Among the most notable developments of China’s recently-completed 19th Party Congress was the reshuffling of the Central Military Commission (CMC), which exercises overall administrative and operational control over the two-million-strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Changes to both the individuals and organizations represented on the CMC suggest that Xi Jinping and his allies in the PLA continue to face problems in building a senior officer corps that is not only corruption-free, but also responsive to the Party’s (and Xi’s) dictates. Instilling discipline is critical to the PLA’s ability to achieve progress in its current cycle of reform and modernization, though problems such as malfeasance, bureaucratic resistance and the absence of civilian oversight could all hamper the prospects for success.
After he assumed the CMC chairmanship in November 2012, Xi outlined an expansive vision for a streamlined PLA that would be able to “fight and win” modern wars across China’s periphery, deter potential adversaries and protect China’s expanding global interests. However, Xi also recognized that achieving this ambition required a professional and politically reliable cadre of senior officers. This was problematic due in part to pervasive corruption, including allegations of improprieties in the logistics system and the buying and selling of promotions at the highest levels of the PLA. Even before Xi arrived, the PLA had begun a campaign to root out offenders. Xi expanded those efforts, resulting in more than 4,000 antigraft investigations and hundreds of officers sacked or reprimanded within two years. The most high-profile targets included Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong, who both served as CMC vice chairmen under Hu Jintao and were implicated in the corruption of the PLA promotion system.
However, Xi’s problem extended well beyond the anticorruption arena. Just as insidious was the more parochial tendency of individuals and bureaucracies to protect their own vested interests (known colloquially as “iron rice bowls”). Resistance from within the PLA had stymied previous attempts by the civilian Party elite, led by Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, to reform the military. The ground forces—the PLA’s largest and arguably most influential service—remained dominant, and the four general departments (massive Soviet-inspired bureaucracies which operated as semi-independent fiefdoms) were left largely unscathed. This was especially problematic as Xi sought to reorient the PLA towards a greater focus on naval, air force, and missile capabilities, and reduce the number of redundant or noncombat-related staff, such as those inhabiting the general departments.
Beginning in late 2015, Xi and his supporters pushed through a number of structural changes designed to counter bureaucratic resistance. Most notable was a realignment of the organizations reporting directly to the CMC: the four general departments were downsized and placed under direct CMC supervision, while bodies responsible for internal policing were strengthened. That included new authorities for auditors, the discipline inspection commission (which investigates violations of Party regulations, including those governing corruption), and the military legal system, which were all previously subordinate to the general departments. Accompanying those changes were attempts to compensate the losers of reform. In a game of musical chairs, almost all senior officers were reassigned to appropriate positions throughout the PLA rather than being removed from duty. This reduced PLA resistance to the reforms.