Preferred Citation: Lieberthal, Kenneth G., and David M. Lampton, editors Bureaucracy, Politics, and Decision Making in Post-Mao China. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992.

Six Structure and Process in the Chinese Military System

Military Command And Control

Increased interactions between Chinese military officers and foreign scholars have begun to yield a more differentiated picture of the structure of military decision making.[17] In addition, Chinese military researchers are openly discussing the continued viability of long-standing arrangements for military command. Rapid changes in information and communications technology are transforming the conduct of military operations and the administration of large, complex military systems on a worldwide basis, and Chinese specialists have studied these developments in earnest. At the same time, however, changes dictated by technological and organizational imperatives continue to clash with personalism and tradition deeply embedded in the military system.

The extant military system remains premised on centralized command and control, with supreme decision-making authority vested in the Military Commission of the CCP Central Committee. Appointments to the Military Commission are based on two principal criteria: status as a "military elder," or designated responsibility for one of four major spheres of organizational activity. Membership until late 1987 consisted of four elders (Deng Xiaoping as chairman, Yang Shangkun as perma-

[17] This discussion derives from interviews conducted during 1987 and 1988 with participants in the Chinese defense-planning process. For an extremely useful compilation of changes in the leadership structure since 1949, see Lin Tong, "Forty Years of the Chinese People's Liberation Army," Ming Bao Yue Kan , no. 286, October 1989, trans. in JPRS-CAR-90-005, China: People's Liberation Army , 22 January 1990, 1–11.


nent vice-chairman and secretary-general, and Marshals Xu Xiangqian and Nie Rongzhen as vice-chairmen) and four senior military leaders with designated bureaucratic responsibilities (Yang Dezhi as director of the General Staff Department, Yu Qiuli as director of the General Political Department, Hong Xuezhi as director of the General Logistics Department, and Defense Minister Zhang Aiping as overseer for military research and development).[18]

Following the Thirteenth Party Congress, major changes in the top military leadership led to a reshuffling in the Party Military Commission. Although Deng remained chairman, Zhao Ziyang was appointed first vice-chairman, with Yang Shangkun continuing to serve concurrently as permanent vice-chairman and secretary-general. Under Peng Dehuai and Lin Biao, the minister of defense had served concurrently as first vice-chairman of the commission, with very significant power vested in this position. Xu Xiangqian and Nie Rongzhen—the only surviving marshals of the Chinese army—initially retained their titles as commission vice-chairmen. Although their positions appeared increasingly honorific, they maintained substantial personal influence through offspring serving in military capacities. For example, Nie's son-in-law, Ding Henggao, is the chairman of the Commission on Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense, or COSTIND, better known as the guofang kegong wei . Ding's wife, Nie Li, is also a senior official within COSTIND; in addition, she assumes a coordinating role across a number of institutions concerned with high technology.

In early June 1988, Deng, in an audience with the visiting Polish premier, elaborated on the implications of these changes:

You may have already noticed that there are two Vice Chairmen in the Central Military Commission, one is our Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, and the other is State President Yang Shangkun. ... Why have both the Party General Secretary and State President become Vice Chairmen? Probably this is a Chinese-style arrangement (laughs heartily). Nevertheless, this arrangement has practical significance because it actually means that I have handed over my duties and the Central Military Commission is now under the leadership of Comrade Zhao Ziyang.[19]

Zhao's growing involvement in and responsibility for military affairs during 1988 underscored this seeming changeover in leadership. In his capacity as first vice-chairman of the Military Commission, Zhao undertook an unpublicized visit to the Sino-Vietnamese border during the

[18] Zhang's membership on the Military Commission derived not from his position as Minister of National Defense, but from his status as overseer of military R & D, and his rank as a Senior General.

[19] Zhongguo Xinwen She , 7 June 1988, in FBIS-China , 8 June 1988, 8. My emphasis.


Lunar New Year (accompanied by Yang Shangkun and Wang Zhen), delivered a major address in March on the impending tasks in military reform to a high-level military conference, and discussed China's transition to a "partial war" strategy and the parallel upgrading of the functions and responsibilities of the Ministry of National Defense.[20] Zhao's involvement with military planning appeared to indicate the PLA's acceptance of Zhao's role in the defense sector and contrasted markedly with Deng's inability to secure such acceptance for Hu Yaobang, who never received a formal leadership designation in the Military Commission. Zhao based his role on a "modernist" concept of the PLA—that is, that the armed forces would develop autonomous concepts and norms that did not depend exclusively on an organic bond with the Party.

