The elderly party leaders who gathered together the morning after the military quelled demonstrations at Tiananmen Square and a hundred other cities in China in June 1989 must have been profoundly disconcerted by the events they had witnessed. Immediately dubbed the Eight Immortals, after the Daoist deities of Chinese legend, several of them remembered the demonstrations against the Chinese government in May 1919 that had been instrumental in the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Now they, the survivors of the revolutionary era, had become the target of a new generation of rebellious youth.

Moreover, the reaction of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) called into question its adherence to a major tenet of Mao Zedong’s creed—that the party must always control the gun; the gun must never control the party. When ordered to deal with the demonstrators, a number of officers and soldiers said openly, in the presence of television cameras, that the people’s army should not be used against the people. Some commanders expressed reluctance to use force against the demonstrators, and several retired military icons of the revolutionary era reportedly sent a letter to the leadership opposing the use of the PLA in this manner. Deng Xiaoping must have reflected on the wisdom of his 1982 decision to more clearly differentiate the party, government, and military hierarchies.

Other events external to China would reinforce the conviction that a strong response was needed. Later in 1989, the Romanian army joined demonstrators in overthrowing the Communist government; a democratic republic was proclaimed, and the country’s long-serving president, Nicolae Ceauşescu, and his wife were executed. In the Soviet Union, the military did not intervene to save communism. Not only was the Communist Party of the Soviet Union turned out of power, but the nation itself disintegrated. Communism, and those who had ruled in its name, were discredited all over Europe. Although the Chinese leadership doubtless counted itself fortunate to have escaped this annus horribilis, its members were aware that a reprise of the demonstrations might portend a similar fate for them. Deng Xiaoping had been able to cajole hesitant military leaders to obey by virtue of his military experience in the civil war that had confirmed the CCP in power in 1949 and his close connections with the PLA, but it was unlikely that any future leader would be able to do so. Jiang Zemin, whom Deng had designated as his heir apparent, had no military credentials, and the PLA had been successful in blocking an earlier heir apparent, Hu Yaobang, from appointment as head of the party’s Central Military Commission (CMC) for similar reasons.

Measures were quickly instituted to obtain loyalty. Those commanders who had hesitated to obey orders were dismissed. Several loyal commanders, including Yang Shangkun, who simultaneously held the position of president of China, and his half brother Yang Baibing were eased out of the military hierarchy to ensure that they would not adversely impact Jiang Zemin’s place in the succession. Officers and men were required to take loyalty oaths to reinforce the dictum that this was the party’s army. The notion that the military should serve the state rather than the party, which had apparently gained credence in some informal military salons, was declared anathema, and the seminars themselves closed down.

Military training was mandated for college students; at the most demonstration-prone institutions, the course was scheduled to occupy the entire freshman year. After a time, this highly unpopular measure, which students regarded as punitive, was discontinued. A patriotism campaign began. Radio and television featured patriotic music. Films and television programs extolled the heroic deeds that had brought the People’s Republic of China (PRC) into existence, with a heavy emphasis on the military’s part in the war of liberation. The PLA’s literature and art division budgeted $221.3 million—far in excess of the budgets for all 150 films made in China during 1989—to produce a three-part epic, Great Strategic Battles.

The creation of an external enemy was also helpful in achieving post-Tiananmen unity. The United States proved especially useful in this regard. Initially, President George H. W. Bush was reluctant to impose sanctions on the Chinese government, arguing that quiet diplomacy would be more effective and that, in any case, the PRC would evolve peacefully into a democracy as its economic prosperity increased. However, an outraged American public, appalled at what it regarded as egregious violations of human rights, pressured the government to impose sanctions. As formulated by the Bush administration, the sanctions fell particularly heavily on the military. High-level visits, including military visits, were suspended, and military sales to the PRC of all items controlled by the State Department and cited in its Munitions Control List were banned until Beijing amended its human rights record. Congress went further, introducing legislation to suspend military sales, nuclear cooperation, and the export of American-made satellites for launching by Chinese rockets. It also halted the further liberalization of existing export controls, barring U.S. products with potential military applications from going to China. A movement to revoke the PRC’s most-favored-nation trade status gained momentum, and its implementation was only narrowly evaded by a technicality.

