Xi Jinping and the PLA
Image Credit: Flickr- Creative Commons User - Secertary of Defense

Xi Jinping and the PLA


In recent weeks, Western media has characterized Xi Jinping as a more assertive and forceful leader of China’s armed forces, including the People’s Liberation Army and People’s Armed Police.  The Wall Street Journal, for example, described Xi as “as a strong military leader at home and embracing a more hawkish worldview.” Similarly, the New York Times described Xi “as a champion of the military, using the armed forces to cement his political authority and present a tough stance in growing territorial disputes with American allies in the Pacific region.”

Such characterizations, however, may be misplaced – or at least incomplete.  Since becoming Chairman of the CCP’s Central Military Commission at the 18th Party Congress four months ago, the policies adopted under Xi reflect far more continuity with those of past leaders than is commonly perceived.

One general indicator of the relative priority of the military for China’s leaders is spending on defense.  Although China’s official defense budget does not include all defense-related spending, there’s no evidence yet that Xi has been more inclined to favor the military.  At the most recent National People’s Congress, China’s official defense budget was slated to increase by 10.7 percent in 2013.  Although budget preparations likely started before Xi became CMC chair, the figure nevertheless helps to assess whether Xi has been exerting any special influence.  Under Hu Jintao’s chairmanship of the CMC (2004-2012), China’s defense budget, on average, increased 15 percent per year.  When Jiang Zemin was CMC chair (1989-2004), it increased more than 16 percent per year on average.  Under both leaders, China’s defense budget as a share of the government budget has been declining steadily, indicating that the military was not being favored over other government spending areas. 

Instead, if anything, the 2013 defense budget reflects continuity in China’s defense policies.  The percentage increase for the 2013 defense budget roughly equals the rate of GDP growth plus inflation for 2012, and is slightly lower than the rates of growth in 2011 and 2012 (reflecting the slight downturn in China’s GDP).  The growth of the defense budget is consistent with Beijing’s official policy “that defense development should be both subordinated to and in the service of the country's overall economic development, and that the former should be coordinated with the latter.”  Thus, the military budget, roughly in line with the growth of China's GDP and inflation, has not diverted massive funding away from important civilian projects necessary for maintaining economic development.

Xi’s statements on military affairs have attracted a great deal of attention. In the post-Deng era, all new leaders have moved early to distinguish their command over China’s armed forces from their predecessors.  The easiest way to do so is by articulating new formulations (tifa) for what are often the same or very similar general policies.  Previously, for example, in December 1990, Jiang Zemin announced his “Five Sentences” that the PLA should be “politically qualified, militarily competent, have a good work style, strict discipline and adequate logistics support.”  Likewise, shortly after becoming CMC chair in 2004, Hu Jintao called on the PLA to fulfill its “historic missions in the new phase of the new century.”  Although the historic missions called on the PLA to develop the capability to carry out non-combat operations such as peacekeeping and disaster relief, they were premised on “strengthening the ability to win local wars under modern conditions as the core.” Now after becoming CMC chair, Xi has used a new formulation of building a “strong army” (and PAP) that “obeys the party’s commands, is capable of winning wars, and has a good work style.”

March 23, 2013 at 20:35

A one-party state has worked quite well for the past 200 years in the USA, so why shouldn't it work in China. The parties' philosophies are different, and the Communist Party is giving the Capitalist Party a run for its money.

March 20, 2013 at 10:48

Also I find it extremely amusing how communists always take the form of a one party system/dictatorship.

They talk about their superior ideals/morals/social values etc but are too petrified to put their ideals to the test in a free society where people can CHOOSE how to live?

No that would never work for Communism even with "Chinese characteristics (lol)" because if given a choice people ALWAYS reject communism. Thats why it has to be imposed.

CHina does spend more on controlling its own citizens than it does its military.

But then again thats government with "Chinese characteristics (lol)"

March 20, 2013 at 10:38

I don't get what they are afraid of? They are the second largest economy in the world yet they are still spinning the line that a one party system is still necessary to govern China?

I'll say again, the 2nd largest economy and they still think its too hard to allow the average citizen to have a say, opinion and a vote in how the country is run?

Seems quite obvious the party just wants to hold onto power forever and ever and will do or say anything to continue that. Why? Well money and power of course. They are all rich from corrupt money that would dissapear in a heartbeat if the reins of government were actually accountable to the people.


joseph enry
March 20, 2013 at 00:17

Even when China and its trolls keep calling it sovereignty defence, others in the region and throughout the world view it as blatant invasions by a expansionist policy and greedy government. It's the China apologysts such as Fravel and Blasko that help make everything China does as " normal " and " routine ". When South East Asian nations spend record upgrades of security defences against eventual Chinese attacks, they are proving your article is worthless, unless you feel it's worth something based on a check from the CCP propaganda department.

March 19, 2013 at 15:43

"China’s maritime assertiveness, however, started long before Xi took office.  In the South China Sea, it can be traced back to 2007 and 2008, when China began to oppose the investments of foreign oil companies in Vietnamese blocks."  

I think we should go even further back for examples of China defending its sovereign territorial rights.

1965 Battle of Dong-Yin


1974 Battle of the Paracel Islands


1988 Johnson South Reef Skirmish



It is incorrect to say that now China is rising, it will act more "assertively".

Whether or not China is rising or declining, as long as anyone violates the territorial sovereign rights of China, China will forcefully assert and defend its rights. 

Oro Invictus
March 19, 2013 at 12:29

What will be interesting to see is how Xi manages the PLA as the PRC’s economy slows and citizen awareness increases; how will he and his fellows deal with the increasing loss of their primary mechanism of legitimacy alongside increased calls that government and its various agencies should be accountable to the people rather than the party? It is here we are treading very close to the Soviet Union’s perestroika era, marked by increased citizen awareness (even before glasnost) and vast reforms to try and prop up a rapidly cooling economy. If the PRC is indeed following the Soviet Union’s footsteps in this regard (and I see no particularly strong reason to say that it is not),  then we can expect to see the CPC begin to lean more and more on the PLA to enforce its power, be it via domestic coercion or international aggressiveness.

The problem is what happens when this strategy works no longer and the CPC must decide whether or not to continue to hold the PLA loyal to them only or to allow them to become accountable to the people; it is here that there is a massive disconnect between what non-CPC observers believe and what those within the CPC believe. While most would argue that the Communist Party’s unwillingness to release the reins of the military quickly or completely enough was a major contributor to its fall (by solidifying the disconnect between itself and the people), the CPC seems to believe (and indeed, Xi has said so himself) that it was because they loosened their grip in the first place. The issue is that the CPC’s logic is specious in this regard, as there is no rational reason why this would have prevented the Soviet Union’s collapse; while holding a firm grip on the military may have prolonged the Communist Party’s life as the sole overseers of government, it did so at the cost of creating barriers between the government and the public. History has shown time and time again that rulers who seek to have the loyalty or their armed forces directed towards themselves rather than the people rarely makes for a long-lasting regime; it is extraordinarily ironic that this lesson is lost on the CPC, given that they were direct beneficiaries of this mechanism (that is to say, the CPC took advantage of this same disconnect brought about when the KMT attempted to do the same with the NRA’s loyalty).

Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that the CPC is making this mistake; they’ve hardly been one to pay attention to longstanding historical trends, especially when they do not support the notion that they can be the sole arbiters of power for their nation.

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