According to a report, around New Year’s day officers in two Chinese air force units were arrested on suspicion of plotting a coup. At the same time, a nuclear submarine on patrol was ordered back to port because some on board were thought to have links with the plotters. This report, circulated on Sunday on a China-watching listserv, remains unconfirmed. This rumor could be linked in some fashion to the detention last month of Colonel Tan Linshu, of the Chinese navy, for subversion.
A coup at first glance seems inconceivable, but there has been an evident erosion in civilian control of the Chinese military in recent years. The most important manifestation of this breakdown is that colonels and flag officers have begun openly criticizing civilian leaders and are now speaking out on matters once considered the exclusive province of diplomats.
What’s happening? From all indications, senior officers have gained influence in top Communist Party circles as civilian leaders have, since the early part of last decade, looked to them to settle power struggles in Beijing. Today, that trend is continuing as generals and admirals are involving themselves in a major leadership transition set to formally begin at the end of this year at the 18th Party Congress.
Moreover, civilians have increasingly relied on troops of the People’s Liberation Army and the semi-military People’s Armed Police to maintain order in an increasingly volatile society. Finally, China’s current civilian leaders are turning to nationalism to bolster failing political legitimacy, and it is the military that carries the flag of the People’s Republic beyond China’s borders and into space. In view of all these factors, we are witnessing the partial remilitarization of politics and policy.
At one time, the Communist Party and the PLA were almost one. The first two leaders of the People’s Republic, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, were army officers. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, the next two, are civilians, and this has led to the “bifurcation of civil and military elites.”
Jiang’s elevation to the top spot marked the beginning of a period of rapid decline of military influence. His tenure, for instance, witnessed progressively fewer generals and admirals holding posts in top Communist Party organs. No military officer has served on the Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of political power in China, since 1997.
The decline is now being reversed as the PLA has been gaining influence during the tenure of Hu Jintao, the current supremo. In January 2011, then Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke of the “disconnect” between China’s civilian and military leaders. As he suggested, the regime is divided with constituent elements often carrying out their own policies with little evident coordination.
As the center continues to fracture during this time of Chinese political transition—something especially evident during Gates’s troubled last visit to Beijing—the one-party system is inevitably splintering, something that has not happened to this degree since the Beijing Spring of 1989 or maybe even since Mao’s death in 1976. As Arthur Waldron of the University of Pennsylvania points out, Chinese history is marked by periods where civilian and military leaders drift apart, and now China is entering one of those eras.
It is, however, one thing to have a strong military and another to have a coup. At one time, the People’s Republic was rife with coup rumors, especially when Lin Biao appeared to lead an unsuccessful attempt to unseat Mao Zedong in 1971. Since then, generals and admirals have given virtually no indication that they possessed grand political ambitions.
Now, things look like they are changing. There have been too many reminders in the Chinese state media that “the Party controls the gun”—that the PLA reports to civilians—to think that this has not become an issue.
So was there a coup attempt in China in the last two weeks? Even if there was not, talk of a military takeover indicates someone is trying to destabilize the regime, and that cannot be a good thing for the country’s increasingly shaky civilian leaders.