Chinese President Xi Jinping recently announced that he would take command of all of China’s armed forces, including the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Xi is already chairman of the Central Military Commission that oversees the army. He is now taking a more direct role as head of the new Joint Operations Command Center, which puts him in operational command of the PLA in times of war.
The new title in all likelihood means little in terms of actual command, but it has tremendous political significance. Officially, the Chinese are reforming their military, which is logical (read why here). The roots of this change, however, lie in China’s economic crisis and the need to preserve the regime.
The regime no longer delivers on its promises
Mao Zedong founded China as a moral project: to create a country ruled by communism. After Mao’s death, the project was replaced by another: to modernize the Chinese economy and create prosperity.
The leadership in the new regime rotated in an orderly fashion, and government after government oversaw the generation of increasing wealth.
Mao justified the regime as a dream (or nightmare, depending on how you view Maoism), while his successors promised prosperity, and they delivered.
There is occasional talk that China will somehow return to a period of rapid growth and increasing wealth. But the vast outflow of money (some in the hands of private individuals, some taken from government coffers and informally privatized) is the short explanation for why China has reached a new normal.
If the rule is “follow the insiders,” the insiders are saying that getting money out of China is a priority. The story is more complex, of course. If a regime justifies itself by delivering prosperity, and it stops delivering, the regime is in trouble.
China’s problem can no longer be considered primarily economic. That train has left. The economic reality is locked in and will remain in place for a long time.
China is now in the throes of a political challenge
The coastal region will grow at a much slower rate than before, if at all. People who came from the interior for jobs will have to return to the interior.
The interior—a vast and impoverished region—is the population heartland of China. Over 60 percent of China’s population lives there. But the coast is the country’s economic heartland, and that dichotomy defines China’s political problem.
Xi must satisfy both regions, which won’t be easy. The interior wants money for jobs, economic development, and ultimately increased consumption. The only place to get this money from is the coastal region, which obviously does not want to make the transfer.
The coast is economically tied to the United States and Europe, not to the interior. It wants to maintain those links. But the interior is where the majority of Chinese live, and it was the foundation of the Chinese revolution and the regime.
Xi is frightened that the interior will destabilize the regime under economic pressure and that he will lose control over the coastal region, as happened in the 19th century.
These are distant yet rational fears. Xi’s mission is to ensure that the Communist Party keeps China under control. His primary challenge is the inequality among classes and regions that the post-Mao economic surge created.
Xi must have control over the wealthy
The Communist Party came to rule China by exploiting that inequality. If the party can’t solve the problem it has created, it must at least try to control it.
The first step toward control was to impose a dictatorship on the to prevent the emergence of any organized resistance. Today, further liberalization is out of the question, and suppressing any elements that demand it is essential.
The regime also wants to assert control over private assets. Such control is essential if money will be used to quell unhappiness in the interior, and the vast anti-corruption purge is designed to achieve this.
The campaign is not so much aimed at suppressing corruption, although doing so has its uses. Rather, it is designed to intimidate all those who have accumulated wealth. This class must be brought under the control of the party to prevent it from using its wealth to control the party.
The mission set out by Deng Xioping was to “enrich yourself.” Now the fear is that the wealthy have gone too far. The somewhat random and unpredictable purges are intended to frighten the rich.
One result is capital flight, and that is a problem. But the goal is to make wealth subordinate to political power, not the other way around. Otherwise, the party becomes fundamentally weak.
The People’s Liberation Army is the guarantor
Wealth is part of the equation, but in the end, the People’s Liberation Army is the key. It is the ultimate guarantor of the regime in two ways.
First, it has the power to crush opposition, as it did in Tiananmen Square. Second, the children of peasants fill its ranks, and they see enlistment as a path to upward mobility. Taken together, its makeup and power can guarantee the communist regime’s survival.
On the other hand, the PLA is also capable of undermining the regime. Its enormous size might enable it to subvert the party’s power throughout the country.
The party and the PLA had a clear alignment in the past. Now that bond is less certain. The PLA’s officer corps has gotten deeply involved in enriching themselves. The PLA was directly involved in PLA-owned enterprises.
The enterprises have been reduced, but the PLA leadership is still intertwined with Chinese business—either directly or through relatives. The PLA’s size and influence mean that its officers’ interests are torn between the party and the wealthy, which is now under attack.
The regime, however, is reducing PLA’s massive size, which makes good military sense. It also makes political sense. This allows Xi to eliminate those involved in what is now termed corruption, to confiscate their wealth, and to intimidate others.
This purge is similar to those going on in many institutional bureaucracies in China, except that the size and importance of the PLA outstrips all other institutions. A smaller and reconfigured PLA will pose less of a threat to the regime, even if its military efficiency increases.
This transition is dangerous for the party and for Xi. The writing is on the wall for many in the army who have accumulated wealth, but restructuring will take several years.
The PLA will have to be tightly controlled. That is why Xi set up a Discipline Inspection Commission in January specifically for the PLA, answerable directly to the Central Military Commission.
This is also why Xi has taken direct control of military operations. He or his trusted advisors will have direct access to plans and operations. The PLA will come under Xi’s direct supervision.
Any broad conspiracy that includes the PLA will be readily detected. You can’t hide the kinds of troop movements that would pose an existential threat to the regime.
The PLA is the center of gravity of the regime, and if Xi loses control of it, he could lose control of everything. Xi would never have appointed himself head of the Joint Operations Command Center if he hadn’t felt the move absolutely necessary.
He moved to take control of the PLA’s operations to ensure that he could preserve the regime. He put a very different gloss on the action, positioning it as an expansion of his power… and it was.
But it was an expansion compelled by the regime’s insecurity. At first glance, his move should succeed. But there are so many complex and competing interests involved that when Xi pushes on some, others could come loose.