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News | July 27, 2021

Party-Army Relations in China: Is Another 100 Years Possible?

By Oscar Gilroy, Phillip Saunders, Joel Wuthnow INSS Event

110712-N-TT977-077
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen in China on July 12, 2011. (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released)
110712-N-TT977-077 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen in China on July 12, 2011. (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released)
110712-N-TT977-077
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen in China on July 12, 2011. (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released)
Cleared for release by Joint Staff Public Affairs
110712-N-TT977-077 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen in China on July 12, 2011. (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released)
Photo By: MC1 Chad J. McNeeley
VIRIN: 160810-D-BD104-006

On July 15, the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs hosted a webinar on party-army relations in China featuring three leading experts: Dr. Chen Yali (Hunter College), Dr. Andrew Scobell (U.S. Institute of Peace), and Dr. Joel Wuthnow (National Defense University). Center Director Dr. Phillip Saunders chaired the session. This report summarizes the presentations and key points from the discussion, which was on the record. A video of the session is available on the INSS YouTube Channel.

Key Points

  • The relationship between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has shown remarkable stability and success over the past century, despite changes in the PLA’s institutional character, interests, and organizational autonomy, and shifts in Party control over the PLA.
  • The CCP aspires to achieve full “subjective control” over the military (as opposed to Samuel Huntington’s model of “objective control,” as favored in the west, which requires the army to be politically neutral). However, it is difficult to fully explain all aspects of the party-army relationship using a single model of organizational control.
  • Developments in the Xi Jinping era have had a major influence on party-army relations. Institutional changes, the anti-corruption campaign, and renewed political education help cement Party control. However, control by civilians remains weak and rests largely in Xi’s hands.
  • Tensions in party-army relations include professionalization of the officer corps, which implies devoting more time to training and less time to political education, and the perception of military support for the PLA to be viewed as a state military rather than a party army. This does not necessarily indicate falling loyalty to the CCP, but diverges from the Party’s interest in maintaining full control of the PLA as a guarantor of regime survival.
  • While the future of the relationship is hard to predict, a critical variable will be how the Party manages an inevitable transition to a post-Xi era. Critical tests of the strength of party control would include a major war or the eruption of political unrest inside China, both of which could force the PLA to choose between the people and the Party.

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