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Xi’s PLA agenda: real reform or power gambit?

On the eve of the 19th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China (CCP), commencing on October 18 in Beijing, conventional wisdom has it that President Xi Jinping has already acquired considerable centralised and personal power as the ‘Paramount Leader’ since taking charge in 2012. It also assumes that he will be able to consolidate this during the forthcoming five-yearly ritual congregation of the CCP. This will be achieved mainly by ensuring the election of his supporters to all echelons of the central power structures of the party, i.e. the 200-strong Central Committee, the 25-odd stalwarts who comprise the Politburo, and the seven worthies who make up the apex Standing Committee of the Politburo, from amongst the approximately 2300 delegates nominated from across China’s regions, cities, state enterprises, and organs, such as the military and armed police.

Should President Xi be able to accomplish his objectives at the Congress, he could well aspire also to an unprecedented third term in 2022 – and the prestigious mantle of ‘Chairman’, last donned by Mao Zedong. Moreover, it will allow him to put his stamp on possible constitutional amendments and critical economic reforms, and also tighten his grip on foreign policy and the military – thereby allowing him to advance his version of the ‘China Dream’.

The contrarian view posits that there is growing opposition within the party and the PLA towards Xi on account of three main factors:

– first, the anti corruption campaign which has evoked much resentment and hostility from a broad spectrum of affected functionaries, including in the PLA;

– second, there is increasing disquiet in sections of the senior hierarchy regarding Xi’s aggressive and often risky foreign policy, best illustrated by Beijing’s ongoing gambit in the South China Sea; and

– lastly, the reforms within the PLA, which are aimed at modernisation and power consolidation, have caused major upheavals within the military, with large-scale dislocation of units and personnel, new and unfamiliar organisational changes, and the downsizing of the Army relative to the other forces.

Significantly, going into the Congress, Xi has undertaken a major, high-level military reshuffle, removing two very senior functionaries and replacing them with officers he groomed himself. Over the last month or so, General Fang Fenghui, chief of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission (CMC), and General Zhang Yang, head of the Political Work Department, were replaced respectively by two protégés, General Li Zuocheng, a Vietnam war veteran – and amongst the very few PLA generals with any combat experience – and Admiral Miao Hua, formerly the PLA Navy’s political commissar. Furthermore, General Hang Weiguo has been appointed the new army chief, and General Ding Laihay the chief of air force. All this will alter the composition of the CMC, the apex body, chaired by Xi himself, which commands the PLA.

The moot question stemming from this reshuffle is its timing: why was it required in the lead-up to the 19th Party Congress, especially if Xi is fully in control of the military? Either there are ripples in the PLA, which necessitated such a move, or the change of guard is part of the planned larger military reform, and the timing with respect to the Congress is wholly coincidental.

Even a cursory attempt to answer that question warrants a brief review of the major developments in the PLA since Xi came to power.

The PLA is a key player in Chinese politics, and its support is vital to the political leadership. Significantly, it is more an army of the Party, rather than an army of the state, with a propensity to influence internal political struggles. It has been described as the ‘father of the Party’, but at the same time, has always accepted the principle that the ‘Party commands the gun’. During the 1990s, it became apparent to the Chinese leadership that the PLA was poorly equipped and trained to fight and win modern wars. It was also steeped in corruption and commercial ventures, further reducing its efficacy. The need for modernisation and professionalisation of the PLA was brought home with even greater force by the role that technology and informatics played in the Persian Gulf wars.

Deng Xiaoping began military reforms incrementally, and his successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, carried the process forward piecemeal. It is Xi Jinping alone, though, who accelerated and actually implemented real military reform on a broad canvas. He swung into action barely over a year after coming to power at the end of 2012. The pace and scope of his professional reforms can be gauged by the following initiatives:

While there is little doubt that Xi’s reforms are a serious effort at modernising the PLA, they also serve to organisationally enhance the power of the ‘top’ or ‘core’ leader over it and the CMC. Unlike Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, who were PLA veterans with military experience, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping have had to depend on the senior generals in regard to military affairs. The organisational reforms, put in place by Xi, both in the CMC and in the field, are thus also meant to increase oversight over the military, and institute checks and balances within the power structure of the PLA. It is to be seen whether the reforms have been realistically thought through, and only time will tell whether they will succeed in meeting the parallel objectives of modernisation and control.

Just as it is widely perceived that Xi has used his broader ‘anti corruption’ campaign to concurrently purge the party and its power structures of his rivals and detractors, his recent ambitious and quickly-implemented military reforms also clearly presented him with an opportunity to remove or reshuffle the established old guard, whose loyalty and honesty may have been questionable. Xi’s actions certainly give credence to those who argue that the real aim of his military reforms was to consolidate his own power by strengthening his personal grip on the PLA.

Xi has indeed dismissed many from within the senior ranks of the military and the Central Military Commission (CMC), and has filled the posts with loyalists and supporters, as can be gleaned from the following:

Xi’s actions with respect to the PLA over the last five years can, therefore, be construed as evidence of both professional reform and consolidation of power being his prime movers. It does appear that he has deftly made progress with both. The question is: has he managed to achieve either? His continuous reshuffling, even in the run-up to the Congress is perhaps indicative of his continuing unease and insecurity as far as the PLA is considered.

While there may be different opinions about Xi’s motivations and objectives, the one conclusion that can be drawn – and agreed upon – is that given the turmoil and change inflicted on the PLA over the last five years, the combat efficiency of the military will almost certainly have been impacted adversely. The constant and severe instability experienced by the personnel and organisations of the PLA at various echelons, would have thrown any military, however professional, into disarray. The highest grades of the Chinese military are now peopled with relatively inexperienced officers, whose staff may also be new and unfamiliar with their environment and tasks. The entire PLA structure, from the CMC to the combat units, is likely to be in a state of flux due to the disruption of the familiar chains of command and rules of business, caused by the imposition of the theatre commands and the abolition of the four general departments of the CMC.

President Xi Jinping and the Politburo are almost sure to be cognisant of this negativity, which may well impact Beijing’s strategic calculus. Geopolitical and security analysts ought to factor in this reality when analysing the likely actions and reactions of the People’s Republic of China in the immediate future.

Vice Admiral Anil Chopra is Distinguished Fellow, International Security and Maritime Studies, Gateway House. He was the former Commander- in-Chief of the Western Naval Command, the Eastern Naval Command, and former Chief of the Indian Coast Guard.

This feature was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive features here.

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