Listen to this article
When Xi Jinping arrived in camouflage fatigues for a visit to the Chinese military’s new joint command centre in April, the president was sending a message to the political elite.
Previous Chinese leaders had always worn a green Mao suit on such visits to the People’s Liberation Army, observing a sartorial separation between the military and civilian roles of the Communist party. Wearing fatigues was something new, heralding a different attitude to the PLA under Mr Xi, who has made the military central to his presidency and the main pillar of his personal authority.
“Xi was breaking that tradition on purpose,” says Dennis Wilder, former CIA deputy assistant director for East Asia and an expert on the PLA who now teaches at Georgetown University. “He was saying not only do I represent the party, but I’m one of you.”
In the nationally televised event, the president chatted with officers in the Beijing facility, gazing at screens of real- time operational data. Tai Ming Cheung, a specialist on China’s military at the University of California, San Diego, says the broadcast showed “a level of engagement with the military at an operational level, a hands-on approach that is not characteristic of recent Chinese leaders”.
The announcer also revealed that Mr Xi had a new rank, referring to him as the PLA’s “commander-in-chief” of joint operations, a title last used in 1949-54 by Zhu De, the revolutionary general under Mao Zedong. While a formality — Mr Xi already chairs the Central Military Commission, giving him supreme power over the PLA — it reinforces his symbolic authority with a military rank in addition to a party one.
The Chinese president is not the first politician to use rank and uniforms to buttress his image as a strong leader, but the pageantry, taken together with other episodes such as a huge military parade last September, appear designed to identify Mr Xi with the military in a way not seen since Mao or Deng Xiaoping led the country. “Even Mao wasn’t commander-in-chief. This is a whole new thing,” says Christopher Johnson, an expert on Chinese politics at the Washington DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
More importantly, Mr Xi was using the visit to drive home his victory in a battle to reform the PLA, observers say. An often brutal process, it has led to the purging of hundreds of senior officers over the past two years — part of the broader Xi anti-corruption campaign — and will see troop levels cut by almost 300,000.
The opening of the joint command centre showcased the sophisticated technology but it also heralded a new order. It broadcast the moment when the dominance of the ground forces in the PLA ended, and the elevation of its navy, air force and strategic rocket divisions began as they prepare to fight 21st century battles.
The corruption purge had the side effect of “softening up” the PLA, in the words of one analyst, for a reform that would rip it apart and put it back together under Mr Xi’s direct command.
“Breaking political factionalism within the PLA has been one of the major goals of the anti-corruption campaign,” says Liu Bojian, a researcher at the East Asian Institute, of the National University of Singapore. He says the purge of senior ranks has so far felled at least 37 major generals, all of whom have been tried.
The reforms, seen as the most pervasive since the revolution of 1949, involve the rewiring of the PLA’s reporting structure, placing it under Mr Xi’s personal command and stripping some of its power. The purges have been aimed at reinforcing his authority by weeding out opponents. By confronting vested interests in the military Mr Xi is taking a gamble as great as any leader over the past four decades. It was Mao who declared political power “comes from the barrel of a gun” and since his death few have dared to interfere in the tense PLA-Communist party ties that form the bedrock of the state.
Over the past 40 years, however, the PLA has developed a reputation for factionalism, corruption and thumbing its nose at its political masters. Previous leaders have tolerated this behaviour but Mr Xi evidently sees it as one of the priorities for change.
“Relations with the PLA is always something the leader has to figure out,” says Mr Wilder, who uses the term “conditional compliance” to describe PLA-party relations. “It is something they have to be very careful with — the PLA is the real source of the party’s power.”
While officially subordinate to the party, Mr Wilder says the PLA “in truth is only ever subordinate to one party official, the chairman of the CMC [Mr Xi]. His relationship with the PLA sets the tone for the entire political system right now.”
Vasily Kashin, a specialist on China’s military at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, puts it more bluntly: “Xi is transforming the PLA into a political power base.”
The delicate balance between the PLA and the party is being revised at a critical moment — as the US and China square off in the South China Sea. Following an arbitration court’s decision against China’s claims in the area this month, the PLA held a series of massive military and naval manoeuvres to remind rivals that it does not accept the court’s judgment. Some western analysts say they worry that the PLA may be lobbying for a more confrontational approach as a way to gain domestic political leverage.
“The PLA’s political clout has taken a severe hit in the face of a comprehensive retooling of its force structure and Xi’s anti-graft crackdown,” says Mr Johnson. “The noises they are making suggest they may be looking to the South China Sea for redemption.”
The purpose of the reforms is to have a military capable of challenging the US — meeting or surpassing it in technological and operational capabilities by 2030. It will not be easy: Washington still spends three times China’s estimated $200bn annual defence budget, despite double-digit increases in percentage terms nearly every year for the past quarter of a century.
The PLA, meanwhile, is notoriously low tech. It fought its most recent war, a disastrous 1979 border conflict with Vietnam, wearing sandals and soft hats, and using signal flags for battlefield communications. And while a new generation of high-tech weapons such as aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and stealth fighters are rolling out of factories, experts say it will be years if not decades before China is capable of using them effectively.
