Are China’s hawks actually the PLA elite after all? [Revised]

Yawei Liu

Dr Yawei Liu, of the Carter Center

[Updated 17 Dec: As with most things on here, this was bashed out hastily in the not-so-early hours of a morning, so i’ve taken the liberty of revising and adding some bits as i read through it two weeks later. In particular i felt the need to add in the various things i agree with from Liu and Ren’s excellent article, in addition to the criticisms i made.]


In an upcoming Journal of Contemporary China article addressing the always fascinating question of PLA officers’ belligerent media statements, Yawei Liu and Justine Zheng Ren advance exactly the opposite case to the one made here earlier this year. They argue that military commentators’ media statements represent the “consensus” voice of the PLA, fighting to influence the CCP’s foreign policy. 

Dr Liu, who directs the Carter Center’s China Program, happens to be the brother of General Liu Yazhou, most recently of Silent Contest fame. General Liu himself even features in the article, but references to his thinking are indirect (“General Liu seems to share the conviction that…”), presumably meaning that the two brothers have not talked over these work-related issues. Still, if anyone is in a position to knock the teeth out of my “propaganda, not policy” argument, Dr Liu should be the man.

To briefly recap, my argument was that, based on the backgrounds and affiliations of the main “hawks”, the belligerent military voices in the Chinese media are largely those of nominated propaganda/publicity experts (the two terms conflated as 宣传), whose job is to mould a positive image of the PLA among the domestic population and augment the military’s capabilities by shaping international audiences’ perceptions.[1]

Liu and Ren point out that PLA statements in the Mainland’s mass media actually offer a rich bounty of insights into the “black box” at its core. This corrects my cruder earlier argument that the hawks’ belligerent statements don’t represent PLA thought. Indeed, the observation that some public media statements may represent the PLA’s thinking on international issues is important. My contention, however, is that while the “hawks” may often represent PLA thought, they only do so in public when approved. This is based on an assumption that long-term use of the Chinese state-run media as a platform by someone with a high military rank would require conformity with military discipline and central party propaganda objectives.

The difference between PLA propaganda/publicity and PLA thought is significant, according to Dai Xu: “I have always firmly grasped the two: there is nothing off-limits in thought, but propaganda is subject to discipline.” (The unclear lines between PLA thought and propaganda were raised in the posts on Dai Xu Thought and Yin Zhuo Thought.) My working hypothesis is that the majority of public statements are probably PLA propaganda/publicity, since a great deal of the most important thought work is likely to be internal (neibu).

The other main arguments in Liu and Ren’s piece include the following, which are discussed one by one below:

  1. The PLA is not fully subordinate to the “civilian” CCP leadership;
  2. Military academics in the Chinese mass media express PLA elite perceptions, as distinct from those of the CCP leadership;
  3. The PLA is increasingly setting the agenda of China’s strategic interest.

1. The PLA is not fully subordinate to the “civilian” CCP leadership

Liu and Ren’s argument proceeds on the assumption that Xi Jinping’s efforts to consolidate control of the PLA indicate that a lack of control exists or existed. After noting Xi Jinping’s post-18th Congress visit to the South Sea Feet, attacks on military corruption, promotion of General Wei Fenghe, and repeated calls for “combat readiness”, the second page of the article continues:

The PLA Daily has also published editorials calling for absolute CCP control of the military. All these attempts to have tighter control over the military reflect the fact that, to the top leadership of the CCP, the PLA is not a unifor[m] and subordinate organization that unconditionally complies with the will of the leadership. Instead, the top leadership needs to use all available resources to keep the military in check.

Dividing the PLA’s “perceptions” into four stages since 1949, Liu and Ren note that since the death of Deng Xiaoping, the military’s lack of representation in the elite leadership has given it “for the first time in PRC history a relatively autonomous bargaining chip that it can manipulate against civilian control” (p.9). By phasing the PLA out of decisionmaking, the CCP leadership has left the PLA with more independence. So even as its formal representation on institutional bodies such as the CCP Politburo and Central Committee has declined, its influence in strategic policymaking is supposed to have grown.

On the post-Deng CCP leaders’ strong influence over top military appointments, the authors say that the personal ties cultivated by Jiang, Hu and Xi, being “built on pragmatic interests[,] cannot secure military loyalty to the leadership” (pp.7-8). As a result, the PLA is more of an independent actor, though i couldn’t discern quite  how. To me, some further explanation or evidence is needed to show why and how the pragmatic personal interests of the Chinese military’s top commanders are currently being superceded by their institutional or ideological standpoints. The first step would be to demonstrate where they they actually contradict each other.

