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Xi’s Consolidation of Military Power

Chinese civil military relations have witnessed a decided shift in balance towards increasing Party control over the military, shifting command of the People’s Armed Police exclusively to the Central Military Commission being the latest in power consolidation. The 2015 military reforms in China restructured the PLA organization to strengthen the authority of the Central Military Commission (CMC). The four General Departments were restructured into 15 different bodies within the CMC, with ultimate authority resting with the CMC. The theatre commands were streamlined along with the separation of administrative and operational functions. Progress has also been made towards troop cuts and increasing reliance on technology. The anti-corruption drive has played a significant role in making the Chinese military more professional. Apart from these big bang reforms, there have been consistent incremental reforms which continue fortifying Xi Jinping’s control over the military.

Recent Changes

Leaner Central Military Commission - Xi Jinping was appointed as the CMC Chairman in November 2012. Holding both the Party presidency and the CMC Chairmanship at the same time is an established method for Chinese leaders to project a higher degree of authority. Xi Jinping has gone a step further by filling this crucial Commission with people whose support he can rely on. The handpicked members include the vice chair Zhang Youxia, a fellow Communist Party princeling whose father served with Xi’s father during the civil war; vice chair Xu Qilang who has supported Xi’s policies in recent years; Li Zhuocheng whose career has been buried after he offended Jiang Zemin; Wei Fenghe, Miao Hua and Zhang Shengmin – all of whom have seen steep promotions under Xi Jinping.[i] Notable names absent were Fang Changlong and Zhang Yang, both members of the previous CMC. It has been confirmed that they were both taken away under the anti-corruption drive before the beginning of the 19th Party Congress, some sources even speculating that the two were part of a coup.[ii] It is speculated that the number of members has been reduced to seven from the traditional eleven to ensure that Xi faces no opposition within the CMC. Given the voices of dissent which still exist among the senior members, restricting the body to seven members reflects Xi’s unwillingness to trust more leaders and his fear of a potential backlash if power is delegated.[iii]

Constitutional Amendment to Reinforce Loyalty of the Armed Forces – At the 19th Party Congress, among the multiple amendments made to the Party Constitution, a provision regarding the “absolute loyalty” of the armed forces to the Party was added. While the Party has always exercised considerable control over the armed forces in the past, explicit inclusion of such a provision acts as a useful reminder that the authority of the Party is final. In light of the streamlining of the top Party officials as well, it must be noted that this heightens the power exercised by the Party President, Xi Jinping. The CPC also followed developments at the congress with a guideline stating that the army should be absolutely loyal, honest and reliable to Xi. The guidelines also instruct the military to follow Xi's command, answer to his order, and never worry him.[iv]The CMC also intends to inculcate the Party congress spirit by dispatching lecturers to impart education spirit to major military command areas, in conjunction with surprise inspections to determine progress.[v]

People’s Armed Police under CMC Control - The CMC has taken exclusive control over the People’s Armed Police from January 1, 2018.[vi] Since 1982, it has been administered by both the State Council and the CMC. As a check against the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, power was divided between the Party and the state in the 1980s by Deng Xiaoping.[vii]This has been reversed by Xi Jinping. The PAP is responsible for internal stability, policing and border defense during peace time and supports the military during war time.[viii]It has been misused by local leaders to assert their authority in the past. For instance, in 2012, Bo Xilai, the leader of Chongqing used the local PAP to arrest the police chief, Wang Lijun.[ix] A single chain of command and increased control over the CMC itself make the PAP an important tool in Xi’s hands. This allows Xi to assert his position as well as protect himself against possible dissent. A regulation issued after the shift of control asked the armed police to follow CPC’s instructions and fully implement its thoughts. It should be noted that it also upgraded the standard of training to that of actual combat.[x] Some experts also believe that soldiers axed under the present round of personnel reduction in the PLA could be integrated into the PAP, bolstering its numbers.[xi]


The ostensible aim for the changes is to streamline the system to make the military more efficient. The decision making bodies have been streamlined, resulting in more effective Party control over the military. Despite being the Party President and the CMC Chairman, Xi Jinping still does not enjoy widespread acceptance like Mao. It cannot be missed that the strengthening of the hierarchy has ensured that any challenge to the leader becomes much more difficult. Increasing his own control over the military ensures that any internal dissent can be silenced more effectively. The new appointments and the new bodies have meant an almost compete personnel overhaul, breaking up old power blocs. The future of the newer appointees is linked with Xi Jinping’s, deftly ensuring personal loyalty. Further, the direct chain of command between the Party and the militia signals the aggressive stand that the Communist Party is taking against internal unrest. The biggest threat to the continued rule of the Communist Party are the people themselves. Oppressed communities like the Tibetans and Uighurs should be prepared for a further clampdown. Finally, more effective control over the military will allow Chinese leaders to support their belligerent international positions. These ongoing reforms will enhance Xi Jinping’s prestige and authority within and outside China.


[i] Don Tse, ‘Why China’s Central Military Commission Got Downsized’, The Diplomat, November 15, 2017 https://thediplomat.com/2017/11/why-chinas-central-military-commission-got-downsized/, accessed on January 3, 2018.

[ii]Coup plotters foiled: Xi Jinping fended off threat to ‘save Communist Party’, South China Morning Post, October 19, 2017, http://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/2116176/coup-plotters-foiled-xi-jinping-fended-threat-save, accessed on January 11, 2018; Minnie Chan, ‘Xi Jinping rolls out leaner top line-up for China’s military machine’, The South China Morning Post, 26 October, 2017, http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2117004/xi-jinping-rolls-out-leaner-top-line-chinas-military, accessed on January 4, 2017.

[iii] Li Jiayao, ed., ‘Military, Armed Police Required to study CPC Congress Spirit’, China Military, November 10, 2017, http://english.chinamil.com.cn/view/2017-11/10/content_7819141.htm, accessed on January 11, 2018.

[iv] Zhang Tao, ed., ‘CMC issues guideline to affirm loyalty to CPC, Xi’, Xinhua, November 6, 2017, http://english.chinamil.com.cn/view/2017-11/06/content_7813088.htm, accessed on January 8, 2017.

[v] Li Jiayao, n. 3. 

[vi]Charlotte Gao, ‘Has Xi Fully Consolidated His Power Over the Military?’, The Diplomat, January 08, 2018 https://thediplomat.com/2018/01/has-xi-fully-consolidated-his-power-over-the-military/

[vii] Lyman Miller, ‘The Political Implications of PLA Professionalism’, in David M. Finkelstein, Kristen Gunness, eds., Civil-military Relations in Today's China: Swimming in a New Sea, p. 139, (Routledge: New York, 2015).

[viii] Charlotte Gao, n. 6.

[ix] Charlotte Gao, n. 6.

[x]Xhang Tao, ed., ‘Revised military training regulation to start trial implementation’, China Military Online, December 30, 2017, http://english.chinamil.com.cn/view/2017-12/30/content_7890222.htm, accessed on January 17, 2018.

[xi]Zi Yang, ‘The Chinese People’s Armed Police in a Time of Armed Forces Restructuring’, Jamestown, Vol. 16, Iss 6, March 24, 2016, https://jamestown.org/program/the-chinese-peoples-armed-police-in-a-time-of-armed-forces-restructuring/, accessed on J

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