Chinese Communist Party’s Military- Xi Jinping’s Absolute Control

anil chopra. air power asia, Chinese Military Commission, CMC, Xi Jinping

The near 100 million member Communist Party of China (CPC) continues to closely run China. Very tightly government controlled China suffers from a wide-range societal complexities. Among them, the one that has direct impact on foreign relations and internal dynamics are Communist Party’s full control over military. Dissent of any kind is snubbed with an iron hand, as was the case during  Tiananmen Square protests. After liberalization, the influence of people and groups outside the formal party structure has increased, only in the economic realm. In all governmental institutions in the PRC, the party committees at all levels maintain a powerful and pivotal role in the administration. Central party control is tightest in central government offices and in urban economic, industrial, and cultural settings. It is a little loose in rural areas. The CPC’s most important responsibility comes in the selection and promotion of personnel. They also see that party and state policy guidance is followed and that non-party members do not create autonomous organizations that could challenge party rule. Constitutionally, the party’s highest body is the Party Congress, which is supposed to meet at least once every 5 years. The party elects the Central Committee and the primary organs of power are formally parts of the central committee.

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The Primary Organs of  CPC

         The General Secretary, which is the highest-ranking official within the Party and usually the Chinese Paramount leader. The Politburo, consisting of 22 full members (including the members of the Politburo Standing Committee). The Politburo Standing Committee, is the most powerful decision-making body in China, which as of June 2020 consists of seven members. The Secretariat, the principal administrative mechanism of the CPC, is headed by the General Secretary. The Central Military Commission keeps hold over the entire military. The Central Discipline Inspection Commission, is charged with rooting out corruption and malfeasance among party cadres.

One-party regimes have rarely survived longer than 70 years.(ABC News: GFX/Jarrod Fankhauser)

The Organs of the Government

         The primary organs of state power are the National People’s Congress (NPC), the President, and the State Council. Members of the State Council include the Premier, a variable number of vice premiers (now four), five state councilors (protocol equal of vice premiers but with narrower portfolios), and 29 ministers and heads of State Council commissions. The political leadership within the state are also the leaders of the party, thereby creating a single centralized locus of power.At the same time, there has been a convention that party and state offices be separated at levels other than the central government, and it is unheard of for a sub-national executive to also be party secretary. The conflict has been often known to develop between the chief executive and the party secretary, and this conflict is widely seen as intentional to prevent either from becoming too dominant. In the autonomous regions, the chief executive is typically a member of the local ethnic group while the party general secretary is non-local and usually Han Chinese.

The CPC’s Politburo Standing Committee, the nation’s top decision-making body (L-R) Han Zheng, Wang Huning, Li Zhanshu, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, Wang Yang, Zhao Leji in Beijing on October 25, 2017. Wang Zhao | AFP | Getty Images. Source:

         Under the Constitution of China, the NPC is the highest organ of state power in China. It meets annually for about 2 weeks to review and approve major new policy directions, laws, the budget, and major personnel changes. Most national legislation in China is adopted by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC). Most initiatives are presented to the NPCSC for consideration by the State Council after previous endorsement by the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee. Although the NPC generally approves State Council policy and personnel recommendations, the NPC and its standing committee has increasingly asserted its role as the national legislature and has been able to force revisions in some laws.

Local Government – Party Higher  Precedence

         Currently, local government in China is structured in a hierarchy on four different levels. With the village being the grassroots, and not considered part of the hierarchy. Local government advances through the township, county, prefecture or municipality, and the province as the geographical area of jurisdiction increases. Each level in the hierarchy is responsible for overseeing the work carried out by lower levels on the administrative strata. At each level are two important officials. A figure that represents the Communist Party of China, colloquially termed the Party chief or the Party Secretary, acts as the policy maker. This figure is appointed by their superiors. The head of the local People’s Government, is, in theory, elected by the people. Usually called a governor, mayor, or magistrate, depending on the level, this figure acts to carry out the policies and most ceremonial duties. The distinction has evolved into a system where the Party Secretary is always in precedence above the leader of the People’s Government.

China Provincial Map 2020. Image Source:

Autonomous Regions and Autonomous Prefectures

         China’s system of autonomous regions and autonomous prefectures within provinces are formally intended to provide for greater autonomy by the ethnic group majority that inhabits the region. In practice, however, power rests with the Party secretary. Beijing will often appoint loyal party cadres to oversee the local work as Party secretary, while the local Chairman of the region’s government is regarded as its nominal head. Power rests with the Party secretary. To avoid the solidification of local loyalties during a cadre’s term in office, the central government freely and frequently transfers party cadres around different regions of the country, so a high ranking cadre’s career might include service as governor or party secretary of several different provinces.

