The role of people’s liberation army in Chinese political system

After reading this article you will learn about the role of people’s liberation army in Chinese political system.

Subject Matter:

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been a major, highly organised and articulate group which has been continuously influencing the society, economy and polity of China for the last six decades. On the one hand, it has been an instrument in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for maintaining its control over China as well as for carrying out its policies and programmes.

On the other hand, the PLA has been an organised military machine which has been also playing an important role in the decision-making process of politico-economic-social life and foreign relations, and even in the process of leadership recruitment.

Role of Army, the Red Army of Peasants and the Eighth Route:

Army played a very significant role in securing the Socialist Revolution of 1949. It played a deterministic role in the process of seizure of state power by the CPC. After the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949, the PLA governed vast areas of China and played a crucial role in restoring law and order during the post- revolutionary years (1949-54).

In fact the post-revolution period witnessed a massive expansion in the military and civilian operations of the PLA.

The Constitution of China (1954) accepted the role of PLA in the Chinese political system. During the years of Cultural Revolution the Communist Party of China (CPC) used the PLA for securing its objectives. Personnel from the PLA were always members of the Revolutionary Committees set up by the CPC. Later on, PLA was used to control the activities of the Red Guards.

In the Post-Mao years, the PLA played a significant role in the arrest of the Gang of Four and in replacing the leadership of Hua Guo Fang by the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. Naturally, Deng Xiaoping depended upon the PLA for executing his Four Modernisation programmes in the fields of agriculture, industry, science, technology and defence.

The Constitution of 1982 and the Role of PLA:

The present Constitution of China, which has been in operation since 1982, fully recognizes the role of the PLA. Article 29 of the constitution records:

“The armed forces of the Peoples Republic of China belong to the people. Their task is to strengthen national defence, resist aggression, defend the motherland, safeguard the people’s labour, participate in national reconstruction and work hard in serve the people.”

“The state strengthens the revolutionisation modernisation and regularization of the armed forces in order to increase the national defence capability.”

(A) How the CCP Depends upon and Uses the PLA?

Revolutionisation of the armed forces means the strengthening of the CPC’s organisation and hold within the PLA. Through several organisations the CPC controls the PLA and keeps it as an instrument of organised power in its hand.

In the recent past, the PLA was used by the CPC leadership for eliminating the seize of Tiananmen Square by the Chinese students who were agitating for securing the restoration of democracy in the country.

The Political Commissars (PCS) are actively involved at various levels of PLA. Through these PCS the CPC gets implemented its policies in the PLA. It is the responsibility of the state (CPC leadership) to secure the modernisation of PLA in all spheres of its operations.

The term regularization as used in Art 29 really means administering of PLA in accordance with the laws and policies of the People’s Republic of China. In fact, through institutions like the Central Military Commission (CMC), which is directly under the CPC, the latter has been always controlling the PLA.

Mao always either directly kept the chairmanship of CMC or indirectly devised and used means for keeping full control over the membership and chairmanship of the CMC.

The Central Military Commission (CMC) is the supreme decision-making body of the PLA and in itself it is under the direct supervision of the Central Committee of the CPC. The CPC always depends upon the PLA for maintaining its supreme position in the Chinese political system. The PLA has always been an instrument of power in the hands of CPC.

(B) The Role of the PLA in Decision-Making:

However, all this should not be taken to mean that the PLA is a body subordinate to the Communist Party of China. In reality, the PLA is an important factor in the decision-making done by all the political institutions, formal as well as non-formal, official and non-official, and political and non-political.

Srikanth Kondapalli in his book ‘China’s Military’ observes, “the PLA has been playing a crucial role in the political conditions of the PRC for a long time. Indeed, the leaders of the CPC themselves visualised a pivotal rule for the PLA and its predecessor, the Chinese Workers and Peasants’ Red Army, in capturing state power from the Goumindang (Knomintang) and the invading Japanese forces and consolidation of the PRC. After the establishment of the PRC in 1949, the PLA became one of the decisive and strong pillars of state power.”

During the transitional period (1949-54), the PLA played a deterministic role both in decision-making and decision- implementation. It always acted as the strong arm of the CCP during the periods of Mass Campaigns organised between 1954-76. In 1978 it played a well known role in the installation Mr. Den Xiaoping to power.

