The Tiananmen crackdown ignited a decade of debate on the Chinese military’s role, and where its loyalties should lie
The PLA started out as a part of the Communist Party and continues to be so despite internal calls to nationalise
In the nine decades since its founding, the People’s Liberation Army has served the Communist Party.
In other parts of the world such as the United States and Britain, the military is a national force, loyal to the state and the civilian administration of the day.
But in China, the PLA still operates under the principle that “the party controls the gun”.
Nevertheless, nationalisation has been supported at times by top members of the party, including late leader Mao Zedong.
Mao backed the idea of a neutral armed forces when the Kuomintang was still in power in China in the early 1940s. The KMT wrote the principle into the Republic of China’s constitution in 1946 and it remained so – in theory – after the KMT fled to Taiwan in 1949 following the civil war. But it was not until 2000, when the opposition’s Chen Shui-bian became the island’s president and Taiwan’s armed forces stayed in their barracks, that the military’s political neutrality was truly observed in practice.
Across the strait, a desire to nationalise the PLA emerged in the aftermath of the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square, a military insider told the South China Morning Post.
The PLA’s reputation was stained after paramount leader Deng Xiaoping issued the order to send in troops to break up the pro-democracy protests. The exact death toll may never be known, but hundreds, perhaps more than 1,000, are believed to have been killed in the crackdown.
“The order to crack down on the protests organised by the students was given by Deng Xiaoping, who was then chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission … Then CMC vice-chairman Yang Shangkun didn’t agree with him, but he had to support Deng,” the insider said.
Yang expressed his reservations when the party leadership met the CMC on May 19, 1989, one day before the State Council declared martial law and sent 300,000 troops to Beijing, the source said.
“Yang told the meeting that he personally disagreed with the military crackdown, but was forced to obey the order by necessity,” he said.
The military ceded to the party, although Yang believed that the crackdown was a wrong decision, according to the insider.
Before his death in 1998, Yang formally proposed to the central leadership that the military serve the state, partly as a way to rehabilitate the PLA after 1989, the military insider said.
The proposal ignited a decade of debate between the party leadership and senior military officials. In 2001, a report believed to have been written by a number of PLA officers was posted online, saying nationalisation was necessary for genuine modernisation of the military.
The report also suggested the CMC abolish the political commissar system, adopt the Western approach to military training and come up with more innovative political reforms.
But the CMC formally ended the discussion in 2007 on the eve of the PLA’s 80th anniversary, with then CMC vice-chairman and defence minister Cao Gangchuan labelling the proposal a plot by “Western hostile forces” to topple the communist regime in China.
The idea became taboo after the so-called jasmine revolutions in the Middle East a few years later as the view firmed in Beijing that the uprisings were driven by Western democratic ideology, including the concept of a neutral military.
The PLA’s media outlets attacked military nationalisation, stressing that history had taught China that “the principle of violent revolution determines that the party must have its own army”.
Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong said the move was a step backwards and a “big pity”.
“The PLA’s hardware build-up is reaching international standards but its military thinking is incapable of doing so because it is still the party’s military – that’s the ideological gap between the PLA and its Western counterparts,” Wong said.
He said that as China extended its global reach, the presence of a party-controlled military could remind other countries of the West’s expansionary armed forces during the 19th and 20th centuries.
“With China’s military under a party dictatorship, countries in the region will ask: what’s the ultimate goal of China’s rise? … The history of humanity tells us that such armed forces will seek hegemony one day.”
Orville Schell, director of the Centre on US-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York, said he did not think the PLA would be nationalised any time soon.
“The party does control the military. The reality is the party is more powerful than the government, so once it is in power, there’s no way the party will let the military be nationalised,” Schell said.