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Party-Army Relations in China: Retrospect and Prospect

  • Ellis Joffe


It is axiomatic among observers that in the transition to the post-Deng era, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) will play a pivotal role. This is understandable. Until now, the army has been a central force in Chinese politics owing to the unique Party-army relationship that has existed since the founding of the Communist regime. Although this relationship will change in the near future, the importance of the military will not: they will remain indispensable backers of the new leadership. This is because they command the forces which may be used to determine the outcome of an elite power struggle, displace rebellious local figures, put down a mass uprising or even carry out a coup.



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1. For a discussion of Party-army relations see Latham, Richard J., “China's Party-army relations after June 1989: a case for Miles′ Law?” in Yang, Richard H. (ed.), China's Military: The PLA in 1990/1991(SCPS Yearbook, National Sun Yat-sen University, Kaohsiung, Taiwan, distributed by Westview Press), pp. 104110.

2. Shambaugh, David, “The soldier and the state in China: the political work system in the PLA,” The China Quarterly,No. 127 (September 1991), pp. 527568.

3. For an analysis based on the notion of symbiosis but which ends up leaning towards the notion of military praetorianism see Sandschneider, Eberhard, “Military and politics in the PRC,” in Dreyer, June Teufel (ed.), Chinese Defense and Foreign Policies(New York: Paragon House, 1989), pp. 331349. For a sophisticated and detailed discussion see Swaine, Michael D., The Military and Political Succession in China(Santa Monica: The RAND Corporation, 1992). Shambaugh, “The soldier and the state,” also supports the symbiosis thesis but comes down on the side of the concept that political control is the key to Party-army relations.

4. Gittings, John, The Role of the Chinese Army(London: Oxford University Press, 1967); Joffe, Ellis, Party and Army: Professionalism and Political Control in the Chinese Officer Corps, 1949–1964(Cambridge, MA: Harvard East Asian Monographs, 1967); Jencks, Harlan W., From Muskets to Missiles: Politics and Professionalism in the Chinese Army, 1945–1981(Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1982); Segal, Gerald, “The military as a group in Chinese politics,” in Goodman, David S.G. (ed.), Groups and Politics in the People's Republic of China(New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1984), pp. 83101; Godwin, Paul H.B., The Chinese Communist Armed Forces(Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama: Air University Press, 1988), pp. 1121.

5. See also Swaine, The Military and Political Succession,part II

6. Joffe, Ellis, “The Chinese army under Lin Piao: prelude to intervention,” in Lindbeck, John M.H. (ed.), China: Management of a Revolutionary Society(Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1971), pp. 343374.

7. On the critical role of the PLA see the memoirs of Rongzhen, Marshal Nie, Inside the Red Star(Beijing: New World Press, 1988), pp. 751752.

8. On the PLA in the Cultural Revolution see Joffe, EllisThe Chinesearmy in the Cultural Revolution: the politics of intervention,Current Scene(Hong Kong), Vol. 8, No. 18 (7 December 1970), pp. 125; on its role in the Tiananmen crisis see Byrnes, Michael T.,“The death of a people's army,” in Hicks, George (ed.), The Broken Mirror: China After Tiananmen(Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1990), pp. 132151.

9. See, for example, two public statements on this issue, one by Defence Minister Zhang Aiping and one by the Chief-of-Staff Chi Haotian in, respectively, Renmin ribao,24 July 1987, in FBIS, 27 July 1987, pp.K&4–9;ande Qiushi, No.3, 1 August 1988, inFBIS, 12August 1988, p. K&32. It is safe to suppose that similar views were voiced by military leaders in inner circles.

10. See n. 8.

11. For the latest confirmation of the personal nature of Lin Biao's actions see the recollections of Mao's physician, Zhisui, Li, The Private Life of Chairman Mao(New York: Random House, 1994), pp. 528543.

12. Swaine, The Military and Political Succession,chs. 3,4,5.

13. On the first wave see Gittings, The Role;on the second see Joffe, Ellis, The Chinese Army After Mao(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987) and Lee, Ngok, China's Defense Modernization and Military Leadership(Sydney: Australian National University Press, 1989).

14. See Joffe, “The Chinese army in the Cultural Revolution.”

15. See Joffe, The Chinese Army After Mao,ch. 7.

16. Swaine, The Military and Political Succession,ch. 7.

17. China News Analysis(Hong Kong), No. 1511 (1 June 1994).

18. See n. 4.

19. See Byrnes, “The death.” See also Yang, Richard H. (ed.), PLA and the Tiananmen Crisis(SCPS Papers, No. 1, Sun Yat-sen Center for Policy Studies, National Sun Yat-sen University, Kaohsiung, Taiwan, October 1989); and Swaine, The Military and Political Succession,pp. 160168.

20. Joffe, Ellis, “The Chinese army: coping with the consequences of Tiananmen,” in Joseph, William A. (ed.), China Briefing, 1991(Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992), pp. 3755.

21. See Gittings, The Role,Shambaugh, “The soldier and the state,” and Swaine, The Military and Political Succession,pp. 134–138; see also Johnston, Alastair I., “Party rectification in the People's Liberation Army, 1983–1987,” The China Quarterly,No. 112 (December 1987), pp. 591630.

22. See Joffe, The Chinese Army After Mao.

23. Lam, Willy Wo-Lap, China After Deng Xiaoping(Hong Kong: Professional Consultants Ltd., 1995), pp. 211216.

24. See Joffe, “Coping with the consequences.”

25. Swaine, The Military and Political Succession,ch. 6.

26. See n. 19.

27. Yang, Richard H. (ed.), Chinese Regionalism: The Security Dimension(Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994).

28. Nordlinger, Eric A., Soldiers in Politics: Military Coups and Governments(New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1977) pp. 6364.

29. See n. 15.

30. See n. 19.

31. See, for example, Wortzl, Larry M., “China pursues traditional great power status,Orbis,Vol. 38, No. 2 (Spring 1994), pp. 157175.

32. Cheung, Tai Ming, “Profits over professionalism: the PLA's economic activities and their impact on military unity,” in Yang, Chinese Regionalism,pp. 85110; Lin, Chong-Pin, “Limits to professionalism: the extramilitary roles of the People's Liberation Army in modernization,Security Studies,Vol. 1, No. 4 (Summer 1992), pp. 659689; Bickford, Thomas J., “The Chinese military and its business operations: the PLA as entrepreneur,Asian Survey,Vol. 34, No. 5 (May 1994), pp. 460474; Joffe, Ellis, “The Chinese army and the economy: the effect of involvement,” Survival(Summer 1995), pp. 2443.

Party-Army Relations in China: Retrospect and Prospect

  • Ellis Joffe


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