China: Recentralizing Power in the PLA - by CWP Alumni Joel Wuthnow
One of the key themes of Xi Jinping’s attempts to reform the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is the need to recentralize power under the Central Military Commission (CMC), the PLA’s highest-level decision-making organ which Xi has led since November 2012. The thinking is that PLA modernization previously stalled (and corruption flourished) because too much authority had been ceded to the four general departments, seven military regions, and other power centers in the PLA that were more interested in protecting their own “vested interests” than in reform. Over the last few years, Xi has tried to restore power to the center in several ways: abolishing the general departments, increasing the autonomy of supervisory organs such as the Audit Office and the military legal system, and overseeing a major anti-corruption campaign in the PLA. 
Yet all these changes leave open a question: how does an 11-member CMC (not to mention Xi personally) exercise oversight over a 2.3 million-person organization? An important part of the answer lies in the CMC General Office (CMC-GO), which has provided staff support to CMC members since 1949. Though long a key administrative agent, the responsibility, and influence of the CMC-GO has grown as Xi has sought to revitalize the CMC’s authority and assert his position as CMC chairman. Available evidence indicates that that the CMC-GO has supported these goals in three ways: managing an enlarged CMC bureaucracy, providing trusted counsel to Xi, and carrying out new legal and propaganda roles. Its ability to carry out these missions is thus key to Xi’s ability to implement his larger reform program.
Managing an Expanded Bureaucracy
As with other general offices across the Party and state apparatus, the CMC-GO’s essential role is to provide staff support for senior leaders. Its official mission, according to the Ministry of National Defense, is to process “all CMC communications and documents, coordinate meetings, and convey orders and directives to other CMC subordinate sections.”  These are such indispensable functions that the CMC-GO was largely unaffected by historical events that disrupted other parts of the PLA, such as the Cultural Revolution and the large-scale military restructurings of the 1950s and 1980s.  Led by a director and several deputy directors, the CMC-GO originally carried out its duties from an office adjacent to the Zhongnanhai leadership compound before moving to the top floors of the Bayi (August 1st) building in 2000.
Under Xi, the CMC-GO continues to serve as a liaison between the CMC, the four services, and the five new theater commands (TCs). Yet changes to the internal CMC structure under Xi’s leadership have placed new demands on the general office. In January 2016, Xi announced a new CMC organization composed of 15 departments, commissions, and offices.  These included the successor organizations of the four general departments, as well as separate training, administration, and national defense mobilization departments (previously under the General Staff Department). Supervisory organs like the Discipline Inspection Commission (previously under the General Political Department, GPD), and smaller offices responsible for niche areas such as strategic planning and foreign military exchanges also appeared.
Although these organizations are under nominal CMC oversight, in practice there is a need for a bureaucratic interface to provide coordination between the CMC members and subordinate departments. This is not only a practical requirement, given constraints on CMC members’ time and attention, but also helps to align the new CMC bureaucracy with the PLA’s existing grade structure. In particular, several of the new CMC offices (such as the Audit Office and the Office of International Military Cooperation) are two or more grade levels below the CMC and normally would be expected to report via an intermediary like the CMC-GO.  Serving this role gives the general office a significant ability to influence the relationship between CMC department directors and CMC members and to decide when and how information will be transmitted to and from senior leaders. Yet it also creates the responsibility of ensuring that CMC directives are being implemented by subordinate organizations.
To increase the CMC-GO’s ability to control the bureaucracy, Xi has increased the status of its current director, Lieutenant General Qin Shengxiang (秦生祥). Two recent changes are worth noting. First, Qin has been dual-hatted as director of the CMC Reform and Organization Office, which helps develop and execute reform plans for the PLA (Pengpai, August 28, 2016). Second, Qin has been elevated in grade from TC Deputy Leader to TC Leader (Pengpai, February 25, 2017). This is significant both because it places Qin on the same or higher grade as all but four of the 15 CMC department directors, and because it raises the bureaucratic status of the CMC-GO itself to an unprecedented level.  These changes have led some to compare Qin’s influence to that of former CMC Secretary General Yang Baibing (Sing Tao Daily, January 12, 2016). More symbolically, the CMC-GO is also listed first in protocol order, even ahead of the successors to the four general departments, which underscores its role in managing the new CMC organization (ChinaMil, January 11, 2016).
