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Anti-Bo Forces Capitalize on Their Victory

The effects of the Bo Xilai purge continue to ripple through elite Chinese politics as the country undergoes a once-in-a-decade leadership transition. Modernizers like Wen Jiabao want to capitalize on Bo’s downfall and extend their influence throughout the highest levels of Chinese politics, particularly by cleaning out their hardliner rivals at the Central Military Commission.

The CMC controls the military and while subordination of the military to the political authorities has been a fundamental principle of communist state building since Lenin and Trotsky created the Red Army, the CMC has substantial day to day operating independence in the Chinese system. Ten of the 12 CMC members come from the military, but they are appointed by the elite Politburo Standing Committee (the group that runs China). Before Bo was ousted, the CMC was expected to include up to five of his allies; that number is now presumed to have dropped to three or four.

Bo and the princelings aligned with him share a nationalist perspective on government policy and are more likely to express antipathy toward the United States. For now, these hardliners seem to be in retreat across the spectrum, providing an opening for modernizers in the civilian government to promote their allies in China’s military.

One of the perennial problems for US policymakers working with China is the gap between military and civilian authorities and decision makers in the Chinese system. It is not only that relatively autonomous sub-agencies sometimes take steps that embroil China in disputes with its neighbors; it is that the civil-military gap in China is in some ways greater than in the US. Our State Department and Pentagon officials have their rivalries and culture clashes, but overall the US system is much more closely and effectively integrated than the Chinese civil-military interface.

The Chinese military is also significantly behind other branches of the Chinese government when it comes to sending promising young leaders for study abroad. Many if not most Chinese diplomats and businesspeople at this point have lived and/or studied abroad, have foreign language skills, and are comfortable around foreigners. This is much less true of the military.

Add to that the difficulty of establishing the institutional ties between the two countries’ military authorities that have helped the US and many other countries develop greater trust and understanding between the US and China and you will understand some of the more serious problems that US policymakers report in dealing with their Chinese counterparts.

If the aftermath of the Bo Xilai affair brings China’s military leadership closer to the outlook of key civilian decision makers, US-Chinese relations can only improve.

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  • Luke Lea

    Shouldn’t we more concerned about who controls China’s internal security (including it secret police) forces than even the army?

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