Of course, personal interests could change away from CCP rule at some time in the future, especially under the stress of combat conditions. But it seems a big leap to assume that a new leader’s campaign to maintain the Party’s absolute leadership means the Party does not already enjoy absolute leadership. The CCP under Xi Jinping is indeed doing all it can to maintain its control of the military. But mightn’t such efforts be aimed at consolidation of a status quo of “absolute leadership of the CCP”? The Party, after all, already enjoys institutionally control through both the General Secretary’s chairmanship of the Central Military Commission, and downwards through its Party branches.

By linking the campaigns against military statification (军队国家化) to hawkish military media statements, the authors imply that the campaign is at least partially aimed at preventing the PLA from making or influencing policy, rather than just preventing it from becoming a normal army that might decide CCP rule wasn’t in the nation’s best interest. Again, this novel interpretation seems to need evidence — perhaps references in anti-statification campaign literature to, say, interference with high-level decision-making.

Finally, viewing the new CCP leadership’s consolidation actions as somehow driven by concern about PLA influence on policymaking seems to ignore the basic importance to Xi Jinping of controlling the PLA as a means of securing control of the CCP, in line with Chairman Mao’s truism, “power grows from the barrel of a gun” (and perhaps the example of Deng Xiaoping with the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War).

2. Military academics in the Chinese mass media express PLA elite perceptions

In tying the extreme policy positions of PLA academics and propagandists in with more moderate, boilerplate comments by commanders, i think Liu and Ren’s piece tries to join too many dots together into the same narrative of the hawkishness of “PLA elite perceptions” — sort of like Robert Ross trying to explain almost all assertive PRC behaviour by reference to domestic nationalism ed: no, that’s way too harsh, Liu and Ren are much more subtle than that!

As indications “PLA elite perceptions”, Liu and Ren cite, by turn (pp.3-4):

  • Former 38th Field Army Commander Lieutenant-General Li Jijun on human rights as a US weapon, and American bullying on Taiwan arms sales, the 1999 Belgrade Embassy bombing, support for Tibetan rioters in 2008, etc.;
  • Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu on the Chinese dream of bringing down US hegemony;
  • Senior Colonel Han Xudong on the US’s plan to subvert China’s development;
  • Senior Colonel Dai Xu on why attacking one of the US’s “running dogs”, Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan, would “immediately bring all the rest to heel”;
  • Lieutenant-General Ren Haiquan on why Australia should not cooperate with Japan.

Can the comments of senior commanders like Li Jijun (who also happened to be on the 14th and 15th CCP Central Committees) really be equated with those of much lower-ranking military academics and external propaganda/publicity experts such as Liu Mingfu, Han Xudong, and Dai Xu? The article goes on to cite:

  • General Chen Bingde on alleged double standards applied to opponents of the US government (“terrorists”), and opponents of the Chinese government (who receive Nobel prizes);
  • General Xu Caihou on the 2009 Impeccable incident as a violation of China’s EEZ rights under UNCLOS;
  • General Liu Yuan on the US’s unjust wars, and Saif Gaddafi being “brainwashed”;
  • General Liu Yazhou on the US’s desire to overthrow CCP rule in China;
  • Rear Admiral (retired) Yang Yi on the need for China to “punish the United States” over its arms sales to Taiwan;
  • Senior Colonel Meng Xiangqing on the inadequacy of the MFA’s penalties against the US over Taiwan arms sales;
  • Major General Luo Yuan on the need to emulate Russia by deploying missiles against America;
  • Major General Peng Guangqian on the need for US-China relations to focus on other areas besides Taiwan arms sales;
  • General Ma Xiaotian on possibilities for US-China collaboration.

Chen Bingde, Ma Xiaotian, Xu Caihou, Liu Yuan and Liu Yazhou are all full generals, and thus very senior figures in the Chinese military. Retired Rear Admiral Yang, referred to in the article as “General Yang”, was once second-in-charge on a PLAN corvette. But Dai, Han, Luo, Meng, Peng and Liu Mingfu are not in the same category, having never occupied senior command posts. All are outranked by Mao Xinyu except Luo and Peng, who are institutionally equal with Major-General Mao.

