China's Army

A tool of power, it serves the party, not the people

Political power grows out of the barrel of the gun, and the party must always control the gun. Mao Zedong

THE horrendous and unnecessary bloodletting in Beijing from June 3 through June 5 was the first time in the history of the People's Republic of China that massed troops used lethal force against crowds of unarmed civilians. In the days that followed, rumors of maneuvering armies in and around Beijing led to speculation that China verged on civil war. By June 8, it was clear that the government forces had prevailed in the capital and attention shifted to other cities where the ``democracy'' reform movement remained strong. Would there be repeats of the Beijing calamity? Would the army take orders?

The People's Liberation Army (PLA) is an odd combination of Chinese power-balance politics and a modern national army. Top officers often hold high party ranks and are regular participants in the political decisionmaking process.

Power cliques are generated from within by the operational structure of the PLA. Promotions have been based on sponsorship by higher-ranking officers. A network of career obligations emerged in which each high-ranking officer had his own pyramid of men owing loyalty to him. These networks often had a regional component; military-region commanders played major roles in promotions of officers serving in ``their'' units. Both Mao and Deng Xiaoping realized the danger inherent in this, and undertook occasional rotations of military-region commanders to prevent development of strong power bases around the PLA.

Even with these rotational precautions, some units have special relationships with top leaders. The recently purged defense minister Qin Jiwei had long-standing ties to the 38th Army. Mr. Qin opposed martial law: Thus it was not too surprising that the 38th Army made little attempt to penetrate the sea of humanity that met it as it entered the outskirts of Beijing. Fox Butterfield of the New York Times showed the family relationships linking the octogenarian President Yang Shangkun with the commander of the 27th Army. It may well have been those connections that determined that the 27th was ordered to crush the student protest in Tiananmen Square.

However, these personal, almost feudal elements in the power structure of the PLA should not be overemphasized. The PLA is also a national army with a modern, centralized command structure. The Central Military Commission has ultimate authority over the PLA, and Deng Xiaoping has served as its chairman for the past dozen years. The formal reins of authority are in his hands and those of Yang Shangkun, commission secretary.

Given the heinous behavior of the 27th Army in Beijing, it was the hope of many observers that other military leaders would be repelled and refuse further orders from the Deng Xiaoping-Yang Shangkun-Li Peng government. Some were even predicting civil war among the units in the vicinity of Beijing.

But Deng Xiaoping helped ensure PLA obedience after the martial law proclamation on May 20. He went to Wuhan, where he obtained the pledges of six of the seven military-region commanders to support the military crackdown.

There are, however, some weak spots in the army that could prove important in the coming weeks and months. According to a former PLA officer (interviewed about the time of the imposition of martial law), discipline within the armed forces is much poorer now than it was in the 1970s. This was later demonstrated in the wild and random shooting by the 27th Army in Beijing. The enlisted men are not well motivated; they are serving because they have no alternative. Most are poorly educated peasants; all are poorly paid. Face to face with demonstrators, many small units might waver or retreat. The same source observed that many of the junior and field-grade officers have been infected by the democratic spirit, and others are alienated by widespread corruption in the armed forces.

Thus, while the party still controls the army, the PLA is a crude political instrument with a number of serious internal problems. It would be in the best interests of the PLA to avoid becoming an instrument of internal suppression. Unfortunately, if force is required by the leadership in Beijing, there is little alternative but to use the PLA. The People's Armed Police are too small in number (some 200,000) and too dispersed among provincial and city administrations to be an effective military force. The party leadership would also prefer not to depend too heavily upon the PLA for maintaining power. The last time that occurred was during the Cultural Revolution, and it nearly led to a military coup d'etat by then defense minister Lin Biao.

For now, it appears military assaults against additional cities will not be necessary. Popular demoralization combined with the tactic of arresting many democracy-movement activists seems to be reestablishing nationwide government control. However, the regime has lost authority and legitimacy, so ``the barrel of the gun'' will continue to be pointed at China itself.

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