Experts say they doubt the PLA’s current capability to win a war against even a smaller regional opponent like Japan, let alone the US, and that the political consequences of such a loss could be catastrophic: “If you lose a war to Japan it’s game over for the CCP [Chinese Communist party],” says Mr Johnson.
The PLA began life in the 1920s as a peasant guerrilla army, which became one of the two pillars of the state after it defeated nationalist forces in the 1949 civil war to bring the Communist party to power. Following the chaos of the Cultural revolution in the 1960s the PLA emerged as one of China’s few functioning institutions. Having expanded to an estimated 7m people, the army had become a state within a state. Following Mao’s death, Deng sought to do something about its power and cut troop numbers by 1m.
“Xi saw how Deng put the PLA in its place after the Vietnam campaign,” says Mr Wilder. “Now Xi is using the same playbook: you knock them on the head, say ‘you’re no good, you’re corrupt, but its OK because I’ll fix you’,” he says.
Another motivating factor for Mr Xi was the relationship his predecessor, Hu Jintao, had with the PLA. The defining moment came in January 2011 when the air force conducted the first test flight of its homegrown stealth fighter at the same time that Robert Gates, the then US defence secretary, headed into a meeting with Mr Hu in Beijing. Mr Gates said later that he believed Mr Hu had been surprised by the test and humiliated in front of his foreign guest.
“Over the last several years we have seen some signs of . . . a disconnect between the military and the civilian leadership,” Mr Gates said at the time.
“Xi’s view of the military would have been conditioned by witnessing first hand the problems of Hu’s relationship with the military during the time that Xi was being groomed for leadership,” says Mr Cheung of San Diego University.
Within months of coming to power Mr Xi struck the first blow, announcing in November 2013 long-term troop cuts and deep structural reforms. He has effectively dismantled four major departments: logistics, the general staff, the political works unit and the one responsible for armaments — the pillars of the PLA since its creation. They still exist but their influence has been dramatically diluted.
“The Communists trace their lineage to this organisation created during the civil war, and these departments are all two decades older than the People’s Republic of China itself,” says Mr Kashin of Moscow’s Higher Economic School. “Now they are effectively dismantling them. That is a huge move.”
The overall impact has been to fundamentally change the nature of power in the military. All departments are now directly under the control of the CMC headed by Mr Xi, rather than the army led general staff. They share power with 11 agencies — some newly created, others reconfigured — but all under the commission’s direct administration.
In parallel the anti-corruption purge led to the arrest of a number of senior officers including General Xu Caihou, former head of the army’s political department, and General Guo Boxiong, a senior military figure and former vice-chairman of the CMC, who were both accused of taking bribes in exchange for promotions. Xu died of cancer before he could be imprisoned, while Guo was this week sentenced to life in prison.
Ni Lexiong, a naval expert at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, says behind the scenes resistance continues from within and outside the military. “This is often the case with reforms — it will be met with friction from within from backward forces,” he says, jokingly using the Marxist term for counter-revolutionaries.
While some in the military support the reforms — especially younger officers tired of corruption — the overhaul has met opposition. A number of articles published in the military press over the past year have called for loyalty to the party — something that would not be needed if the authorities were confident they had that support, say observers.
The resistance is most pronounced in the ground forces, historically the dominant arm of the PLA. They now have the most to lose as the shift towards the navy, air force and strategic rocket forces gathers pace.
“If you wear green you don’t like this reform,” says Mr Johnson at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The other overriding factor will be the economic impact of the restructuring of the armed forces, Mr Ni adds. More than anything, the regime fears social unrest and the Xi administration will have to balance laying off 300,000 people at a time when the economy is sputtering and some industries are already cutting thousands of jobs.
“Local governments have to deal with the pressure of arranging jobs for the recent retirees,” says Mr Ni. “They may have to introduce new openings to an already saturated system.”
The reforms are unlikely to make China’s neighbours sleep any easier — with fears of a looming confrontation in the South and East China Seas. Beijing’s headlong pursuit of a better military “certainly sends a signal to the rest of the region”, according to a diplomat from a neighbouring country.
Due largely to simmering tensions between China and its neighbours, military spending has shot up. In the Asia and Oceana regions, defence spending in 2015 rose the fastest in the world, by 5.4 per cent, according to a study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. That beats even the oil-fuelled defence budgets of the war-torn Middle East.
The question now is what Mr Xi plans to do with his newly remodelled, modernised but untested fighting machine.
Yanmei Xie of the International Crisis Group in Beijing says Mr Xi’s hardline image and attention to the military is swinging the country towards nationalism. “There is this belief that Xi is nationalist, that he wants to project an assertive hardline image, and so officials and bureaucrats down the line are calibrating their rhetoric and behaviour accordingly,” she says.
Additional reporting by Ma Fangjing and Tom Mitchell