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Some Preliminary Conclusions

The Chinese armed forces are in the midst of major challenge. Spurred by Deng Xiaoping's belief that the PLA had lost much of its credibility as an institution and was degrading China's claim to great-power status, the army (at Deng's behest) began to explore different directions. Part of these changes were a consequence of the gradual passing of a legendary generation of revolutionary-era generals, but Deng's determination was the principal spur to change. To achieve his goals, Deng required a senior military leadership accountable to him, a long-term plan to achieve necessary institutional reforms (especially in the personnel system), and the creation of pockets of innovation on which these changes could build.

Deng's accomplishments in these areas proved measurable, especially during the mid and late 1980s. But these new directions bred different problems and pressures. Elements of more traditional patterns of power and authority continued to abound, even as younger generations of officers were restive and increasingly resentful of arrangements and understandings at the top. The military became more professionalized and regularized, but there was still no escape from personalism, especially at the apex of the system. The familial ties within the military system suggest that advancement in the army may remain a matter more of inheritance than of competence.

At the same time, major uncertainties persist about the PLA's longer-term relationship with the Party. Even as the military leadership sought to impart a new organizational ethos, political control remained paramount, inhibiting truly autonomous institutional development. As the events of May and June 1989 amply demonstrated, organization charts


and formal lines of authority proved very imperfect indicators of the structure of power in China. The declaration of martial law and the subsequent resort to force derived from ad hoc arrangements rather than any regular decision-making procedures. Military command and control under crisis circumstances served as a telling reminder that China remains devoid of institutionalized mechanisms to constrain the exercise of power.

Five dimensions of PLA behavior during the crisis of May and June 1989 illustrate the absence of such mechanisms: (1) the nonutilization of available procedures (for example, the convening of a regular rather than an "enlarged" Military Commission meeting) that could be expected to govern military behavior under extreme circumstances; (2) the intrusion of leaders without formal military responsibility (in particular, Premier Li Peng and the leadership of the Beijing Municipal People's Government) into armed forces channels, especially through the Martial Law Command organized by Chi Haotian; (3) Deng Xiaoping's absence from direct participation in numerous key military decisions, although nearly all actions appeared to have his concurrence, with Yang Shangkun serving as the transmission belt and executive agent; (4) Deng's extraordinary action of redeploying troop units from other military regions (especially Shenyang and Jinan) to Beijing and its environs, thereby assuring compliance with directives issued in the name of the CMC; and (5) the predominant reliance of the martial law authorities on main-force units and strategic reserves, effectively bypassing Beijing-based units, whose political loyalties and willingness to comply with leadership directives were judged more questionable. By resorting to these extralegal arrangements justified through quasi-statutory procedures and regulations, the proponents of martial law totally outmaneuvered those Party and army leaders who voiced reservations about the possible use of force.

The critical issues of the crisis pertained, however, not to legality or procedure, but to a preemptive bid for power by forces opposed to Zhao Ziyang's ultimate assumption of supreme decision-making authority. It seems entirely possible that a majority of the then extant executive committee of the Military Commission (Zhao Ziyang, Yang Shangkun, Hong Xuezhi, Liu Huaqing, and Qin Jiwei) would have opposed or seriously questioned the decision to impose martial law. Deng and Yang very likely knew they were outvoted, which compelled them to resort to "out of channel" arrangements that preempted the opposition.

At the same time, the use of force (drawing heavily but not exclusively from units of the Twenty-seventh Army that were totally unprepared for crowd control) underscored the unstinting loyalty of mobilized PLA units to Deng and Yang's orders, no matter how abhorrent the circum-


stances. Despite persistent reports of impending civil war between rival forces, very few units balked at implementing the orders of the martial law commanders. Even under extreme duress and confusion, the system held, and no collapse in state power took place. It remains to be seen whether comparable loyalty could be guaranteed in another leadership crisis. The near-total turnover of regional commanders in the spring of 1990 (with most new commanders brought into their assignments from other military regions) suggests a greatly heightened effort to assure loyalty and responsiveness to orders from the top, and to avoid manifestations of localism.[48]

In the aftermath of the Tiananmen crisis, the basis of the authority in the Chinese armed forces needs to be carefully reassessed. Personal loyalties and relationships proved decisive in the 1989 upheavals, with recent efforts to introduce regular channels and procedures for decision making shelved. Although it is too early to judge the longer-term consequences for the attempted institutionalization of military policy, the system in crisis reverted to a preexisting form, calling into question the true extent of organizational change. Even as the age of the regional and district commanders continues to decline and their professional skills continue to improve, political loyalty to the Center remains the paramount criterion for career advancement.

With the inevitable passing of Deng, Yang, and other senior leaders, however, the pressures for change will increase, especially from younger officers with a large stake in the future development of the armed forces. The capacity of the supreme military leadership to effect this transition without engendering a major crisis will remain crucial to the future of the Chinese political system.


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Six Structure and Process in the Chinese Military System
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