An equally significant set of changes occurred in personnel assignments in the top military command posts following the Party Congress, and with it a reshuffling of the membership of the Military Commission. These changes testified to the extraordinary authority that Deng had delegated to Yang Shangkun. In November 1987 the heads of all three General Departments of the PLA stepped down, as did Defense Minister Zhang Aiping. Of these four senior generals, three (Yang Dezhi, Yu Qiuli, and Zhang Aiping) yielded their seats on the Military Commission, with Hong Xuezhi remaining as a deputy to Secretary-General Yang Shangkun. Liu Huaqing, previously commander of the Chinese navy, also assumed a post as deputy to the secretary-general; several interviewees confirmed that he had inherited Zhang Aiping's portfolio for military research and development. But the new General Department heads (Chi Haotian, Yang Baibing, and Zhao Nanqi) were not immediately confirmed in their predecessors' positions on the Party Military Commission, nor was the new minister of national defense, Qin Jiwei, voted comparable status.

The case of Qin Jiwei is the most revealing. Although a member of the Politburo, a commander with impeccable Second Field Army credentials, a Korean War hero, and a supposed favorite of Deng's, a ministerial appointment in the State Council is of decidely lesser import within the military system's job order rank. The minister of national defense commands no troops; indeed, for purposes of resource allocation within the State Council, he shares essentially coequal status with heads of the industrial ministries. To rectify this gap between the status of the defense minister and that of the General Department directors, the ministry was supposedly to be strengthened in its functions, personnel, and status. The upgrading of the general office (bangong ting ) within the Military

[20] See South China Morning Post , 26 February 1988, 1–2; Hongkong Wen Wei Po , 24 March 1988, 1, and 11 May 1988, 1.


Commission, headed by Lt. Gen. Liu Kai, was viewed by some as the precursor of an effort to establish an autonomous capacity for defense planning, allegedly to be vested in a more powerful defense ministry.

But substantial ambiguity persisted for some time over the precise membership of the Party Military Commission.[21] Chinese sources remain silent on the differences between Party and state military commissions, referring in somewhat generic fashion to the "Central Military Commission" (zhongyang junshi weiyuanhui, or jun-wei ). The absence of a standarized membership list for the commission suggested the potency of the Party connection to the military leadership; the senior leaders were not prepared to ratify an autonomous role for the armed forces apart from the long-standing mechanisms of political control. In addition, the commission created a military legislation bureau (junshi fazhi ju ) intended to formulate explicit rules and regulations for upper-level personnel policy where none existed before.

The selection of new leaders for the general departments and the promotions of Liu Huaqing and Qin Jiwei also attested to the persistence of personalistic criteria in senior personnel assignments. The appointments of Liu Huaqing and Zhao Nanqi appeared attributable to their predecessors (both had worked closely with them in these designated areas of responsibility over long periods of time, with Zhao serving as Hong Xuezhi's aide-de-camp during the Korean War). Qin Jiwei's long-standing links to Deng appear to explain his designation. Yang Shangkun assumed a familial prerogative in the designation of his younger brother as head of the General Political Department. Chi, having leapfrogged over a number of far more senior officers, including Qin Jiwei, owed his appointment to Yang, though the precise nature of this relationship remains unknown. The persistence of these personalistic criteria suggests that the very top leadership remains unwilling to relinquish its most important prerogatives in personnel assignment and may be equally reluctant to forego the PLA's special relationship with the CCP.

Thus, it remains extremely uncertain whether the State Military Commission will assume an identity distinct from its Party counterpart, especially in the aftermath of the political crisis of 1989. The creation of the State Commission in 1982 was intended to encourage a separation of functions between Party and government, but it has thus far totally failed to achieve its stated goal. During the late 1980s (i.e., during the "high tide" of the professionalizing ethic in the armed forces), there was an effort to create a separate set of responsibilities for the second body. One line of speculation suggested that slots on the State Commission would be reserved for service chiefs and others charged with responsibility for

[21] My thanks to Michael Byrnes for his very helpful observations on these issues.


the transition to a more modern defense force—in other words, formalizing the separation between command and administration.[22] By implication, membership would also be extended to those within the military scientific and industrial apparatus, whose status in the hierarchy was not deemed equivalent to that of the general departments.