Mao Xinyu-large

Mao Xinyu 毛新宇

More importantly, the comments by Generals Chen Bingde, Xu Caihou and Liu Yazhou reflected standard official CCP positions expressed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the CCP’s top leaders. Not only is there little or no difference between the rhetoric and positions of genuinely senior PLA leaders and the “civilian” CCP, some genuinely senior PLA comments have been notably conciliatory. One in particular — Ma Xiaotian on the possibilities for US-China collaboration — is noted in Liu and Ren’s article. But these authoritative statements of agreement with CCP analysis and policy are oddly dismissed as merely “symbolic concessions” (p.14).

3. The PLA is increasingly setting the agenda of China’s strategic interest

The article’s third key claim is that the PLA has strategic aspirations that are different from those of the CCP leadership. According to Liu and Ren (p.10), the “princeling generals” among a new generation of better-educated military elites are more capable of advancing both their personal views and those of the military as a whole, and:

Fundamentally, this is an irresolvable problem for that Chinese leadership. It reflects the conflict between the strategic aspirations of the new military corps and the political goals of the civilian leadership which came to power on a base of weak legitimacy.

After canvassing various threats from PLA figures regarding US arms sales to Taiwan, Liu and Ren conclude that the impact of all this bluster on CCP foreign policy is difficult to gauge. They also note that the PLA “are conscious of the infeasibility of their policy recommendations”. However, they maintain that the PLA’s push for influence is having a major impact by “injecting an organized new force into China’s political market of strategic thoughts” (p.15). I think they’re right that the hawkish propaganda/publicity experts play a crucial role in that market of ideas, but that an important part of their work is to consciously shape that discourse in accordance with strategic objectives designed at the highest level.

Liu and Ren note how in both the South China Sea and Diaoyu Islands disputes, the PLA’s hardline voice “helped fan public opinion and marshal popular support for a tougher position” against the Philippines and Japan. But the idea that this public discourse influenced China’s actual policy behaviour assumes that taking tougher positions was contrary to what the CCP leadership really wanted to do. The impressive coordination in the PRC’s responses to the slow-moving Scarborough Shoal and Diaoyu Islands crises last year suggests the tougher stance was the subject of consensus. Had there been disagreement among the decisionmaking elite, with hawkish public opinion playing a role in marginalizing dovish voices, then this should have produced some evidence of support for a more dovish policy response. That is, unless the “doves” simply dared not contradict public opinion, which i admit is a possibility, but belongs to the realm of the black box.

Moreover, civilian and military leaders appear to have acted in coordination throughout the PRC’s responses to both Scarborough Shoal and the Diaoyu Islands. Although Luo Yuan staked out the extremes of the debate in April by calling for the establishment of a military base on the disputed rock and voicing disagreement with the “pulling out” of a fisheries law enforcement ship from the scene, it was two weeks later, in response to civilian comments on the issue, that Chinese domestic attention on the issue suddenly jumped. Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying’s comment the Philippines had “severely damaged bilateral relations and raised public feelings” and that “all preparations” had been made for escalation by the Philippines side, was accompanied by a Huanqiu Shibao/Global Times editorial titled, ‘Peace will be a miracle if provocation lasts’ and several other foreboding comments.

Scarborough Shoal attention wave - from Baidu Index

Scarborough Shoal attention wave – from Baidu Index

During the Diaoyu crisis, when CCP institutions lined up one after another to shrilly yet formally denounce Japan’s move, the civilian leadership was at least as decisive in laying down and coordinating China’s response. There have been substantial changes to the status quo around both Scarborough Shoal and the Diaoyu Islands, all strengthening China’s position. Perhaps most telling is the PRC’s continued incremental advancements since September last year, such as the first-ever flight by a Chinese government plane into the territorial airspace above Diaoyu in December 2012, and the recent establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea. Given the consistency in China’s approach, and the steadfast non-involvement of the military in the actual disputes, the idea that the PLA and CCP elites have substantially different views of where China’s strategic interests lie looks unlikely.


No doubt, the PLA has its own institutional interests and policy preferences, and its leaders haggle after them. The question is where and when, if ever, do these play out in public. Michael Swaine and Taylor Fravel detailed one instance where the PLA appears to have influenced the Chinese policy position: the US-Korea naval exercises in the Yellow Sea in 2010. Swaine and Fravel narrated the crucial sequence of events as follows:

Although the MFA on June 22 used moderate phrasing, stating that they were “following the development closely,” the PLA Deputy Chief of Staff (Ma Xiaotian) used much stronger language on July 1 during what appeared to be an impromptu interview on Phoenix Television. He asserted that Beijing was not merely “concerned” about the exercises, but “extremely opposed” (feichang fandui, 非常反对) to them because they
were “close to Chinese territorial waters.”