Chinese Autonomous Regions including Claims over Taiwan and Arunachal. Image Source: Wikipedia

National Armed Forces – CPC’s Absolute Control

         The CPC created and leads the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). After the PRC was established in 1949, the PLA also became a state military. The state military system inherited and upholds the principle of the Communist Party’s absolute leadership over the people’s armed forces. The Party and the State jointly established the Central Military Commission (CMC) that carries out the task of supreme military leadership over the armed forces. On September 28, 1954, the Central Committee of the CCP re-established the CMC as the leader of the PLA and the people’s armed forces. From that time onwards, the system of joint Party and state military leadership was established. The CCP leads in all military affairs. The State Chairman directs the state military forces and the development of the military forces managed by the State Council.

Image Source: You Tube

         In December 2004, the fifth  NPC revised the State Constitution to provide that the State CMC leads all the armed forces of the state. The chair of the State CMC is chosen and removed by the full NPC while the other members are chosen by the NPC Standing Committee. However, the CMC of the CCP remained the Party organization that directly leads the military and all the other armed forces. The armed forces are under the absolute leadership of the Communist Party and are also the armed forces of the state. This is a unique Chinese system that ensures the joint leadership of the Communist Party and the state over the armed forces.

Central Military Commission (CMC)

          The  CMC is the parallel national defense organization of the Communist Party of China and the People’s Republic of China. The Central Military Commission of the Communist Party of China, a Party organ under the CPC Central Committee, and the Central Military Commission of the People’s Republic of China, a central state organ under the National People’s Congress, being the military branch of the national government.

Be Ready to Fight and Win Wars says Supreme Leader Xi. Image Source:

          The command and control of the People’s Liberation Army, the People’s Armed Police and the Militia is exercised in name by the State CMC, supervised by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. The State CMC is nominally considered the supreme military policy-making body and its chairman, elected by the National People’s Congress, is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. In reality, command and control of the PLA, however, still resides with the Central Military Commission of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee—the Party CMC. Both commissions are identical in membership, thus actually forming one identical institution under two different names. In order to fit in both state government and party systems. Both commissions are currently chaired by Xi Jinping, who is the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China as well as Paramount leader. The currently 7-man commission issues directives relating to the PLA, including senior appointments, troop deployments and arms spending. Almost all the members are senior generals, but the most important posts have always been held by the party’s most senior leaders to ensure absolute loyalty of the armed forces and to ensure the survival of the regime. CMC has control over 6.8 million personnel. The CMC is housed in the Ministry of National Defense compound (“August 1st Building”) in western Beijing.

  August 1st Building of the Central Military Commission. Picture Source:

CMC Historical Background

          The Party military committee dates back to October 1925, and while operating under various degrees of authority and responsibility, was always consistently named the CPC Central Military Commission. As a commission, it ranked higher in the party hierarchy than departments such as the Organization or United Front Departments. In 1937 the CPC Central Revolutionary Military Commission was created after the Chinese Soviet Republic’s Chinese Red Army were integrated into the Kuomintang’s army for the anti-Japanese war, and it later evolved into the Central Military Commission after the Party’s 7th Congress in 1945. In this period, the committee was always chaired by Mao Zedong.

          In the September 1949 reorganization, military leadership was transferred to a government body, the People’s Revolutionary Military Commission of the Central People’s Government The final coexistence of two military committees was set in 1954, as the CPC Central Military Commission was re-established, while state military authority rested into a National Defense Council of the People’s Republic of China chaired by the President in keeping with the 1954 Constitution.

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          As Mao Zedong was also the Chairman of the Communist Party of China and led military affairs as a whole, the CMC and NDC’s day-to-day work was carried out by its first-ranking vice-chairman. As a consequence of the Cultural Revolution, the Party CMC became the sole military overseeing body, and the National Defence Council was abolished in 1975.

Xi Jinping in the foot steps of Chairman Mao Zedong. Imgae Source:

                Deng Xiaoping’s efforts to institutionally separate the Party and the state led to the establishment of today’s State CMC, which was created in 1982 by the Constitution of China in order to formalize the role of the military within the government structure. Both the National Defense Commission and State CMC have been described as ‘consultative’ bodies. Contrarily to the National Defense Commission, however, the Party and state CMCs are almost identical in leadership, composition, and powers.

Deng Xiaoping. Modernist and Reformer. Picture Source:

          The Commission included the post of secretary-general until 1992. In 2016, the 4 traditional general departments were dissolved by order of Chairman Xi Jinping, and in their place 15 new departments were created as part of the ongoing modernization of the PLA.

CMC Command Structure – Total Control

          Unlike in most countries, the Central Military Commission is not considered as just another ministry. Although China does have a Ministry of National Defense, headed by a Minister of National Defense, it exists solely for liaison with foreign militaries and does not have command authority.

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          The most important chain of command runs from the CMC to the 15 general departments (Joint Staff Department, Political Work Department, Logistic Support Department, Equipments Development Department) and, in turn, to each of the service branches (ground, navy and air forces). In addition, the CMC also has direct control over the Rocket Forces, Strategic Support Forces, the National Defense University, and the Academy of Military Sciences. As stipulated in the 1997 National Defense Law, the CMC also controls the paramilitary People’s Armed Police (PAP), who have the politically sensitive role of guarding key government buildings (including the main leadership compound of Zhongnanhai in Beijing) and enforcing the law all around China. The CMC shared command authority over the PAP with of the State Council mostly via the Ministry of Public Security; from 2018 the PAP is under the sole control of the CMC.