The Chinese government reacted sharply against American actions undertaken to induce China to modify its behavior. The state-controlled media interpreted Bush’s prediction of peaceful evolution, which he had advanced to soothe those who wanted to take harsh actions against the PRC, in the worst possible light. They accused the United States of plotting to undermine socialism and the leadership of the socialist state, substituting capitalist values that were inappropriate to the Chinese context and leaders who would comply with Washington’s wishes. The PLA was reminded that it was the protector of the cherished socialist system and its leadership.

Although the American military sanctions actually had relatively minor effects—President Bush waived some of these soon after imposing them, and alternative channels of acquisition existed—the Beijing leadership began to look for new sources of weapons procurement. Because the Russian government had little need to purchase new weapons from the well-developed defense industry that existed in the USSR, it possessed a large inventory of high-quality weapons and needed money badly. Thus Russia proved to be an excellent source of weapons. So did the smaller but high-quality Israeli defense industry.

Having an enemy entails preparing to defend oneself should a confrontation arise. For some years, the PLA had been announcing breakthroughs in the development of specific items, such as flight simulators, which were typically described as being world class. Its leadership was therefore taken aback at the technology displayed in the American-led invasion of Iraq during the Gulf War of 1991: the high command emerged from a briefing by the U.S. military attaché with the realization that the PLA had a long way to go before it could challenge the military might of its putative adversary.

Although modernization of the military was a goal of Deng Xiaoping’s Four Modernizations and had first been formally mentioned in 1975, defense ranked at the bottom of the list. Deng had been able to convince the military leadership that a strong defense could not be achieved without a firm industrial base to undergird it. The military received its first doubledigit budget increase in 1989. Although this increase was announced before the disturbances began and was therefore not, as some speculated, the PLA’s reward for its role in quelling the demonstrations, it proved to be the first in an unbroken string of generous increases. A brief economic recession caused by government actions to reduce the spiking inflation rate, which had given impetus to the demonstrations, had a positive side effect for the PLA: many young people whose alternative was joblessness chose to enlist in the military. By 1992, the economy began to move forward more quickly, facilitating party and government plans to transform the PLA into a politically reliable and militarily capable force. Among the areas impacted were civil-military relations, strategy and doctrine, recruitment and training, budgets, and weaponry.


Although many foreign analysts predicted that the PLA’s role in putting down the Tiananmen demonstrations would enable it to play kingmaker in future successions, this did not happen. With the known opposition cleared away by Deng, Jiang Zemin was appointed chair of the CMC and quickly set about creating good relations with the military. Among other things, he paid extensive visits to basic-level units in widely separated parts of the country for heavily scripted and well-publicized conversations with the troops. Not surprisingly, the young men reported that they were happy with their delicious and plentiful rations, had more than enough blankets and warm uniforms, and were pleased to be contributing to the defense of the ancestral land. At the highest levels of the military, Jiang created new billets for three-star generals (the PLA’s highest rank), conferring these and other honors in person. He also increased military pay for both recruits and officers, thus enhancing the attractiveness of a military career. In addition, Jiang enforced the retirement ages that Deng had put in place. This enabled him to appoint new people who had been vetted for their presumed loyalty to him.

In July 1998, Jiang had gained enough confidence in his control of the military to order that the PLA divest itself of the business empire it had accrued under Deng’s orders. The PLA’s industries had underreported profits, diverted attention from the military’s raison d’être, and abetted a worrisome increase in the level of corruption. Although the divestiture was less than complete and was accompanied by several forms of subterfuge, the military obeyed the order. Moreover, as the end of Jiang’s second fiveyear term as PRC president, party head, and chair of the CMC approached, PLA newspapers praised him to such an extent that it seemed they wished Jiang to stay on. Although he relinquished the other two posts to Hu Jintao, Jiang remained as head of the CMC, thus symbolically separating the party from the gun and creating what the media referred to as two centers of power. After two years, Jiang resigned as CMC chair and was succeeded by Hu, thus ending a situation that many regarded as uncomfortable. Hu Jintao appeared to have no trouble establishing his credentials with military leaders, and there have been no indications of friction between him and the PLA. A recent allegation that the air force staged the test flight of the J-20 stealth plane without informing Hu remains unproved. Some argue that the advance publicity surrounding the test makes his denial of prior knowledge less than credible.