In a statement on July 6, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Qin Gang stated, “We have taken note of the remarks of Deputy Chief of General Staff Ma Xiaotian. We will follow closely the situation and make further statements accordingly.” Two days later, the Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Qin Gang used much stronger language that appeared to endorse the position articulated by Ma Xiaotian. He stated that China “resolutely opposed” (jianjue fandui, 坚决反对) the presence of “foreign ships” in the Yellow Sea and “other coastal waters [jinhai, 近海]” that would influence “China’s security interests.”

For me, there were two major takeaway points from the 2010 Yellow Sea episode. First, to be a reliable indication of military influence on policymaking via mass media, the relevant comment probably needs to be from a genuine general, not just a PLA academic. Although Swaine & Fravel noted the role of commercialized media and PLA pundits in attracting public attention to the issue, there is no evidence that these had an independent effect; indeed all are routine aspects of China’s foreign affairs discourse today. It was only after General Ma weighed in that China’s official position changed.

Second, this episode demonstrated the PLA’s ability to shift the rhetorical tone of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokespersons’ comments, but it did not extend to shifting China’s actual policy position. By the end of that year, when the US and Korea conducted another round of Yellow Sea naval exercises, the references to undefined “coastal waters” and expansive “security interests” had been dropped in favour of a more limited position of opposition to

“any military activities conducted without permission inside China’s EEZ.” [emphasis added]

Lastly, and probably rather predictably, i would point out that Liu and Ren’s argument ignores the domestic and international strategic advantages of the narrative of a hawkish, fearless military. The authors themselves observe that the post-Korean War view of the US as a “paper tiger” that the PLA could defeat through resolute confrontation “served as a confidence booster to the young republic”. There is little doubt that the CCP and PLA leadership continue to agree on the importance of maintaining public confidence in the PLA. “Moulding our army’s positive image” is one of the main aims of the military’s external publicity/propaganda push, which was launched and sustained by a “series of important instructions” by Hu Jintao from 2006. Willingness to fight is, quite naturally, an important component of a “positive image” of an army such as the PLA.

Domestic public will and attention is seen as an important resource in international disputes. As the official military mouthpiece Jiefangjun Bao’s review of external propaganda work last November stated:

Military external propaganda is a battlefield without smoke, and the media is a weapon for charging through enemy lines. Whoever can effectively use this “weapon” will have the initiative in the “war”. While fully utilizing newspapers, radio and television, our military has also increased its online external propaganda power, actively expanding the field.

According to Luo Yuan, public will (民意) is “able to overturn ships”, while Dai Xu has called it the “main force in Chinese society”, and on such matters, the academic figures who make up most of the PLA’s external propaganda/publicity corps are, quite literally, the experts. Both have taken on the task of National Defense Education and raising the public’s “imperilment awareness” 忧患意识 and thus vigilance against ideological permeation. Then there’s the matter of Luo Yuan’s “real and fake” dove-hawk opera

Having said all that, of course, faced with the choice of believing the brother of a 3-4-star General and Political Commissar of the PLA National Defense University, writing in the Journal of Contemporary China [2], or a student blogger on the shores of the Swan River, i’m pretty sure i know whose interpretation i’d go with!

Swan River

[1] Something i didn’t have space for, and which i’m now saving for my dissertation, was how these aims accord with the PLA’s doctrine of “public opinion warfare”, part of the “Three Kinds of Warfare” (三种战法) codified in its 2003 Political Work Guidelines and apparently given further emphasis in a 2010 revision. The crucial point, i believe, is that this doctrine includes both offensive efforts at shaping adversaries’ perceptions, foreign public opinion, and relevant international legal interpretations, and also defensive operations to counter enemy psychological and public opinion warfare at home.

[2] The Journal of Contemporary China has been absolutely brilliant this year, with this just the latest in a long procession of extremely thought-provoking articles right on my subject areas. Here are some of my highlights (i don’t actually agree with that many of their specific viewpoints, but they were all great pieces):

One Comment on “Are China’s hawks actually the PLA elite after all? [Revised]”

  1. […] in the what of an issue. This advantage is not limited to the world of material objects. A recent post at Andrew Chubb‘s website is an excellent example of how expertise can be properly applied to […]

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