Shift PLA to state not party army

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 June, 2012, 12:00am


The Chinese Communist Party's control of the People's Liberation Army is so sensitive that discussion about whether the military should instead put the state first is rarely heard. But with the tussle for senior positions within the party in its final stages, the matter is being aired in the official army newspaper and is sneaking onto microblogs. For the nation to prosper and move confidently forward, the generals and their troops have to be politically neutral. It is a process that must be gradual and will take time to evolve, so open debate is necessary and important.

Dozens of articles have appeared in the PLA Daily in the past month as part of a campaign to demonstrate the armed forces' allegiance to the party. Not all generals are supportive, though, with some believing it is time the military was first and foremost instead loyal to the Chinese state. Those are sentiments that ring alarm bells for the party's leadership, which contends that its command is essential for the nation's stability. It well knows that at the heart of the matter are questions about legitimacy to rule and democracy.

Who the PLA should answer to is an inevitable discussion as party factions and groups with vested interests make a final push for influence and power. Behind closed doors, views are being appraised, weighed and bargained, with the final choices to be announced at the 18th National Congress, which will determine the nation's direction for the coming decade. Chairman Mao Zedong's observation that 'political power comes from the barrel of the gun' resonates loudly at such a time. But while the army has grown in strength and influence and has gained greater autonomy, its loyalty to the party is not in doubt; if the order is given, it will still use force against perceived internal as well as external threats.

Changed thinking is taking place with the increasing professionalism of the PLA's 2.3 million soldiers. Younger generals in particular believe that China should have a national rather than party army. But for that to happen would involve major reforms. Among them would be established laws and procedures governing the military's role and when it should be mobilised, strong legislative oversight and a ministry of defence with genuine authority headed by a civilian defence minister.

Leaders have made plain that turning the PLA into a national army is out of the question. But if there was to be such a shift, China's neighbours and rivals would be less likely to consider it such a threat. Military loyalty to the state rather than the party is a necessary step for democracy, essential for strong checks and balances in government and society. Only if the party and military are accountable can China more assuredly develop and thrive.