The military presence in the upper echelons of party leadership has been significantly diminished. Two senior officers serve in the party Politburo; there have been no military leaders in the inner sanctum of the Politburo’s standing committee since 1997. This has raised concerns that the military might develop autonomous interests that are not necessarily the same as those of party and government leaders. Although this is theoretically possible, there is scant evidence that it has happened thus far.

Richard Bush, a former national intelligence officer for East Asia, believes that the high command will obey direct orders from the civilian leadership; however, because the military is able to shape the way that civilian leadership views national security issues, it can influence whatever orders it is given. Although the Politburo has only two military men among twenty-odd members, the CMC has only two civilians—the party head and his heir apparent as chair and vice-chair—in a military group half that size. The PLA is able to unify its views before presenting them to the civilian leadership. Moreover, unlike in the past, the civilian leadership has no military experience, making it more difficult to refute the military’s contentions. Additionally, communications mechanisms between the two hierarchies exist at the operational level. The general office of the party central committee reportedly has strong links to the command and control structure of the military, and linkages also exist between the party’s foreign affairs office and the military. Hence, the separation of the party and the military is not as pronounced as it might seem. Bush believes that the PLA has limited autonomy in its own sphere.

That said, PLA officers have become more outspoken recently. One general, for example, argued in an essay published in the official media just before Premier Wen Jiaobao’s 2010 visit to India that the area between the two countries was not peaceful and that China faced “outside threats.” A senior colonel argued in a book titled The China Dream that China’s goal should be to replace the United States as the world’s top military power. A decade earlier, two senior colonels had argued in Unlimited Warfare that because the PRC had not been consulted when the rules of warfare were devised, it need not be bound by them. The PLA would therefore be justified in using such practices as terrorism and climate alteration, which could result in massive civilian casualties. The decisive factor, according to the authors, should be whatever is needed to achieve victory, not conventional notions of morality. Both books generated considerable interest in foreign countries; PRC government spokespersons replied that the authors’ views did not represent official policy. The authors claimed that there was growing support for their views.

The military, however, is not a monolith. Its members do not necessarily agree on priority areas, and not all are in favor of hard-line policies. General Liu Yazhou, for example, has publicly argued that if China does not adopt U.S.-style democracy, it faces a Soviet-style collapse.

Other examples may indicate a disconnect between the military and civilian leaderships. For instance, after a submerged Chinese submarine passed through Japanese waters in 2004, five days passed before Beijing apologized to Tokyo. Western naval experts opined that the most likely explanation was that the PLA Navy (PLAN) had not informed the civilian leadership what it planned to do beforehand. The civilian leadership also initially disclaimed any knowledge of the January 2007 test of an antisatellite weapon after it was publicized in an American military magazine, as well as the aforementioned J-20 test, notwithstanding doubts about the veracity of these statements.

Conversely, civilian leaders have also been more outspoken of late. Xi Jinping, Hu Jintao’s heir apparent, lashed out at his hosts during a visit to Mexico in 2009, presumably for supporting the United States and Great Britain in their criticisms of the PRC’s human rights record. The following year, Xi angered South Koreans when he described North Korea’s invasion as a just war and a great victory in the pursuit of world peace and human progress. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi became enraged at his Japanese counterpart’s calls for a reduction in China’s nuclear arsenal, nearly walking out of a 2010 meeting between the two. A few months later, Yang termed U.S. Secretary of State Hillary’s Clinton’s call for freedom of navigation on the South China Sea an attack on China. With reference to the same topic, Yang told a gathering of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, several of which have contested claims with China, that “China is a big country; other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact.”

It is entirely possible that strong statements by the military have received prior approval from the civilian leadership and that the two may, on occasion, be employing a good cop-bad cop strategy. That is, the foreign ministry tells its counterparts in other countries that it cannot compromise on a contentious issue because the PLA would not countenance it. In sum, the balance of evidence seems to indicate that civilian and military leaders are united in believing that the PRC’s newly acquired economic and military credentials justify a harder line on foreign policy.

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