Beijing Diary

How Xi Jinping is tightening his grip over the Chinese Army

The upcoming 19th Party Congress presents the opportunity to cement his control over the military and government for the next five years.

 |  Beijing Diary  |  3-minute read |   13-09-2017
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China’s President Xi Jinping is tightening his grip over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and the signs in Beijing are that Xi is now firmly in control of the famously difficult-to-manage forces. The PLA has often functioned as a state-within-a-state and has in the recent past thwarted strict oversight from the Communist Party’s civilian leadership. But increasingly, that no longer appears to be the case.

Next month, the top leadership of the PLA is set for a sweeping change, when the Communist Party of China (CPC) gathers in Beijing for a key meeting. All eyes in Beijing are now on October 18, when the CPC will convene its twice-a decade national congress. The 19th Party Congress, likely to be a week-long event, will preside over a significant change in the party’s leadership. Five of the seven members of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) are set to retire, with only Xi and second-ranked Li Keqiang, the Premier, serving a second term.

For Xi, the congress presents the opportunity to cement his control over the party, military and government for the next five years by installing those who are close to him. Besides the PBSC, the other key leadership body set for new occupants is the Central Military Commission (CMC) that controls the PLA, and is chaired by Xi.

The stage has been set for the biggest overhaul of the CMC in years, with Xi this month leaving out two top-ranking generals and current CMC members from the provisional 19th Party Congress delegate list. The powerful Gen Fang Fenghui, who is the fifth-ranked member of the current CMC and is also chief of the PLA’s Joint Staff Department, and sixth ranked Gen Zhang Yang who heads the Political Department, were both omitted from the list of delegates. 


Reports in Beijing say Gen Fang could be in the dock for economic corruption charges, but this hasn’t been confirmed. But what this means is Xi will have the power to fill at least seven seats in the 11-member CMC — or he could even choose to reduce the number of slots altogether — thus leaving himself firmly in charge.

News of Gen Fang’s removal happened to coincide with the end of the 72-day-long India-China standoff at Doklam on August 28, leading some to speculate a connection. Indeed, it has been suggested in the past that the PLA had on occasion acted independent of party leadership, for instance in 2014 when the Chumar standoff cast a cloud over Xi’s first state visit to India. The idea that Xi and the party leadership want good relations with India while sections of the military were resisting is perhaps a comforting one, but the signs in Beijing suggest otherwise.

Fact is that whether in Chumar or Doklam, there is no evidence to suggest Xi wanted the PLA to stand down. On the contrary, Beijing’s muscle-flexing is in keeping with the more strident posture advocated by Xi since he took over in November 2012. A case in point: Xi has personally overseen China’s controversial island building in the South China Sea, and set up a newly created National Security Commission which he chairs. In fact, Beijing insiders say he is far more hands-on than his predecessors on security matters. Hence, the idea that a general was openly resisting Xi and Party Central on Doklam makes little sense.

Mao Zedong famously said that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. Perhaps less well known is the rest of that statement, which said: “Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the party”. Xi certainly seems to be aware that today this maxim still holds true in China.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

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Ananth Krishnan Ananth Krishnan @ananthkrishnan

The writer is China correspondent for India Today.

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