Xi’s Eyes and Ears
Another key function that the CMC-GO has played is providing trusted advice and information to senior leaders. Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin both placed long-time personal secretaries (秘书) in the CMC-GO to serve as their “eyes and ears” in the PLA.  Xi Jinping himself served as a secretary to then-Defense Minister Geng Biao in the CMC-GO between 1979 and 1982. Although only in his 20s, Xi was likely deemed suitable because of the close relationship between Geng and Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, during the anti-Japanese war. Later, Geng’s daughter recalled that “my father thought that Jinping was a very reliable young man, who studied hard” (People’s Daily, December 23, 2012). The experience also likely demonstrated to Xi the critical roles played by the general office.
As a CMC leader, Xi followed Deng and Jiang’s example by appointing a close associate to a key CMC-GO post. Specifically, Zhong Shaojun (钟绍军), who currently serves as one of the CMC-GO deputy directors and head of Xi’s personal CMC office, was formerly a civilian official who aided Xi when he was Zhejiang Party Secretary, and later as Shanghai Party Secretary (New York Times, September 30, 2015). After Xi was appointed CMC vice chairman in 2010, Zhong was given a military rank of senior colonel and placed in the CMC-GO; he was later promoted to Major General. Although Zhong maintains an extremely low public profile, rarely appearing in Chinese media reports, he is an important gatekeeper and confidante to Xi on military matters.
The CMC-GO also plays a role in a variety of other functional areas. Its policy research bureau (调研局) gained attention from 1987 to 1992 when its then director, Li Jijun, published a number of influential papers on local war strategy.  That bureau remains a source of military advice; in 2016, Major General Cai Hongshuo, a senior researcher, was appointed deputy director of the experts’ committee of the CMC Leading Small Group on reform, chaired by Xi (Pengpai, July 28, 2016). The CMC-GO also oversees the PLA’s secrecy commission (保密委员会) that supervises the PLA’s system of maintaining classified information.  Perhaps its most sensitive role is overseeing the Central Guards Bureau (警卫局), which provides bodyguards for top Chinese Communist Party and PLA officials and provides security for key sites.
Over the last few years, the general office has assumed two additional roles designed to support the larger goal of recentralizing authority under the CMC. First is issuing military regulations, which was a responsibility of the former General Political Department (GPD).  One PRC legal affairs expert explains that the CMC-GO has the responsibility for “implementing the CMC chairman’s instructions,” meaning that the documents it issues “should have the power of military regulations” (Legal Daily, January 28, 2016). For instance, a 2015 instruction, distributed “with the approval of CMC chairman Xi Jinping,” outlined new auditing procedures for the PLA, while a 2016 instruction required units to fulfill CMC-mandated training objectives (Jiefangjun Bao, February 10, 2015, Xinhua, December 28, 2016).
A second new mission for the CMC-GO is in the area of propaganda. In the past, the CMC-GO did not play a notable propaganda role, ceding this function to the former GPD. Under Xi, however, the general office has issued a variety of circulars, most of them enjoining soldiers to carefully study Xi’s remarks on select topics. One 2016 circular, for instance, drew attention to Xi’s remarks on the 80th anniversary of the Long March, while another encouraged PLA personnel to study Xi’s speech to cadres on the spirit of the 6th Plenum of the 18th Party Congress, which called on Party members, among other things, to “defend the core” (referring to Xi himself) (Xinhua, October 24, 2016, Xinhua, February 26, 2017). 
The common link in the CMC-GO’s recent activities in the legal and political arenas is the imperative to buttress Xi’s influence in the PLA. Major General Tian Yixiang, another CMC-GO deputy director, explained that the “number one work responsibility” of the general office is to “defend and implement the CMC chairman responsibility system” (Jiefangjun Bao, April 28, 2016). The “CMC chairman responsibility system” is a phrase popularized over the last few years that implies that ultimate authority over PLA affairs rests with Xi, rather than the CMC vice chairmen (who were granted significant autonomy under the Jiang and Hu administrations).  Issuing instructions under Xi’s name and publicizing Xi’s remarks on military topics is thus a way for the CMC-GO to carry out its duty to promote the role of the CMC chairman.
Although the CMC-GO has played a significant role in returning authority to the CMC, and elevating Xi’s status as CMC chairman in particular, there are a few key constraints on its influence. First, its expanded authority is largely contingent on its relationship with Xi. This has two implications: the general office’s influence could ebb if Xi’s successor decides to move power back to the former general departments or elsewhere in the PLA; and Xi could reduce the authority bestowed on the office’s leadership if he feels that they are no longer serving his interests (just as Deng Xiaoping removed Yang Baibing as head of the now-defunct CMC Secretariat in 1992). 
