China’s armed forces have been stressing the need for internal compliance with recent changes to their command structure, an indication that the Chinese regime is trying to tighten its grip on the army. Since President Xi Jinping told top officials in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that the reorganization of its command structure had been launched, eight articles have appeared in the PLA’s official newspaper stressing the importance of obedient support of the changes, according to a report by the South China Morning Post on Dec. 11. This development is a confirmation of our prediction that China in the coming year will intensify the ways in which it resembles a dictatorship, as Xi centralizes power in Beijing and attempts to invigorate China’s political institutions with new legitimacy. The loyalty of the PLA to Xi and to the Communist Party is one of the key factors in determining whether or not the party and Xi are succeeding in centralizing control. The fact that China is actually undertaking the reforms in an expedient manner, while also maintaining loyalty of the PLA, is a sign that this strategy is prevailing.
Though military reform has long been discussed in China, Xi made headlines when he announced on Sept. 3 at a military parade that he intended to carry out large-scale reforms by the end of 2017. At the time, the precise timeline and content of the reforms was less than clear. It is common knowledge that China’s military is currently organized around a ground-based approach. There are seven different military commands and they are dominated by the army. But beyond reorganizing the command structure to integrate the navy and air force and claiming that the PLA’s numbers would be cut by 300,000, details of the reform plan were not initially forthcoming.
In recent weeks, the shape of some of these reforms has become more concrete. Addressing top military officials on Nov. 23, Xi announced plans to revamp China’s seven military commands. Citing military sources, the South China Morning Post reported on Dec. 8 that the Jinan and Chengdu commands would be eliminated, and that five new strategic combat zones would replace them. Over 60,000 officers will be laid off and Xi will pick new heads for the strategic combat zones. Two of the potential new appointments have been involved in Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. There have been less specific reports about the reorganization of the four general headquarters, but sources have reported that of the four, only the General Staff Department (GSD) is to remain, while the other departments’ responsibilities will be absorbed either by the GSD or the defense ministry. One of the goals is to ensure that authority flows from the Central Military Commission in a way that most efficiently allows China to increase cooperation between its armed services. This will curb the influence of the land-focused regional military commands and the heads of the four PLA general headquarters.
The precise details in the end are less important than the fact that the reforms are happening and that Xi reportedly expects the reorganization of the regional military commands completed by Jan. 1. The reform of the military can be characterized as important but not necessarily critical. China is not facing any existential military threats. Rather, Xi feels he has enough loyalty inside the PLA to attempt to improve the PLA’s war-fighting capability, even if it means upsetting the status quo.
The reforms also make sense from a strictly military perspective. China currently maintains a 1950s-style army suited for multi-divisional combat. Its staffs were designed for the type of war that would need to be fought if the Soviet Union tried to invade China. However, all modern armies are reducing manpower at all levels. The reason for this is to accommodate contemporary weapons systems that are more effective than older ones and, therefore, require less manpower, as well as highly efficient command structures. This adjustment also then makes sense on this basis. For China, there are two missions: increasing warfighting capability and also maintaining domestic security. The PLA is a dual force, designed to engage China’s enemies but also to maintain internal stability as the ultimate guarantor of the Communist Party. As such, the force must be kept loyal and be well staffed for the domestic mission. In modernizing the force and reducing the officer corps, the party is putting stress on its loyalty and its domestic mission.
There has been speculation that there is resistance to the reform efforts in the PLA itself. Much of this speculation focuses on a commentary published by two PLA officials from the National Defense University in the PLA Daily newspaper on Nov. 19. In it, the two officials said Xi had to be careful to address salaries and pensions, or else risk destabilizing the PLA. Various unnamed sources have also been cited in places like Reuters suggesting there is opposition to the changes. But it would be more surprising if there was no opposition at all. Some people will be losing their jobs; others will not advance in their career the way they expected. But there has been no indication that the opposition to the reforms is anything beyond what would be expected from any large-scale institutional restructuring plan. More importantly, there are no indications that disgruntled military officials will actively work to undermine Xi’s position of power.
State-owned media outlets that republished the report about salaries and pensions were compelled to take the posts down, and there has been a marked attempt to stress the importance of obedience and cooperation with the new reforms in PLA and party publications. It is difficult to ascertain the level of strain or unhappiness within the PLA itself, as such information is closely guarded and censored. The best indicator we have is that Xi is going forward with the plans in an ambitious fashion. The fact that Xi has already been able since 2013 to launch massive investigations within the PLA to root out corruption also indicates that overall the PLA’s loyalty to the party is not in question. The course of the reform process bears continued close watching, as it is a key indicator of Beijing’s ability to exert its political will. At the present, it appears that Xi is retaining the loyalty of the PLA despite letting go of tens of thousands of officers and eliminating some old key command positions – a sign that he is wielding significant power.