It continues to act solidly behind the authority and power of the present Chinese regime working under the supreme leadership of CPC. In fact, the role of the PLA in the political decision-making has increased after the promulgation of a revised version of the “Rules and Regulations for political work of the PLA” by the Central Military Commission.

Art 7 of this promulgation clearly brings out the political role of the PLA.

It records that the basic task of the PLA is “to participate in the political work, to serve the country in the reform process opening up to the outside world and socialistic modernisation; to serve the building of a revolutionary modern and regular army, and to guarantee politically, ideologically and organizationally the Party’s absolute leadership over the army.”

In actual operation of the Chinese political system, the PLA stands involved at almost all levels and in almost all spheres of decision-making. Even in 1949, nearly 39% of the total membership of the Central Committee of the CPC consisted of persons with a military background. This practice continued in the post- revolutionary years.

The representation of PLA personnel in the various institutions remained very high up to the end of 1970s. In 1980’s this percentage was reduced but only for some years. In 1990s the old practice of giving good and sizeable representation to PLA was revived.

In the words of Srikanth Kondepalli:

“In 1992 at the time of 14th Congress out of a total of 189 members of the CCP central Committee 41, and out of 130 alternate members 21 (approx. 21.7%) belonged to the PLA. The representation of the PLA got further consolidated in 1997 at the time of 15th Party Congress. Out of 193 full members of the Central Committee of the CPC 42 belonged to the military ranks and out of 151 alternate members 19 stood Identified with PLA. Even in the National People’s Congress (NPC) a large percentage of deputies always belong to the PLA. In the 15th NPC meeting (Feb- March 1998) out of a total number of2979 of deputies, as many as 268 deputies belonged to the ranks of PLA.”

This was also the case at the 16th Party Congress held in November 2002. It is a well known fact that since 1978, the PLA has been more actively participating in the domestic and foreign policy-making process. It has been a firm supporter of economic reforms which were initiated by Deng Xiaoping and which are being pushed forward by the present leadership.

Ten Army Generals attend the meetings of the Politburo of CPC and all military commanders and political commissars of Military Regions are members of the Standing Committee of the CPC. The PLA plays a deterministic role in the preparation and passing of the defence budget of the PRC.

After the Tiananmen Square episode, the role of the PLA in maintaining the internal control mechanism has indeed become quite big. Special cadres of the PLA (Riot Control Force, Rapid Response Units, Public Security Force and People’s Armed Police Force) have started playing a leading role in maintaining internal political order and control.

The PLA also acts as a very influential pressure group in the sphere of Chinese foreign relations and in the making of Chinese foreign policy.

The PLA has been and continues to be actively involved in the decision-making process of the Peoples Republic of China in respect of all issues, domestic as well as foreign. It is fully involved in the process of securing market-socialism in China.

While a new leadership has taken over the CCP centre stage, Mr. Ziang Zamin continues to be the Chairman of Military Control Commission (CMC). Mr. Hu Jintao is now acting as its Vice-Chairman. The CMC controls 2.5 million strong Peoples Liberation Army. The PLA, has been one of the most cohesive and vibrant institution of the PRC. It has always tried to influence the polity and economy of the country.

The Chinese Political System continues to be a closely integrated (authoritarian) system with a single party maintaining full control over the state power. The PLA acts as an instrument of the power of CPC and in turn uses its position to participate effectively in the decision-making process of the country.

In fact, as Samuel Huntington says, “the PLA is a ‘guardian’ of the PRC”. In this way, PLA is an active institution of vitally important action in the working of the Peoples Republic of China. The 16th National Congress of the CPC made several changes in Chinese leadership structure and approved the new economic reforms. However, it made no change in respect of the role of PLA in the political system.

The PLA continues to enjoy considerable power and influence in the Chinese politics and policies. President, Hu Jintao also holds the powerful office of Chairman of Chinese Central Military Commission which handles all work and activities connected with the Chinese Army. The Chinese Army is extensively being used by Chinese political leadership for checking pro-democracy movements in China as well as in Tibet.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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