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Civil-Military Relations in China: Assessing the PLA’s Role in Elite Politics

By Michael Kiselycznyk and Phillip C. Saunders | China Strategic Perspectives 2 | August 01, 2010


Executive Summary

This study reviews the last 20 years of academic literature on the role of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Chinese elite politics. It examines the PLA’s willingness to support the continued rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and to obey directives from top party leaders, the PLA’s influence on the selection of China’s top civilian leaders, and the PLA’s ability to shape the domestic political environment. Over the last two decades the discussion of these three issues has largely been shaped by five trends identified in the literature: increasing PLA professionalism, bifurcation of civil and military elites, a reduced PLA role in political institutions, reduced emphasis on political work within the PLA, and increased military budgets. Together, these trends are largely responsible for the markedly reduced role of the PLA in Chinese elite politics.

The theoretical models of Chinese civil-military relations that exist within the literature during the period divide into three distinctive categories. “Traditional models” including the Factional, Symbiosis, Professionalism, and Party Control models, dominate the literature from 1989 to 1995. Scholars worked to integrate information becoming available as the PRC opened to the world into these already existing models of Chinese civil-military relations. However, evolving political dynamics within the PRC following Tiananmen marginalized the utility of the models. From 1995 to 1997 many scholars argued that these traditional models should not be considered mutually exclusive but complementary. This concept of a “combination model” was short lived as it became increasingly apparent that even a combination of traditional models had little predictive or even explanatory power in light of rapidly changing political dynamics. Two new models, the Conditional Compliance and State Control models, emerged in the period of 1997–2003. Both incorporated elements of the traditional models while attempting to address the implications of new political and military dynamics in the PRC.

Examining the predictions of these models against four case studies involving major developments in civil-military relations, we found that although each model had some descriptive and explanatory power, none possessed strong predictive ability. The traditional models help explain the PLA’s reaction to intensified Party control following Tiananmen, but none was able to predict how Chinese civil-military relations evolved subsequently. Civil-military models offered their most specific (and ultimately least accurate) predictions regarding the leadership succession from Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin. Most models predicted a strong role for the PLA in the succession that did not materialize. This was the period when traditional civil-military models began to run up against the reality of changing political dynamics within the PRC. When the PLA was forced to withdraw from most commercial activities in the mid-1990s, the models predicted a far slower, more contentious, and less complete divestiture than ultimately occurred. Most analysts correctly predicted that the PLA would have only limited involvement in the leadership transition from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao following the 16th Party Congress in 2002, but subsequent explanations for why the transition went smoothly emphasize different factors. The models did agree in their emphasis on the importance of greater political institutionalization in reducing PLA influence and highlighted the implicit role and future potential importance of the PLA in elite politics, especially if divisions among the civilian leadership produce a political crisis in the future.

Based on this assessment, we conclude that existing models serve a useful role in identifying key variables for analysis in the study of Chinese civil-military relations. However, most of the literature has been descriptive and interpretive rather than predictive. The widespread practice of using elements of multiple models to analyze civil-military relations makes it difficult to assess the validity of individual models or to generate falsifiable predictions, thus limiting the predictive ability of current models. Although China is a much more open society today, lack of reliable information continues to make the study of civil-military relations in China difficult, forcing analysts to rely on indirect evidence and dubious sources to speculate about the military’s influence on elite politics and about the relationships between top civilian and military leaders.

Since 2003 the literature on Chinese civil-military relations has successfully exploited new sources of information to offer useful analysis of the PLA’s relationship with the Chinese economy and society at large.Yet there has been a notable lack of effort to develop, employ, or test new theoretical models that could help produce a new unified theory of Chinese civil-military relations. Future work may find fertile ground in exploring the nature of official and unofficial interactions between the PRC’s bifurcated civilian and military elite, comparing how broader trends in China’s civilian government are implemented in the PLA, or conducting a more genuinely comparative analysis with the experiences of other one-party states, transitioning democracies, or other Asian states.