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How The Boots Face The Sun

The PLA marches to the party’s tune. Under Xi, they have their toughest conductor till date.

How The Boots Face The Sun
Long March
A military band pipes up at a ceremony to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the PLA in Beijing
Photograph by AP
How The Boots Face The Sun

China has a unique military. Its armed forces belong to the Communist Party of China (CPC), not the state known as the People’s Republic of China. The link between the two is complex and maintained through the existence of parallel bodies called the Central Military Commission (CMC), which run the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The Ministry of Defence in Beijing is a shell structure, more for interfacing with the public than exercising real authority.

This was highlighted by a field commander, Senior Colonel Li Li, who, when asked about a PLA response on Doklam, declared, “We will follow the orders of the CPC and the CMC.”

The party CMC and the state CMC have the same personnel. There is, of course, a fiction of the 1997 law on national defence passed by the legislature, but that is trumped by the CPC’s own 1982 constitution, which directs the party to run the PLA. Their importance to the party was reinforced by their role in the Tiananmen events in 1989. Most of the CMC comprises of military officers. Xi Jinping was the first civilian vice-chairman, appointed in 2010, but since then Xi has become chairman and the position has reverted back to the military.

In China’s 19th party congress, there could be a turnover of top military officers in the CMC. As of now, probably only one man knows who will remain—Xi Jinping. Xi underscored his authority by the speed with which he assumed charge as chairman, CMC, along with assuming the mantle of general secretary of the CPC in November 2012. The key difference between party and state was manifested by the fact that Xi only became president of the PRC in March 2013, four months later.

Like all Chinese leaders, Xi has displayed interest in matters military. Leaders till Deng Xiaoping were either PLA generals or political commissars. In Xi’s case, his father, Xi Zhongxun had par­­ticipated in many PLA campaigns as pol­itical commissar. Between 1979-82, Xi junior had served as an assistant to Geng Biao, who was CMC secretary-general and minister of defence. As president, Xi made it a special mission to keep the PLA close to himself.

He was the first among non-military general secretaries to appear in combat fatigues, most recently at the combat show to mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of the PLA. Significantly, he was addressed there as ‘Chairman’, not President.

Xi has always stressed on the need for the military to remain loyal to the party, as well as enhance its skills. He has enforced frugality and discipline.

Xi has emphasised the need for the mil­itary to remain under the command of the party, as well as enh­ance its professional skills through hard and realistic training. “We must ensure that our troops are ready...that they are fully capable of fighting, that they must win every war,” he has said.It is clear from his remarks and policies that military power is an important component of his “China Dream”.

Apart from professional ability and loyalty, Xi has stressed the need for the PLA to change its culture and adopt a style of “frugality and austerity”. In December 2012, the “Ten Regulations on Improving the Work Style of the PLA” formally banned liquor in PLA functions, forbade big banquets, and called on the PLA brass to adopt a simple style in their tours.

In April 2013, new instructions were issued, ordering the PLA and People’s Armed Police (PAP) top officers to spend two weeks on the frontline as enlisted soldiers. Regiment and brigade commanders were to do this once in three years, division and corps commanders once in four years and leaders from HQ and military regions/districts once in five years.

Xi established his authority over the PLA ruthlessly. He first bludgeoned its leadership through an anti-corruption campaign. Two of its highest, former vice-chairmen of CMC, General Guo Boxiong, and General Xu Caihou, both of whom were CPC politburo members till 2012, were jailed, along with a host of other officers.

Then, he pushed reform, including a massive reduction of PLA personnel, the creation of joint theatre commands, a changed model of higher command leadership, termed the “CMC Chairman Responsibility System”, which further reinforced his authority. In this way, by 2020, he hopes to transform the PLA from a force which was intended largely for battle within China or its borders, to one which will have a wider regional and subsequently, global reach, and be ready to take on the number one target—the United States of America.

By Manoj Joshi in Beijing

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