Designation on the CCP Military Commission remains the job that counts. Confirmation of promotion to this body for the defense minister and the new general department heads long remained obscure, testifying to the awkward relationship between older military generations and the younger generations promoted into senior command slots.[23] Of the three new general department heads, two (Chi and Zhao) were in their mid to late fifties. Their appointments signified the bypassing of military leaders in their sixties and early seventies, who "rightfully" expected to succeed to top posts. Deng, mindful of the need to invigorate the military establishment at all levels, had insisted that the top command slots be filled by much younger men, thereby explaining why Qin Jiwei did not receive his logical promotion—that is, chief of the general staff. Yang Baibing, who is in his late sixties, represents an exception to this trend, with his appointment made solely on personalistic grounds.

Promotion to membership on the Party Military Commission required a rank congruent with such status. According to the available information, commission members must hold a rank no lower than major general (shao jiang ).[24] The only confirmed promotion to the commission during 1987 was that of Liu Huaqing, who had achieved the rank of major general prior to the abolition of ranks in 1965. At best, Chi, Yang, and Zhao held this rank, or (more likely for Chi and Zhao) that of senior colonel (da xiao ). However, Qin Jiwei already held the higher rank of lieutenant general (zhong jiang ). To achieve congruence in status, all were among the seventeen senior officers receiving promotion to the rank of general (shang jiang ) when ranks were formally reintroduced in September 1988.

The designation of seventeen full generals in September 1988 provided the best indicator of the allocation of status and power within the high command.[25] Deng, Zhao Ziyang, and Yang Shangkun were not

[22] See, for example, Far Eastern Economic Review , 24 December 1987, 7.

[23] For evidence that appeared to confirm promotion for new senior commanders to the CCP Commission, see Xinhua , 14 September 1988, in FBIS-China , 15 September 1988, 27.

[24] For a detailed discussion of the rank system, see the article by Fu Meihua in Kuang Chiao Ching , 16 May 1988, 10–14, trans. in FBIS-China , 20 May 1988, 20–24.

[25] Xinhua , 14 September 1988, in FBIS-China , 15 September 1988, 27. Retirements of several of these generals in the spring of 1990 (Hong Xuezhi and Li Desheng) and unconfirmed retirements of several others leave vacancies on the list of full generals, but no promotions to the rank of full general have yet been reported.


designated with any military rank. Below them, appointments reflected a mix of bureaucratic responsibility, party links, seniority, and personal relations: two deputy secretary-generals of the Military Commission; the defense minister; the three General Department heads; the deputy chief of staff responsible for foreign affairs and intelligence; the secretary and second secretary of the Discipline Inspection Commission of the CMC; the political commissar of the Academy of Military Science (but not the president); the president and the political commissar of the National Defense University; the political commissars of the Beijing and Chengdu Military Regions (but not the commanders); the commander of the Nanjing Military Region (but not the political commissar), the political commissar of the navy (but not the commander), and the commander of the air force (but not the political commissar).

Despite these personnel shifts, a CMC executive committee or leading group continued to maintain overall responsibility for military affairs. This group consisted of those identified as vice-chairmen or members of the Secretariat, plus the senior serving military officer.[26] When circumstances warranted, this group forwarded its recommendations to Deng Xiaoping, who remained the supreme arbiter on military matters. In a speech in late May 1989 following the imposition of martial law, Yang Shangkun came close to confirming such an arrangement, even if it discredited Deng's remark of June 1988 asserting that he had already bequeathed leadership of the commission to Zhao Ziyang:

Now some people ask: As there are three chairmen [sic ] in the Central Military Commission, how could Deng Xiaoping alone order the movement of the troops responsible for enforcing martial law? These people do not understand the military service in our country at all. ... In our army, we pursue a commander responsibility system. Such people as I only play a counseling role in assisting the chairman. When he made the decision, he had not only talked with me, but had also talked with Xuezhi, Huaqing, and Minister Qin as well. Why could he not issue the order?[27]

The heads of the general departments represent a second tier of the military leadership. During the crisis of 1989 this group may not have participated in all critical decisions, although some were undoubtedly responsible for policy execution. But their capacity to wield power continued to derive principally from personal relationships, not institutional positions. A third concentric circle—those probably included in enlarged

[26] This arrangement seemed implicit in the September 1988 announcement of the appointments of full generals. Hong Xuezhi, Liu Huaqing, and Qin Jiwei were all listed separately from the General Department heads as "members" of the Military Commission.

[27] Yang's remarks are excerpted from his speech to the CMC "emergency enlarged meeting," 24 May 1989, in Ming Pao, 29 May 1989, in FBIS-China, 30 May 1989, 17–22.


meetings of the Military Commission—encompasses those miilitary chiefs above the army level. These would include service heads, commandants of the Academy of Military Service and the National Defense University, the seven military region commanders, and the political commissars from the above organizations.

