PLA Influence Over Chinese Politics: Fact of Fiction?

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PLA Influence Over Chinese Politics: Fact of Fiction?

Headlines proclaiming that the military has increased its political clout likely overstate the case.

The New York Times ran a story this week about the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its “push for more sway in China”. It’s worth a read, but the “push” it describes is very much open to interpretation.

In fact, the “push for more sway” advertized in the headline is not really what the article is about. Its writers, doing their best to peer into the bunker of Chinese government, recount an anecdote about a senior general who was intoxicated at an official banquet that behaved rudely towards the very man who sponsored his career, namely President Hu Jintao. The general’s outburst was remarkable because, as the article goes on to discuss, PLA commanders are dependent on civilian politicians for advancement up the military hierarchy.

The take-home message of the Times story is therefore that PLA leaders are indebted, and also subordinate, to top Party figures like Hu – not that they’re agitating for greater political clout. The odd drunken rant aside, these men know their place.

The idea of the PLA getting out of control, or at least of asserting greater influence over foreign policy, is of course an attractive one for the lazy headline-writer. It’s news, unlike the long and deliberate arc of incremental military modernization, which is the real story of what’s happening with the PLA.

Other news outlets ran similar stories a couple of weeks ago, latching onto a remark in Japan’s new defense white paper that appeared, once again, to point to the ominous creep of PLA influence over Chinese politics. What the Japanese document actually said, however, was merely that “some see that relations between the CCP leadership and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has [sic] been getting complex and others see that the degree of military influence on foreign policy decisions has been changing.” In a footnote that wasn’t so widely reported it added, essentially, that others don’t see that.

There is some fire behind all the media smoke. It’s true that PLA generals are quoted in the Chinese press with increasing regularity, and that China’s nationalistic newspapers provide a ready platform for hawks both inside and outside the military. One such purveyor of interesting views, Major General Luo Yuan, has become a minor celebrity thanks to his forthright commentary on territorial disputes: he recently spoke out in favour of “decisive action” against the Philippines, for example. 

But it’s important to remember that Luo is a small fish in a big Chinese power-pond. The government, while tolerating (or perhaps encouraging) his confrontational stance, did of course completely ignore his advice. Instead, Beijing took a much more measured position, sending civilian law enforcement ships rather than the PLA Navy to handle its spat with Manila. Hence the military that is supposedly trying to grab influence over foreign policy was uninvolved in the biggest foreign-policy issue the country has faced this year – and that was probably just how most senior PLA commanders would have wanted it.

There’s no reason for the PLA to crave political power, so long as the government continues to ramp up military spending – as it has done reliably for over two decades. And even if some generals feel that they would like to exert more political influence, they exist in a top-down system dominated by the nine civilian members of the Politburo Standing Committee. People who challenge that system rarely prosper.