China Is Becoming a Military State | Opinion

Amendments to China's National Defense Law, effective the first of this year, transfer powers from civilian to military officials.

The changes signal the growing clout of the People's Liberation Army inside the Communist Party and highlight the militarization of the country's external relations. The new law, most significantly, contemplates the mass mobilization of society, presumably for war.

The amendments reduce the role of the central government's State Council in making military policy, transferring powers to the Communist Party's Central Military Commission (CMC). Specifically, the State Council will no longer supervise the mobilization of the People's Liberation Army.

"The CMC is now formally in charge of making national defense policy and principles, while the State Council becomes a mere implementing agency to provide support for the military," Zeng Zhiping of Soochow University told Hong Kong's South China Morning Post.

The amendments to the National Defense Law will have little practical effect, as this particular law—and Chinese law, in general—are of not much importance in the first place. "Like so many other paradigms many use to 'analyze' the People's Republic of China, the Western idea of 'civil-military relationship' just does not apply that much there," Fei-Ling Wang, author of The China Order: Centralia, World Empire and the Nature of Chinese Power, told Newsweek.

"Recent changes to China's National Defense Law that diminish the power of the State Council are largely political posturing," Richard Fisher of the Virginia-based International Assessment and Strategy Center noted recently. "The Chinese Communist Party and particularly its subordinate CMC have always held supreme power over decisions regarding war and peace."

As Fisher points out to Newsweek, the State Council's Ministry of National Defense "has a nice headquarters [and] definitely plays a role in diplomacy, but is not in command of anything during wartime." He is right. The Communist Party is the ultimate authority in China. The central government is subordinate. The Party does not need a law to do what it wants.

Yet the amendments to the National Defense Law are nonetheless significant—at least to the international community—because they signal what is happening inside a troubled regime.

Over the course of decades, power has flowed back and forth between the State Council and the Party. Mao Zedong's successor, Deng Xiaoping, tried to strengthen the central government—the State Council—at the expense of the Communist Party, as he sought to institutionalize governance.

Moreover, the military has lost power from time to time, most notably at the end of the Maoist era and during the 1990s throughout the rule of Jiang Zemin, Deng's successor.

At this moment, the Communist Party is taking back power from all others in society, including the State Council, and the military is gaining influence inside Party circles.

Why is the People's Liberation Army making a comeback? The answer lies in succession politics.

People's Liberation Army in Beijing in October
People's Liberation Army in Beijing in October Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Xi Jinping was selected the top leader because he was not identified with any of the main factional groupings—like the Communist Youth League of Hu Jintao or the Shanghai Gang of Jiang—that dominated Party politics. Xi, in short, was the least unacceptable choice to the Party's squabbling factional elders.

Xi, once chosen, apparently decided that in order to rule, he needed a base, so he made certain officers the core of his support. As longtime China watcher Willy Lam told Reuters in 2013, Xi Jinping's faction is the military.

And with the help of the military, Xi has accumulated almost unprecedented political power, ending the Party's two-decade-old consensus-driven system and replacing it with one-man rule.

As Wang, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, notes, Xi, with the amendments to the National Defense Law, is demonstrating his power of "leading everything and everyone." He is wrapping that effort in a "rule by law" move that is formalizing his perch at the top of the Chinese political system.

How is Xi using his newfound power? There is a hint in the National Defense Law amendments. These changes, Fisher tells us, "increase the powers of the CMC to mobilize the civilian sector for wartime and to better authorize the CMC to engage in foreign military exercises to defend China's 'development interests.'" As such, the changes "point to China's ambition to achieve 'whole nation' levels of military mobilization to fight wars, and give the CMC formal power to control the future Chinese capabilities for global military intervention."

"The revised National Defense Law also embodies the concept that everyone should be involved in national defense," reports the Communist Party's Global Times, summarizing the words of an unnamed CMC official. "All national organizations, armed forces, political parties, civil groups, enterprises, social organizations and other organizations should support and take part in the development of national defense, fulfill national defense duties and carry out national defense missions according to the law."

That sounds like Xi is getting ready to pick even more fights with neighbors—and perhaps the United States. On January 5, he ordered People's Liberation Army generals and admirals to be prepared to "act at any second."

Why would Xi want to start a war? "This is really indicative of there being instability in China, and Mr. Xi seeking to consolidate power around himself. ...The new National Defense Law essentially removes the alternative power base of the premier of the State Council, in this case Li Keqiang, from interfering with Mr. Xi's own power ambitions," said Charles Burton of the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute to John Batchelor, the radio host, earlier this month. As Burton noted, the amendments to the National Defense Law undermine Premier Li Keqiang, the head of the State Council and long-standing rival to Xi.

"I think this really gives the green light for him to dispatch the military on any pretext that he feels is necessary to defend his power," Burton says. "China is becoming a military state."

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter and Parler: @GordonGChang.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.