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Is China Scared of a Coup?

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China Power

Is China Scared of a Coup?

Why, asks Peter Mattis, do China’s leaders keep reminding its military about loyalty?

Since the controversy surrounding the ouster of Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai in March, China has appeared to be teetering on the edge of reform—or of chaos. While Premier Wen Jiabao’s calls for urgent reform turned into official press notices to “assault the castle of reform,” the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) set firm limits on what such reform could accomplish, especially as foreign hostile forces might try to take advantage of any political instability. The latest issue of the Central Party School journal, Red Flag, mentioned “structural political reform” for the CCP to adapt to the changing nature of Chinese society, at least acknowledging high-level dissatisfaction with the political status quo. Such reform, however modest it appears to outsiders, could be divisive and China’s leaders may be trying to shore up the military’s loyalty lest leadership splits lead to social disorder.

The Chinese official and military press has sounded a relentless drumbeat since the beginning of the year about the dangers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) succumbing to “depoliticizing the military, separating the [Chinese Communist Party] from the military, and nationalizing the military.” This drumbeat has lasted far longer than might be expected if it were only about the ideological conditioning of new conscripts who joined their units early this year—or even if it was related to the ousted Bo Xilai’s links to the PLA.

The selections below highlight just a few of the official Chinese press articles drawing attention to the dangers of a disloyal PLA and the need for military officers to close ranks around the CCP:

  • -On June 25, the People’s Daily ran an article by a Jinan Military Region political commissar exhorting military cadres to more aggressively challenge mistaken ideas about the PLA’s political role in the face of growing pluralism in Chinese society.
  • -On June 17, the PLA Daily called for military officers to maintain their loyalty to the CCP, suggesting many officers were insufficiently committed to the party’s continued rule.
  • -On May 15, a PLA Daily op-ed encouraged soldiers to recognize the conspiracy behind efforts to separate the army from the party, and the need to adhere to the fundamental political system that places the CCP above the army.
  • -On April 6, the PLA Daily editorialized that the PLA needed to be firmly aligned with the party to ensure political stability, because historical experience has demonstrated ideological competition intensified whenever the CCP faced a crucial moment of reform.
  • -On March 19, the PLA Daily ran an article stating the PLA needed to resist the “three mistaken ideas” listed above about the Chinese military development, stating “always put ideological and political construction first” because it is an essential requirement for strengthening the PLA.
  • -On March 13, Xinhua carried an article on President Hu Jintao opining that “every soldier in the military must be aware that development while maintaining stability is the priority. Hu stressed that the PLA and the armed police must focus on national defense and army building, and adhere to the fundamental requirement of making progress while maintaining stability.”


As PLA expert Dennis Blasko wrote earlier this spring, “It is unclear who, if anybody within the PLA, proposes to separate, depoliticize or nationalize the military” As far as anyone can tell, the only person to make a statement about the party’s control of the military was a civilian newspaper editor, who was promptly sacked. And the PLA Daily has refrained from naming names or even suggesting who in the PLA may be losing faith in the CCP. The absence of a real reason indicates the need to start looking elsewhere.

An anonymous faculty member of China’s National Defense University told the Global Times in May that the real reason for the concern over military loyalty probably related to intensifying foreign efforts to disrupt the leadership transition ahead of the 18th Party Congress. This explanation however does not explain the repetitive nature of these calls—or why such calls would be sufficient to counter a hostile power intent upon ideologically neutering the PLA—but it does highlight the important of the domestic political context for all things in China this year.

The leadership transition at the 18th Party Congress almost certainly will see more than half of the Politburo turn over and only two of nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee remain. Moreover, there is a generational transition underway that will carry the Chinese leadership out of the shadow of Deng Xiaoping, who named every CCP General Secretary from Hu Yaobang to Hu Jintao.

Although attention often focuses on Premier Wen Jiabao’s well-publicized calls for democracy,  the real reform battle within the CCP is over performance and how to get more out of a political system that seems increasingly unable to meet internal challenges.

In March and April, a series of People’s Daily, Global Times, China Daily, and Xinhua editorials seemed to launch a coordinated campaign in favor of reform, even if the language made clear Western-style political reform was untenable. Assuming the CCP retained its leadership position, the official press attacked corrupt cadres and advocated administrative reforms to improve performance.

Focus on improving performance has generated a number of different ideas. For example, Beijing appears to be engaged in a serious review of government-owned institutions that may involve transforming business-like organizations, like publishing houses, into genuine enterprises. For those that doubt such possibilities, it is worth noting the subscription fee for viewing electronic back-issues of the People’s Daily or the $1.00 cost of the China Daily on U.S. streets. Whether such modest, performance-based reform has real potential to change Chinese politics is another matter, however, more substantial ideas appear to be percolating.

The party journal Red Flag earlier this month posed the question of whether Deng Xiaoping, father to the Reform and Opening Policy, would have approved of structural political reform. While the journal unsurprisingly stated Deng would have dismissed Western democratization, it did open the door to structural changes that retained the CCP, because of need for the CCP to adapt to China’s social evolution and to break down a stagnant bureaucracy. This ideological justification—coming out of the Central Party School headed by Vice President Xi Jinping—could herald a greater degree of comity across the factional divide that separated Xi and Hu Jintao—as well as Hu’s torchbearer of reform, Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang.

But hermetically sealed doctrinal justification for reform is not enough.

Mao Zedong’s famous dictum that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” and that “the Party commands the gun” highlights the role of the PLA and the People’s Armed Police as guarantors of CCP rule. At times of political uncertainty, the loyalty of the military (and now paramilitary) forces is the foundation that allows the party to take political risks. Breaking down entrenched interests in a system that has promoted cadres based on perpetuating the CCP is bound to create divisions within the party, because it changes the rules on rising officials who have a stake in the status quo and others who may fall if exposed.

Observers probably should see PLA loyalty as a prerequisite for political reform, when the challenge of reform involves breaking down an ossified party bureaucracy that seems to encourage corruption-based interest groups. And the constant refrain that CCP should control the PLA may be a sign that reform discussions are real, if uncertain in implementation.

Although some rumors about military nationalization may be true, this alternative explanation is plausible. If the PLA’s loyalty to the party, especially to Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, cannot be assured, then there is little reason to expect Chinese leaders to risk a bruising debate capable of publicly splitting the leadership. The key lesson of the tumultuous events of 1989 was that leadership should not show public disunity. The PLA loyalty drumbeat suggests this is a real concern. Continuation probably should be taken as sign of growing instability within the leadership and an end to the current possibilities of internal CCP reforms.

Peter Mattis is editor of the Jamestown Foundation's "China Brief."