In China, State Bid for Military Control Goes Down, for Now
TAIPEI — Stung by the inability to mobilize troops during last May’s deadly earthquake, China’s government attempted to pass a law challenging Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control of the military.
The national defense mobilization law would have authorized the state to request a national or regional mobilization if “state sovereignty, unification, territorial integrity or security are threatened, and let the president issue the order,” according to an April 22 statement by the Chinese National People’s Congress (NPC).
Leaders with CCP and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) opposed the measure.
This is not the first time the NPC has taken up the topic. A draft of the law entered the legislative agenda in 1998, but has lingered in limbo for years. It was resubmitted April 20.
The draft law was debated for five days by the eighth session of the 11th NPC Standing Committee, but was tabled April 24.
That means it will remain a draft and may be picked up again for debate. The committee normally meets every two months.
“China has been trying to pass a mobilization law for several years, but everyone had a different view of what it would be ... and whether it would actually work,” said a former U.S. military official once based in Beijing.
In a recent speech before the NPC, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie said the law was of “great significance.”
“Though peace and stability remain the norm, the world is not peaceful. Hegemony still exists and regional conflicts appear constantly,” he said. “We must be prepared for dangers and increase our national defense awareness.”
During the revolutionary period, the civil war and the Cold War era under Mao Zedong, party control “made sense,” said Michael Yahuda, a George Washington University professor, “but it is something of an anomaly when national unity and patriotism are the order of the day.”
“Premier Wen Jiabao was embarrassed during the Sichuan earthquake, when the PLA refused to obey him as he lacked the necessary credentials to issue orders,” Yahuda said. “That episode raised questions about the true authority of the highest organs of the state.”
The new debate addresses this issue “by giving state organizations the right to command the PLA with regard to certain stipulated problems,” he said.
CCP’s Control Strained
The PLA is facing new challenges, such as piracy patrols and a rising emphasis on technology, that are beginning to strain the CCP’s traditional control of the military, said Tai Ming Cheung, author of the book, “Fortifying China: The Struggle To Build A Modern Defense Economy.”
The political commissars within the PLA are finding it more difficult to stay “relevant and at the centre of power” as the military becomes increasingly professional and technologically centered, Cheung said.
“While the political commissar apparatus, which is formally known as the General Political Department, continues to play an important role in ensuring the political loyalty of the rank and file to the Communist Party,” there has been a shift from the traditional role of “political indoctrination duties” to that of assisting troops to deal with “social upheavals from China’s socio-economic transformation,” he said.
The PLA is also seeing the rise in influence of a new generation of military officers not “subjected to the extensive political indoctrination” of the Maoist era, Cheung said.
Moreover, there is ambiguity in leadership over “lower-tier military units in the provinces,” he said.
Control of the People’s Armed Police, which deals with internal unrest, is split between the state’s Ministry of Public Security and the PLA, “which is one reason for some ambiguity,” Cheung said.
Despite the problems, there is unlikely to be a serious challenge to party control of the military, said Cheung, “but there may be adjustments on the periphery that need to be made to accommodate state agencies in dealing with military-related matters,” including economic, legal, regulatory and mobilization issues.
On the subject of the new law, however, there was clear opposition from the CCP and PLA.
“Ideological and political construction is necessary to ensure that our Army will always be under the absolute leadership of the party” and “to unswervingly uphold the party’s absolute leadership,” wrote Li Jinai, who directs the PLA General Political Department, in the April 1 edition of Qiushi (Seeking Truth) magazine. Qiushi is the CCP’s propaganda publication and emphasizes total party control of the country.
Li wrote that China must “firmly resist” the error in thinking the PLA should be a “nonparty, nonpolitical” institution. “The whole Army has always been the party’s banner.”
“The CCP has always and continually emphasized its control of the military,” Cheung said. He said that the CCP “periodically emphasizes” its control when there are efforts to allow “the state to expand its political involvement.” This is a “preemptive approach ... in line with the CCP’s proactive and vigilant stance” of guaranteeing “overarching control of the military.”