Hu Jintao, for instance, inadvertently gave credence to the rumors of the attempted military takeovers by repeatedly issuing public warnings, in the form of pointed reminders, that the People’s Liberation Army is subject to the absolute will of the Party. Xi Jinping has also issued the same warnings during his short tenure as general secretary and as chairman of the Party’s Central Military Commission. By now, there have been too many of these statements to think that the Party at this moment truly “controls the gun.”
In fact, the generals and admirals have squabbling civilian leaders to thank for their growing influence. Beginning about a decade ago, flag officers were drawn into the power struggle between the outgoing Jiang Zemin, who was then trying to linger in the limelight, and Hu Jintao, his successor. Last year, we also witnessed top civilian leaders running to the military as they sought support in their various fights with each other.
For instance, when Bo Xilai, then-Chongqing Party secretary, sent his armed security officers to surround the American consulate in Chengdu last February, he went to Kunming to visit the headquarters of the 14th Group Army. His father, Bo Yibo, had established that unit, and analysts naturally speculated that the younger Bo was appealing to its current officers to support his now-failed bid for promotion from the Party’s Politburo to the Politburo’s Standing Committee.
Moreover, in early April, former leader Jiang is rumored to have sat down with military officers before meeting with Hu Jintao and other members of the Standing Committee before stripping Bo of his Party positions. When he later met with Hu and the Standing Committee, Jiang did so at the headquarters of the Central Military Commission in Beijing, a powerfully symbolic venue.
And in an even more disturbing sign of the growing role of the military and the erosion of the standing of civilian leaders, “leftists” last year publicly called on the army to intervene in the nation’s politics.
From all outward appearances, the military is already playing an expanded role in policy as well as politics. Senior officers look like they are acting independently of civilian officials, but in any event, they are openly criticizing them and are making pronouncements on areas that were once the exclusive province of diplomats.