China’s “Cult of the Military”

[The Diplomat] Under Chinese Communist Party rule, the influence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on Chinese domestic politics has generally been carefully controlled, and Chinese generals today appear to enjoy a less privileged status than in centuries past, when they created and ruled states, or played a key role in helping emperors expand territory, maintain social order and suppress rebels.

Indeed, since 1949, the role of the PLA in China’s domestic politics has looked relatively limited, except during the Cultural Revolution, when it was used to provide political leverage to Mao Zedong as he fought with other leaders. Since Deng Xiaoping, who was a Long March veteran, no supreme leader has had a military background. Similarly, the current Politburo Standing Committee of the CCP doesn’t include any military professionals, while Minister of National Defense Liang Guanglie isn’t even a member of the 25-man Politburo.

So what’s behind the PLA’s under-representation in China’s top power hierarchy? And will things stay that way?

Since the CCP came to power, the civil-military relationship has been clearly defined so as to prevent the generals from manipulating China’s politics. This reflects Mao’s oft-cited dictum that “The Party commands the gun, but the gun must never command the Party.” Mao and his comrades apparently learned from numerous examples in China’s history that military generals can either help maintain an emperor’s dynasty or subvert it through conspiracy, treason or rebellion.

Of course, the PLA’s exclusion from top leadership doesn’t mean that the PLA isn’t a powerful actor in China’s domestic and foreign policy making circles – or that its influence won’t grow. On the contrary, even at a time when the Middle Kingdom enjoys greater peace than ever before – and when economic development, not national defense, is the central concern of the country – China’s “cult of the military” lives on.

The reasons are obvious. It was the PLA that helped bring the CCP to power in 1949, after prolonged wars against the Japanese and the Kuomintang. Ever since, the PLA has been entrusted with the mission of defending not only national sovereignty and territorial integrity, but also the survival of the regime, as underscored by the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989.

And now, although there’s no real foreign military threat to the country’s security, internal issues such as reclaiming Taiwan and dealing with separatist movements in Xinjiang and Tibet require the PLA to play an active role. China’s rapid economic growth since the late 1970s is only adding weight to the PLA’s standing as it has allowed the defense industry to grow rapidly.

It was at military maneuvers in northern China in 1981 that Deng officially called for the building of a “modernized, regularized revolutionary army.” Commentators including King C. Chen have even suggested that one of the reasons behind Deng’s decision to launch the 1979 border war against Vietnam was to expose the PLA’s weaknesses and to win domestic support for its modernization. Regardless, thanks to Deng’s determination and strategic vision, the modernization of the PLA picked up pace from the late 1970s.

Fast forward three decades, and PLA achievements include the launch of its first aircraft carrierthe test flight of its first stealth fighter, the J-20; and the successful development of a medium-range anti-ship ballistic missile known as the DF-21D. Back in January 2007, the PLA also sent shockwaves around the world when it successfully conducted an anti-satellite missile test, the first known successful satellite intercept test since 1985.

Along with its military buildup, China’s defense industry has also developed to the point that Chinese arms makers are emerging as global competitors. According to a report by Bloomberg, for example, China’s top four defense corporations, namely the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, China North Industries (Norinco), China State Shipbuilding, and China Aerospace Science & Technology, generated total revenues of $66 billion in 2008. Meanwhile, according tothe Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China became the world’s fifth largest arms exporter in 2010.

The PLA’s impressive growth over the past decade in particular is the result of a bargain struck between the PLA and the political leadership under Deng. It’s said that in the 1980s and 1990s, when Deng wanted to devote the bulk of the country’s resources and energy to his economic reforms, he asked the PLA to accept tighter budgets. Now, with China’s extraordinary pace of economic growth, the time has come for the PLA to flex its muscles.

China’s military buildup would have been impossible without the massive growth in its budget – according to official sources, the country’s military budget was about 600 billion yuan ($94 billion) for this year, a number many analysts believe to be significantly understated. And, as modernization brings concrete results – and the ability to back up its more assertive diplomacy – the PLA is a growing focus of national pride for China.

The U-shape claim that China makes to the South China Sea is a good example of where China is increasingly able to dig its heels in, backed by a more powerful military. Irrational and legally baseless as the claim may seem to many observers, Chinese policy makers – and especially the PLA – still endorse the claim in the name of the country’s national interests. The PLA seems happy to maintain and promote the “cult of military” through such policies, apparently believing that as long as such disputes persist, the generals will be able to maintain their influence and privileges.

However, although the policies the PLA is pursuing, such as over the South China Sea dispute, could be seen as compatible with China’s national interests, there are some cases where the nations’ and the military’s interests seem to be diverging. During the recent Libyan conflict, for example, despite a U.N. – imposed arms embargo on Libya, three Chinese state-owned companies reportedly tried to sell Muammar Gaddafi’s government weapons and ammunition worth at least $200 million.

Although Chinese officials said the government didn’t know about these talks, which took place in Beijing, and although they insisted that no actual weapons contracts or deliveries would be approved, Libya’s new leaders indicated that they considered the incident a black mark against China, something which will surely complicate any future Chinese endeavors in the country.

It’s true that the PLA’s influence over Chinese politics and foreign policy isn’t as strong as the Pentagon’s over the U.S. government. But after years of fostering a “cult of military” among Chinese, the PLA’s influence is bound to grow and become an increasingly ingrained feature of China’s politics – and its foreign policy.

Le Hong Hiep is a lecturer at the Faculty of International Relations, College of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University – Ho Chi Minh City, and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy. He can be reached at

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