The larger organizational constituencies represented on the Military Commission shed additional light on the allocation of power within the PLA. Each of the PLA's three general departments oversees a set of subsidiary institutions responsible for the full spectrum of activities incorporated within the military system. The reach of the General Staff Department is the largest, since this department is responsible for the separate force commands (air force, navy, strategic rocket forces, artillery, and armored forces), and it presides over other important organizational functions, including procurement, operational planning, and intelligence.[28] The General Political Department, although historically responsible for the system of political control and direction of the military propaganda apparatus, has played a lead role in redrafting the PLA's rules, regulations, and responsibilities. The Political Department has the largest voice in the reassignment of military personnel, including the designation of military ranks and the establishment of the retirement system. Thus, it subsumes most of the functions conducted within the CCP by the Organization Department. The General Logistics Department oversees the financial, supply, transportation, and maintenance network entailed in sustaining the operation of PLA units. This responsibility extends to the allocation of funds for equipment purchases and to the provision and maintenance of all nonlethal military equipment and ammunition stocks.

A lesser-known but increasingly important suborgan is the Discipline Inspection Commission (jilu jiancha weiyuanhui, or jiwei ) of the CMC. First identified in Chinese sources in 1984, the Discipline Inspection Commission has been assigned many of the political control functions previously associated with the General Political Department, although its responsibilities also very likely extend to broader personnel matters. General Guo Linxiang, a Long March veteran, serves concurrently as secretary of this group and deputy director of the General Political Department, although recent reports suggest his retirement from his post. The Discipline Inspection Commission was also unusually visible in the period immediately

[28] As a consequence of the streamlining and reorganization undertaken since 1985, there have been important changes in force commands. According to one official source, the artillery, armored, and engineering commands have been subsumed as departments under the General Staff headquarters. Jiefangjun Bao , 25 July 1987, 2. There is no separate ground force command. By tradition, however, the chief of the General Staff is drawn from the ground forces.


following the imposition of martial law in May 1989, confirming its Party watchdog or oversight function within the armed forces. Although the secretary's position remains procedural rather than policy-oriented, he reports directly to the CMC secretary-general, thereby potentially vesting critical powers in the post.

The Commission on National Defense Science, Technology, and Industry (which until late 1987 reported to Zhang Aiping) is charged with overseeing, evaluating, coordinating, and approving plans for military research and development. It has also served as the principal point of contact for countries and firms engaged in negotiations with the Chinese government over transfer of military technology. In theory, the commission's responsibilities extend across all State Council ministeries involved in military production, as well as into the various service commands. The commission sees itself integrally involved in all long-range planning for high technology, with a mandate cutting across civilian as well as military jurisdictions. For reasons to be discussed further, its bark appears more imposing than its bite. But its influence remains substantial, both as a consequence of the prestige and position associated with its high-level patrons (Nie Rongzhen and Zhang Aiping) and by virtue of interpersonal connections that extend into various high-technology sectors.

The Military Commission sits atop this interlocking network of bureaucratic fiefdoms, and, at least nominally, it seeks to adjudicate (if not eliminate) the competition for manpower, budgetary, and technical resources within the system. As one interviewee indicated, however, the commission has a very small, dedicated staff and does not oversee a formally constituted system for defense planning; its power resides in the authority and prestige of individual leaders, rather than in the institution per se, and in its ability to tap expertise within an extensive research-and-planning apparatus.[29] Deng, in the early 1980s, delegated day-to-day responsibility for military affairs to Yang Shangkun, providing Yang with a decisive role in discharging the commission's responsibilities. The frequency and regularity of commission meetings remain unknown. In some instances, the commission has served as a "court of last resort" for disputes that cannot be resolved at lower levels, including major decisions on weapons acquisition. In addition, the commission retains the power of appointment to and dismissal from senior military posts, with the decision subject only to pro forma ratification by the Central Committee.

Differences between wartime and peacetime planning entail additional complexities. In conjuction with the service commands who serve

[29] I will make only passing mention of the military-science research system. For a useful overview of the state of Western knowledge of this system immediately prior to the first opening of its doors to foreign scholars, see Tai Ming Cheung, "Trends in the Research of Chinese Military Strategy," Survival , May–June 1987, 239–59.


as "staff officers" under the General Staff Department, the Military Commission serves as the supreme deliberative body over the use of force. However, forces from the different services that are deployed "in theater" during peacetime report to the regional military commanders, who are responsible for coordinating and integrating all military assets available to them.[30] Interviewees explicitly described this arrangement in terms of the tiao-tiao kuai-kuai dynamic. The chief of staff in Beijing has authority over all operational forces in wartime, but in peacetime he delegates substantial responsibility to the regional commanders. Thus, the regional commander does not have the power to make decisions to initiate the use of force, since this responsibility attaches exclusively to higher-level authorities in Beijing. The role of the regional military commander therefore becomes especially sensitive. On the one hand, he cannot make the decision to go to war; on the other hand, he needs to make "on the spot" decisions based upon his own understanding of central directives. Thus, his responsibilities extend to crucial decisions at both the tactical and the operational level.

