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China's Power Position
Xi Speaks, But Do the Generals Listen?

In August, a Chinese jet conducted a “dangerous intercept” of a U.S. jet, flying within 30 feet and doing a barrel roll. During Xi Jinping’s recent visit to India for talks with Narendra Modi, Chinese troops crossed the Line of Actual Control on the disputed India-China border, setting off a tense incident that soured the talks in part. In both cases, China blamed rogue generals. Experts are divided on taking these explanations at face value, as the evidence is equivocal. The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda presents one case:

New evidence supports the commonly held view that the Chinese military isn’t entirely in line with the party leadership. Recently, President Xi Jinping delivered a speech at the PLA headquarters in Beijing with PLA chiefs of staff present. Notably he delivered this speech following his return from his South Asia tour which featured a particularly interesting visit to India when PLA troops crossed intro India-administered Kashmir as Xi arrived in the country. In his speech, Xi unusually emphasized the importance of the PLA’s “absolute loyalty and firm faith in the Communist Party of China,” according toXinhua.

Further supporting the idea that there may be some commanders in the PLA who have acted without the consent of the party leadership, Xi emphasized the need for a “smooth chain of command” and called on field commanders to “make sure all decisions from the central leadership are fully implemented.” […]

In light of Xi’s remarks, it seems highly likely that PLA leaders have at times acted without the consent of the Communist Party’s senior leadership and, more critically, against the strategic vision of that same leadership. It is, of course, nearly impossible to ascertain the extent to which the PLA may have drifted from the party leadership without veering dangerously close to baseless speculation. All we know is that Xi Jinping, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and the chairman of the Central Military Commission, felt it necessary to issue a statement to the People’s Liberation Army that, in effect, says “Please listen to me.”

On the other hand, one can see the value in being able to push boundaries and blaming everything on “rogue generals” after the fact. It’s virtually impossible for us to know the truth in each case. In one scenario, Beijing can’t control an increasingly assertive military. In the other, it’s all part of a strategy of slowly building up pressure and creating new facts on the ground. Both scenarios are troubling from the U.S. point of view.

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  • Anthony

    The Central Military Commission functionally controls the Chinese military. Didn’t Xi remove the chairman of the military commission (Xu Caihou) during the summer. I don’t know if that tells us anything but…

    “Xi has tried to establish his authority over the People’s Liberation Army more quickly and effectively than his predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin and to show he is willing to tackle corruption in the politically influential military.”

  • Corlyss

    “However the decision came about, Mr Xi has grabbed it and run with it. He has taken charge of secretive committees responsible for reforming government, overhauling the armed forces, finance and cyber-security. His campaign against corruption is the most sweeping in decades. It has snared the former second-in-command of the People’s Liberation Army and targeted the retired chief of China’s massive security apparatus—the highest-ranking official to be investigated for corruption since Mao came to power. The generals, wisely, bow to him: earlier this year state newspapers published pages of expressions of loyalty to him by military commanders.”

    Well, if Xi was able to sack and jail the #2 guy in the PLA’s security apparatus, and has now targeted the retired chief of same, seems to me he’s got a leg up on predecessors who pretty much left alone the Gang in Shanghai.

    • Anthony

      “The PLA leadership finds itself in increasingly uncertain territory.” For additional context if wanted see: Is the PLA Xi’s Next Target.

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