Second, Xi’s ability to rely on confidantes in the CMC-GO to better understand developments in the PLA is limited. Zhong Shaojun himself is only one individual; it is unclear who Xi’s other trusted advisers in the general office are (though he certainly employs a cadre of lower-level personal secretaries). Xi does not, for instance, appear to have a longstanding personal relationship with Qin Shengxiang, who previously oversaw the GPD’s Organization Department. Moreover, Zhong himself does not have a long pedigree of service in the PLA, which could limit his ability to grasp internal developments and transmit them to Xi.
Third, attempts by the CMC-GO leadership to enforce compliance by subsidiary organizations could encounter bureaucratic resistance. There is already evidence of an effort by individuals who claim to be affiliated with the former GPD to undercut Qin Shengxiang’s influence by tying him to disgraced former CMC vice chairmen Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou (Boxun, April 2014; Boxun, March 2017). This could indicate frustration with Qin’s expanded authority or the ways in which he has sought to use it. More broadly, any of the new CMC organizations could use common tactics, such as withholding embarrassing details on their performance, to circumvent the CMC-GO.
An important test of the CMC-GO’s ability to manage the CMC bureaucracy will come over the next few years as PLA reform deepens, including through a planned 300,000-person downsizing, force structure adjustments, and a major PLA leadership turnover. Those changes will place added burdens on Xi and his fellow CMC members not only to effectively communicate with the larger PLA, but also to understand and break through any bureaucratic logjams. The CMC-GO will place a key role in this respect by providing advice, reinforcing Xi’s status as CMC chairman, and managing the enlarged CMC bureaucracy. However, given its constraints, it is unclear that the office has the ability to fight and win battles against committed bureaucratic foes.
Dr. Joel Wuthnow is a Research Fellow in the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs, Institute for National Strategic Studies, at the National Defense University (NDU). Prior to joining NDU, he was a China analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, a post-doctoral fellow in the China and the World Program at Princeton University, and a pre-doctoral fellow at the Brookings Institution.
- Joel Wuthnow and Phillip C. Saunders, Chinese Military Reform in the Age of Xi Jinping (Washington, DC: National Defense University, 2017), pp. 32-5.
- PRC Ministry of National Defense, http://eng.mod.gov.cn/cmc/index.htm
- For an insider’s account of the CMC-GO from the 1950s-1980s, see Bo Xuezheng, “My Days in the CMC General Office” (在中央军委办公厅工作的日子), Party History World (党史天地), January 2006, pp. 8-16.
- Wuthnow and Saunders, pp. 10-13.
- Thanks to Ken Allen for this insight.
- Historically, the CMC-GO was an MR Deputy Leader-grade organization. The directors of successor organizations of the four general departments (namely Joint Staff, Political Work, Logistics Support, and Equipment Development) remain CMC members—one grade above TC Leader. It is unclear whether those departments will remain at that grade after the 19th Party Congress, when a major PLA leadership turnover is expected.
- Deng appointed Wang Ruilin as a CMC-GO deputy director in the early 1980s, while Jiang appointed Jia Ting’an as general office director in the 1990s. See: Cheng Li, “The New Military Elite: Generational Profile and Contradictory Trends” in David Finkelstein and Kristen Gunness, Civil-Military Relations in Today’s China: Swimming in a New Sea (New York: Routledge, 2007), pp. 67-8.
- Michael D. Swaine, The Military & Political Succession in China (Arlington, VA: RAND, 1992), 70. Li later served as president of the PLA Academy of Military Science. The CMC-GO also played a significant role in drafting the Hu Jintao-era “new historic missions.” Isaac B. Kardon and Phillip C. Saunders, “Reconsidering the PLA as an Interest Group,” in Phillip C. Saunders and Andrew Scobell, PLA Influence on China’s National Security Policymaking (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), p. 42.
- Kenneth W. Allen, “Introduction to the PLA’s Organizational Reforms: 2000-2012,” in Kevin Pollpeter and Kenneth W. Allen, The PLA as Organization v2.0 (Vienna, VA: DGI, 2015), pp. 38-9.
- The CMC-GO has had a Legal Affairs Bureau (法制局) for years, though in practice military regulations were issued by the GPD.
- In charge of this propaganda effort is CMC-GO Political Work Bureau (政治工作局) director Major General Wang Anlong, who previously served in the Nanjing MR. This is potentially important due to the links between Xi and former senior officers from that command. See: “Xi Jinping Consolidates Power By Promoting Alumni of the Nanjing Military Region,” China Brief, January 9, 2015.
- The phraseology is derived from the 1982 PRC Constitution, which states that the “Chairman assumes overall responsibility for the work of the Central Military Commission.”
- Swaine, p. 70.
This article appeared originally at The Jamestown Foundation's China Brief.
By Joel Wuthnow
May 12, 2017