Will China Have a Military-Run Government?

On Sunday, Jiang Zemin made his first public appearance after rumors of his death circulated in early July. The 85-year-old former supremo received a standing ovation as he walked onto the rostrum in the Great Hall of the People at the Communist Party’s celebration of the 1911 revolution.

Jiang’s presence was the news at an otherwise uneventful ceremony highlighted by another dreary speech delivered by current leader Hu Jintao. Hu and Jiang shook hands and engaged in cordial conversation as Chinese television broadcast images meant to convey party unity.

Don’t believe the signs of cooperation between the two rivals. “It’s all about political influence,” said Chen Ziming, Beijing political analyst, to the South China Morning Post, referring to Jiang’s surprise appearance at the event. “The message is crystal clear: as long as he remains well and kicking, he still has the ability to influence decisions regarding key personnel changes.”

And as long as Jiang exercises influence, the Communist Party’s planned succession of power, set to begin at the 18th Congress late next year, is bound to be turbulent. Hu was able to wrest power from Jiang after 2002’s 16th Congress only by winning the backing of flag officers in a troubled succession process that lasted years. The generals and admirals exacted a heavy price for their political support: they gained a large say over policy on critical issues and budgets. Hu, it appears, even ceded control of the critically important Central Military Commission to the top brass in 2004, letting the military supervise itself, without meaningful party oversight.

In effect, Hu Jintao opened the door to the military to act as power brokers. This time, it appears that the generals and admirals are again acting as kingmakers as Jiang and Hu renew their political struggles in the run up to the next congress, where Hu is expected to step down in favor of Xi Jinping.

From what we can tell, Jiang forced Hu to accept Xi. Jiang’s reemergence on Sunday could mean that Xi’s path to power next year is not as safe as analysts assume. If Xi were that secure, the ailing Jiang would not have had to make an appearance to assure supporters that he can still protect his so-called “Shanghai Gang” faction.

In any event, it appears that Jiang and Hu are fighting over the selection of officials to fill dozens of other party and central government posts to be named at the 18th Congress and at later meetings in 2013. Flag officers are sure to protect their turf in this titanic contest—and the all-important struggle to fill slots on the next Central Military Commission.

Some believe this process of remilitarization of politics and policy has gone so far that the People’s Liberation Army will become the most powerful faction in the Communist Party after the 18th Congress. “The military will play a more important role than before,” said Bo Zhiyue of the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute in a speech delivered in Hong Kong on Thursday. “Maybe the balance of power will be more tipped towards the PLA instead of civilian positions.”

Will China end up with a military-run government? As Bo suggests, China’s military will gain even more power in the years ahead and play a larger role in domestic politics. And it is not hard to see why. These days, civilian party leaders rely on the troops of the PLA and the semi-military People’s Armed Police to maintain order and to keep themselves in power; civilian authority at the center is dissolving, leaving a vacuum in which the top brass is filling; and the military is maintaining its cohesiveness better than other factions in Beijing.

Unfortunately, we could be entering an era of the ascendance of flag officers, just as Beijing tries to wield greater influence beyond China’s borders.

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