It is useful in this context to compare Chinese operational procedures with those followed in defense planning in the United States. In U.S. practice, the president and the secretary of defense (assisted by the joint chiefs in a staff role) deal directly with the unified regional commands. The service chiefs are therefore able to perform their principal responsibility—the management of day-to-day policy in their separate bureaucratic systems. Recent reforms, however, have shifted more power to the joint chiefs, with the chairman assuming an authoritative "centralizing" function, including powers that span the jurisdictional domains of the services and compel more "jointness" among the services.

Prior to the crisis of 1989, the PLA appeared to be headed in multiple directions. Chinese military researchers were increasingly questioning the relevance of a unitary system that combined command and administration, and they appeared to be searching for institutional mechanisms to divide these responsibilities.[31] Under these arrangements, military command and military management would be separated, creating a dual system that differentiated operational control of military forces from responsibility for manpower and materiel allocation, training, procure-

[30] When asked whether comparable arrangements applied to command and control of nuclear weapons, my respondents emphatically insisted that all such forces were fully controlled by military authorities in Beijing through channels distinct from the regional military commands.

[31] For one account of these deliberations, see Zhu Baogang, "A Trend in the Change of the National Defense System," Jiefangjun Bao, 6 March 1987, trans. in JPRS , no. 87,030, 95–97.


ment, and defense construction. But a differentiation between command and administration, although beneficial for the rationalization of functions within the armed forces, may also contribute to unwarranted complexity in bureaucratic channels, given the potential bifurcation of defense policy-making.

The prospects for military reform have been rendered much less certain in the aftermath of the 1989 crisis. Innumerable policy statements have reemphasized the singular importance again attached to political control, with an unmistakable effort to curtail efforts to encourage autonomous professional development. As was noted in an important Jiefangjun Bao editorial, "Over a certain period the leading advocates of bourgeois liberalization deliberately called for 'separating the Army from the Party' and 'preventing the Army from interfering in politics' in an attempt to shake off the Party's leadership over the army."[32] Pending a more conclusive determination of the CCP's future political directions, the development of autonomous institutional norms within the armed forces is likely to be-far more curtailed, with renewed importance to personal relations atop the system.

Deng's resignation from the chairmanship of the CCP Military Commission in November 1989 and his replacement by the Party secretary-general, Jiang Zemin, further underscore these conclusions. Coincident with Jiang's appointment, Yang Shangkun was elevated to Zhao Ziyang's previous position of first vice-chairman, Liu Huaqing was promoted to vice-chairman, and Yang Baibing succeeded his brother as secretary-general, with Qin Jiwei (reflecting his political difficulties following his alleged support for Zhao in the spring crisis) now serving as a member of the commission without executive responsibilities.[33] But Jiang's powers appear more fictive than real: he lacks the stature and personal authority that has been associated historically with the chairman's position. As with Hua Guofeng in the late 1970s, no one seriously believes that Jiang wields supreme power in the armed forces: such capacities remain invested in Deng Xiaoping and his designated first vice-chairman, Yang Shangkun. Taken as a whole, China's military command arrangements still seem an uneasy mix of personalistic and professional considerations. The closer to the acme of the system, the less command derives from specified rules and norms, a judgment amply driven home by the events of the spring of 1989. The persistence of traditional norms amidst a serious, sustained effort to professionalize the Chinese military establishment seems likely to remain a continuing source of long-term conflict within the policy-making process.

[32] "Uphold the Party's Absolute Leadership, Ensure That Our Army Is Always Politically up to Standard," Jiefangjun Bao , 1 October 1989, in FBIS-China , 18 October 1989, 38.

[33] See Xinhua , 9 November 1989, in FBIS-China , 9 November 1989, 18.


Six Structure and Process in the Chinese Military System

Preferred Citation: Lieberthal, Kenneth G., and David M. Lampton, editors Bureaucracy, Politics, and Decision Making in Post-Mao China. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992.