The 19th Party Congress and Implications for the PLA and China-US Military Relations

Blog | December 07, 2017


On October 24, the Chinese Communist Party concluded its 19th Party Congress with the unveiling of the new leadership lineup, a cornerstone political event it has held every five years since the death of Mao Zedong. Prior to the Congress, there was a great deal of speculation concerning the composition of the Politburo Standing Committee – and to a lesser extent the Party’s Central Military Commission – with China observers watching for signs of Xi Jinping’s tightened grasp on China’s political system.

The evolving Party

The most anticipated act of this Congress was arguably a symbolic one: the codification of Xi’s “Thought” into the Party’s Constitution, specifically entering his name into the Constitution. The eventual product, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” is said to put Xi on the same level with Mao and above previous leaders Hu Jintao, Jiang Zemin and even Deng Xiaoping. This it does, at least nominally. While this may change how Chinese officials speak of their leadership, it does not necessarily change their beliefs. One suspects there are a great many officials who still hold Deng’s bona fides in much higher regard. Also worth noting is that Xi has not placed himself above Mao, suggesting that this Daedalus respects an upper limit.

The 19th Central Committee Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) appears to have consolidated Xi’s power as expected. It is still composed of seven leaders, including Xi and three close allies, but the three non-allies are said to be powerless. Add to that Xi’s establishment during his first term of a multitude of leading small groups, and we can see that effective control of the top leadership lies in his hands. Unlike Xi’s ascension during the 17th Party Congress in 2007, this session revealed no clear successor, leaving wide open the possibility that Xi will serve as China’s paramount leader beyond the 10-year precedent that his two most recent predecessors set.

Causing the greatest stir in Western media was Xi’s October 18 work report at the beginning of the Congress. Some analysts picked up on the theme of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” as “a new choice for other countries,” a not-too-subtle challenge to the U.S.-favored international system. Reinforcing this is the idea of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a project said to be filling in the leadership gap left by U.S. abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The problem with these ideas is that China has yet to offer the world a sustainable alternative model of development, as for example in Ghana.

China’s immediate goal is simply to make the world safe for China’s Communist government. The text of the speech makes clear that the “new choice for other countries” is not Chinese socialism, but reliance on Chinese capital should one’s government prove unable to cooperate with the broader international system. If this mode of development does ultimately displace the status quo, it will surely be because America and its allies fail to muster the strength to stand up for their own values, not because of any challenge from China.

The PLA reformed

In his opening speech, Xi set out the benchmarks of “defense and military forces modernization” by 2035 and the “creation of a world-class military force” by mid-century. Although guessing the meaning of Party jargon can be hazardous, these two goals appear to indicate, respectively: (1) technological and organizational parity with other leading military powers; and (2) parity of combat power, meaning the ability to project force at will.

As for the Central Military Commission (CMC), we saw it shrink down to a manageable seven from its previous 11. Overall, this new structure is easier to understand:

(1) Xi is CMC chairman and commander in chief;

(2) On the second rung are two vice chairmen, Air Force hardliner Xu Qiliang and former equipment development chief Zhang Youxia; and

(3) Just below the vice chairs are four members: former missile force commander Wei Fenghe, former Army chief Li Zuocheng, former Navy political commissar Miao Hua, and corruption fighter Zhang Shenmin.

These vice chairs and members will each have designated portfolios, likely in line with their previous duties. Also notable is their truly joint backgrounds, with representatives of each of the four traditional PLA services. Below these lie a scrum of major department heads (in particular the Joint Staff Department), service chiefs and theater commanders.

When senior military leaders from the United States and other countries visit China, the PLA will likely designate a counterpart from the fourth tier (e.g. service chief for a service chief, regional commander for a regional commander, etc.) and possibly grant a meeting with the CMC vice chairman or member responsible for foreign military relations.

Regarding military-to-military relations, we should expect more of the same from China. Under Xi’s direction, U.S.-China mil-to-mil has expanded significantly in spite of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and other factors. Although there have been questions on the U.S. side concerning the value of these exchanges, the annual U.S. Department of Defense report to Congress on Chinese military affairs shows that military contacts have continued at a robust pace. It remains to be seen how the Trump administration will manage them in the future, although it may be that an overall decrease in mil-to-mil activity is offset by refocused cooperation on key issues.

At the next National People’s Congress (China’s national legislature, not to be confused with the Party Congress) in February or March 2018, we should see the designation of a new Minister of National Defense, which most expect to be one of the new CMC members. With his representatives fully in place, Xi will be able to claim a level of control over the PLA not seen since Deng pushed his military reforms through in the 1980s.

Overall, we see Xi in firm command of the government and military apparatuses. The ensconcement of his allies as civil and military officers and enshrinement of his name are as much reflections of his power as they are the means of keeping it. This Congress was thus an evolutionary step in Xi’s program of internal control, although we should not confuse this with the deliberate chaos of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. It should come as no surprise should Xi choose to stay beyond 10 years, and barring a serious setback, the decision may very well rest with Xi himself.

Ben Lowsen is a specialist in Chinese political and security affairs working as a program analyst for the U.S. Navy. He tweets at @lowsen88.

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the author and not that of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, U.S. Government, or EastWest Institute.

Photo: "07-11-2013 Em Pequim, o vice-presidente" (CC BY 2.0) by Michel Temer - Fotos livres, com o crédito.