The Chinese National People’s Congress (NPC) approval, on March 11, of the constitutional amendment that abolishes the two-term limit for the president and vice president of the People’s Republic of China opens up new developments for Chinese institutions. The extension of Xi Jinping’s mandate beyond 2023, the year his second term in office ends, will have a strong impact on overall Chinese domestic politics. One of the institutional frameworks that would be most affected by the reform is the military. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in fact exists to protect and serve the party, since – as stated indirectly in the preamble to the state constitution, in the Communist party constitution, and in NPC laws on national security issued in 1996 and 1997 – the primary function of the PLA is to first of all protect the party and then the state. There are three dimensions of the military that this constitutional reform will contribute to change: the first concerns the role of the president’s relations with and authority over the armed forces; his figure will assume an increasingly central role in the politico-military field. The second concerns the inevitable strategic centralization in the hands of a single leader and its immediate effects on the army’s operational structure. Finally, the third dimension concerns, as a whole, the process of modernization of the armed forces.
The Chinese president is not only the party secretary, but is also the head of the Central Military Commission (CMC), i.e. the de facto commander-in-chief of China’s armed forces. With Xi Jinping in power for a period of more than two terms, his influence within the People's Liberation Army cannot but increase, strengthening even further his control over the army. This would also make the PLA more attached to the logic and mechanisms of the Chinese Communist Party. Consequently, the extension of the presidential mandate will, most likely, lay the foundation for the realization of that political project that Deng Xiaoping strongly opposed and for which he had decided to introduce the two-term limit: the total centralization of power around a single person like it used to be at the time of Mao.
In particular, the action taken by Xi Jinping, also and above all towards the army, expresses the presence of a “legalistic” attitude (which refers to the ancient Chinese tradition of legalism, that is, a strict application of the law in state affairs). Hence, on the one hand, the Communist establishment promotes unconditional respect for and compliance with the law: the images of President Xi as well as the other party members taking an oath to uphold the constitution (a practice never done before) exactly conveys this message. On the other, according to the Chinese approach, the same law also lends itself to interpretations, rigorously conceived from the top, which are necessary to reach certain objectives. The “legalist” Xi, therefore, wants, on the one hand, to ensure that the army strictly acts according to the law – here conceived as the supremacy of the party as well as total respect for the rules – in order to curb its own internal corruption. But on the other, he wants the army to identify itself directly with the president's ideology and strategic thinking rather than with the law and the constitution.
The second dimension, which is the direct consequence of the first, concerns the centralization in the hands of a single leader of the strategic planning and the associated operational-military setting. In other words, starting with the era of Hu Jintao, the army had begun to establish its own structural identity that made it more autonomous and independent from the party’s control. With Xi Jinping and his gradual transformation of the constitutional rules, the army returned again under the absolute control of the presidency, as opposed to the party. Xi’s strategic centralization implies that the army is strongly encouraged to fully absorb Xi Jinping’s strategic thinking in conducting its military operations which is expressed through the strategic guideline of “winning local wars under informationized conditions” (打赢信息化条件下的局部战争 – daying xinxihua tiaojianxiade jubu zhanzheng).
Since the beginning of his first term as Chinese leader in 2012, Xi Jinping's strategic thinking has moved through three fundamental phases: the first dates back to 2012, the year of his ascendency to power. His political program emphasized the necessity to build a “Strong Nation Strong Military” (强国强军 – qiangguo qiangjun) that would be able to compete on the same level with other great powers in general and in longer terms with the U.S. in particular. The second phase, in 2015, concerned the reform of the military. The ideological guideline concerned the strengthening of the principle of the junmin ronghe (军民融合) – that is, the interdependence between the military and the civil/industrial sector – whose main objective is the promotion of a deeper synergy between the industrial and military spectra for the pursuit of national interests. In addition to that, the junmin ronghe also concerns the spread of a ‘military spirit’ in Chinese society. All this means that the economic and military spheres move closer to interpenetration, that is, into one big organizational-operational system. For example, state-owned companies will have to be ready to create an economy necessary for military mobilization. The same applies to the civil sector as a whole, such as civil society, students, and public officials, whose role cannot but take into consideration whatever military involvement they might be asked to perform in times of conflict.
Finally, the third phase, developed in the autumn of 2016, concerned the appointment of Xi Jinping as the nucleus (领导核心 – lingdao hexin) of the party leadership. This appointment implies that the party leader ceases to be a primus inter pares, becoming instead an absolute leader, with a strong ideological centrality within the party.
The third and last dimension concerns army modernization in an organizational and operational perspective. The 2015 reform responded to this major necessity. At the organizational level, one of the first objectives to be achieved according to the principle of junmin ronghe concerns the ability to perform joint operations and interoperability among the different army groups (army, navy, and air force) and across the different spectra of warfare, such as: air, sea, land, space, and cyberspace.
At the operational level, the extension of the presidential mandate will affect the behavior of the army, which will inevitably become more assertive, as attested to during the ninetieth anniversary of the PLA in the summer of 2017. Instead of the usual parade on Tiananmen Square, President Xi changed both venue and language. The parade took place at Zhurihe, in the Inner Mongolia Province, which is the country’s largest military base for military exercises. As for the language, unlike previous presidents, Xi emphasized the functionality of the military, declaring, “an army is made to fight and therefore must be used for warfare operations.” This expression directly reflected what the future of Chinese approaches towards Beijing’s foreign and security policies could look like. Furthermore, Xi’s reforms will exert some influence on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It had been precisely the “creativity” of President Xi which laid the foundations, back in 2013, of this economic project that is now starting to take on more security-related issues such as the Chinese military base in Djibouti, as well as the currently ongoing transformation of the Gwadar port in Pakistan into a strategic-military asset.
As confirmed by the Chinese nationalist newspaper Global Times during the proceedings of the National People’s Congress, these major domestic and foreign policy objectives extend in time and require a firm domestic grip on politics in order to be accomplished. Part of this achievement inevitably goes through the transformation of the military – both at doctrinal and operational levels – which, sooner or later, will be called upon to support China’s overall national accomplishment. Within this developmental framework, Xi’s reform seems to be the answer the Communist establishment was looking for.