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.'Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.