive responsibility of the country’s civilian officials. For instance, this March, Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo staked out a position on the Arctic that was at variance with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

In addition, there's been a spate of unusually hostile public comments from military officers, especially on their desire to engage in combat with America. In February, for example, a Chinese colonel, Meng Xianging, promised a 'hand-to-hand fight with the US.' Meanwhile, Major-General Yang Yi that same month said China 'must punish the US…We must make them hurt.'

At one time, the military was organically linked to the Communist Party. It was the PLA that installed the Communists in Beijing, after all. Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the first two leaders of the People’s Republic, were military officers. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, their two successors, however, are civilians, and this has led to what Michael Kiselycznyk and Phillip Saunders call the 'bifurcation of civil and military elites.'

Jiang’s elevation to the top post, shortly after the Tienanmen massacre, marked the beginning of a period of rapid decline of military influence. His tenure witnessed progressively fewer generals and admirals holding posts in top Communist Party organs. For instance, no military officer has served on the Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of political power in China, since 1997. Although senior officers were all members of the Party and formed a potent political block during Jiang’s rule, they lacked the power their predecessors had in the Mao and Deng eras. 

Then, the PLA made or broke China’s rulers. It was the army that restored order during the decade-long Cultural Revolution. After that, the top brass twice decided who would govern the People’s Republic. First, Marshal Ye Jianyang got rid of the ultra-leftist Gang of Four in October 1976 and eventually ensured the elevation of Deng Xiaoping. Second, the generals backed Deng and ordered their troops to take back the country from the crowd in Tienanmen Square during the Beijing Spring of 1989. These incidents reinforced the perception in society that the PLA was the final arbiter in China’s rough game of politics.

Since Tienanmen, the civilians have managed to avoid regime-threatening social unrest and so have not had to rely on the generals to keep themselves in power. Yet they haven't been entirely successful in avoiding splits among themselves. As a result, the top brass has gained influence in Beijing since the middle of this decade.

From the middle of 2004, Hu Jintao has courted senior generals for their support in his struggle with former supremo Jiang Zemin, who was trying to linger in the limelight. Hu’s tactics largely paid off. The military, for example, appears to have backed Hu’s somewhat successful effort in the run-up to 17th Party Congress, held in October 2007, to pick his own successor. 

Smiley G
December 30, 2011 at 12:53

Really? On what basis do you say Vietnam won the border war with China? Tell me and prove to me your credentials. I’d certainly like an objective read on that war. Anybody know any scholarly treatise on this matter? I am finding the unsubstantiated claims by fanatics on this blog quite off-putting. It does dis-service to the Diplomat which claims an erudite readership.

Smiley G
December 30, 2011 at 12:43

My, my, how deceiving can you be?!

Perhaps Beijing should also pass some laws to vex America. We can also be very law abiding. Maybe one to honour and protect Cuba or Venezuela’s rights? And maybe also the whole of Caribbean and Central American states from America’s predatory behaviour under their so called laws? Every one knows America is a serial abuser and has no friends.

At the rate Washington is going, it will become another neo fascist state opposed by the rest of the world if any of the vaccuos Republicans are elected in 2012 instead of Ron Paul. You Americans should look at your own country and get it fixed. It is not only very much broken but heading in the wrong direction globally and likely to ignite a global world!

Smiley G
December 30, 2011 at 12:24

The author is Gordon Chang, so take his comments with a bag of salt. He has an anti China stand. he makes too many claims and speculations which are unsubstantiated.

January 17, 2011 at 17:54

It’s Tiananmen, not “Tienanmen”

October 6, 2010 at 22:10

People like “Huang” (Yellow) always speak about China’s future. Is it safer that way and more glorious in their mind then the reality of today and the past.

October 6, 2010 at 13:53

Liberal economists were predicting the fall of the Soviet Union as early as the 1920s. They were indeed correct — though the process took longer than they probably believed it would.

October 4, 2010 at 00:47

U.S. military policy is not some sort of conspiracy against the PRC, all you have to do you look at our laws and treaties to understand why we do what we do! We are formally allied with South Korea, so we exercise with South Korea in their home waters (or does China deny Korea’s access to the Yellow Sea? Or just its right to have a formal ally?) The Taiwan relations act is law, we are obligated to prepare for its defense because our Congress says so, even if there is no formal treaty. We also have a formal the Philipines, Japan, and Australia, so their interests are by default, ours. Sorry the PRC doesn’t like it, but I guess kicking the Chinese government that we were allied with in WW2 off the mainland in 1947, declaring war on the U.N. forces in 1950, and being self described communists like our arch enemy the Soviets has some negative consequences, huh? Our treaties are second only to our Constitution in force of law, we CANNOT violate them and still have rule of law. Federal law is lower than treaties, but still overrides everything else in our system of government. We are not a oligarchy that does what it wants, we have to act within our legal framework, and that does not change much over time. It is funny that China wants us to react to them in today’s context exclusively, and ignore a half century of recent history, but then uses WW2 and European exploitation as an excuse for all its aggressive actions. Want to exercise off the coast of California? No problem 13 miles out. Good luck operating that far from home without any allies. Maybe you should make some friends first?

October 4, 2010 at 00:34

It is not that big of a separation between military and civilian control. The leadership of the military or members of the Party. The Party controls the military for sure, but the leaders of the military CAN control the Party. They do not right now, but that can change and I believe the next round of leadership selection internal to the Party is in 2012. If more civilians are selected to lead, as has been the case for the past few decades, it is unlikely the military will do anything drastic, but if power shifts unexpectedly, stand by!

October 4, 2010 at 00:27

The Germany analogy can be taken way too far. Germany was competing directly with other great powers in Europe and had defeated another great power (France) in a war to give it confidence. China really has not the equivalent in Asia. Korea is divided and much smaller, Japan has already been militarily defeated. China’s only real rival in Asia is the U.S., a power with lots of other distractions and already an economically friendly power (despite the rhetoric). China is certainly nationalist, but being pro-Chinese racists doesn’t equate to genocial Jew hatred that drove the Nazi party and Hitler. China is much more pragmatic than Hitler could be (and China is an oligarchy, not a single person dictatorship like Germany, or even a monarchy like Imperial Germany). Consensus must be achieved for China to do anything too dramatic.

October 3, 2010 at 23:56

It is understandable (if unfortunate) that Chinese military leaders are anxious for a fight to prove themselves. When was the last time the PLA fought anyone beside civilian protesters? 1979? I seem to recall that did not go well for the PLA. In the meantime, the US has proven its capability to wipe out Soviet style armies, conduct unchallenged air campaigns, and invade and occupy other nations in the most remote corners of the world, AND adapt to counter-insurgency, while maintaining influence in Asia. I think the Chinese are simply wanting to prove they are a credible military, and are childishly willing to pick a fight to do it. That does not mean they will ACT childishly, saner heads will prevail. While China may not pick a fight with the U.S. in the near future, it is increasingly likely they will pick a fight with a weaker nation (or armed group, watch out Somali pirates!) to prove itself. If I were Vietnam, I would stay on high alert!

October 2, 2010 at 00:13

In a decade??It is nine months away from yo prediction.Carry on with yo dreams.A lot of predictions (negative) by envious western writers for thirty years since 1980s esp on China banks.Has it happened? Property bubble??.I bet u all this speculation on china for thirty years is just out of envy and hate.

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