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Communist Party’s Politburo – The Ultimate Power

          Although in theory the CMC has the highest military command authority, in reality the ultimate decision making power concerning war, armed forces, and national defense resides with the Communist Party’s Politburo. The CMC is usually chaired by the General Secretary of the Communist Party, who is supported by two to three Vice-Chairmen, sometimes, but not currently, including the Defense Minister. Members of the CMC used to include the heads of the PLA’s four general departments and the Commanders of the Ground Force, Air Force, Navy and Rocket Force; but after the recent reform only Minister of National Defense, Chief of Joint Staff, Director of Political Work, and Secretary of Discipline Inspection are included.

The Hierarchy of the Communist Party of China. Image Source:

Political Structure

          The armed forces of China also have Joint Staff Department, the Political Work Department, the Logistics Support Department and the Equipment Development Department, which implements the directives of the Central Military Commission. Along with the General Secretary of the Communist Party and Premier of the State Council, the Chairman of the Central Military Commission have consistently been one of the most powerful political leaders in China.

Chairman of CMC

          The Chairman of the CMC was twice in its history held by a senior official who had given up his other posts: by Deng in the late 1980s, and by Jiang in the early 2000s. In the case of Deng Xiaoping, because of his prestige, he was able to exercise considerable power after his retirement, in part due to his holding the position of CMC Chairman. There was speculation that Jiang Zemin would have been able to retain similar authority after his retirement from the positions of General Secretary and President, but ultimately Jiang was unable to do so. One major factor is that, in contrast to Deng Xiaoping, who always had close relations with the People’s Liberation Army, Jiang had no military background. In addition, with the promotion of the fourth generation of Chinese leaders to lead the civilian party, there was also a corresponding promotion of military leaders. All the military members of the CMC come from Hu Jintao’s generation rather than from Jiang’s, and at the time of the leadership transition, there appeared some very sharp editorials from military officers suggesting that the military would have strong objections to Jiang attempting to exercise power behind the scenes. Jiang Zemin relinquished his post as Chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission in September 2004 to Hu Jintao, and from the state commission in March 2005, which appeared to solidify Hu’s position as paramount leader. Unlike Deng and Jiang, Hu relinquished his CMC post along with his remaining leadership offices in favour of his successor Xi Jinping.

Portraits of Chinese leaders Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping. Photo: AFP. Image Source:

China’s State-Party-Military Tripartite System

          In China’s state-party-military tripartite political system, the CMC itself is a decision-making body whose day-to-day affairs are not nearly as transparent as that of the Central Committee or the State Council. As one of China’s three main decision making bodies the relative influence of the CMC can vary depending on the time period and the leaders. In the event of war or political crisis, for example, the CMC may well function as a de facto executive for the country’s daily affairs. The Tiananmen Protests of 1989 illustrates how the CMC functions. CMC Chairman Deng Xiaoping proposed the imposition martial law and the use of armed soldiers to suppress unarmed demonstrations in Beijing. Although parallel leadership blurred the distinction between the two (party and state) groups, the party Central Military Commission retains its traditional, preeminent position in charge of military affairs.

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Election of CMC Members

          Theoretically, the CPC (Party) CMC is elected by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and is subordinate to the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC). In practice, membership is very closely controlled by the PBSC. Similarly, the State CMC is nominally elected by the National People’s Congress and theoretically reports to the Congress, but is in practice indistinguishable from the CPC CMC. This difference in elections also results in the only difference in membership between the two bodies, as party organs, such as the party congress and the Central Committee assemble at different times than the National People’s Congress. For example, some were elected into the party CMC in the Sixteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China in November 2002, but they entered the State CMC in March 2003, when the 10th National People’s Congress convened.

          The members are generally uniformed military commanders, except for the chairman and first vice-chairman, who have both been drawn from the Politburo in recent years. The military members are generally members of neither the Politburo Standing Committee nor the State Council outside of the Minister of National Defense, although they all tend to be members of the Communist Party and are members of the Central Committee. The military members are apparently chosen with regular promotion procedures from within the PLA.

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Current Members of CMC

          The make-up of the current Central Military Commission of the Communist Party are the Chairman Xi Jinping, also General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, President of the People’s Republic of China, and Leader of the CMC Leading Group for National Defence and Military Reform. There are two Vice Chairmen Air Force General Xu Qiliang, Member of the 19th Politburo, Executive Deputy Leader of the CMC Leading Group for National Defence and Military Reform and General Zhang Youxia, Member of the 19th Politburo, Deputy Leader of the CMC Leading Group for National Defence and Military Reform. There are four Members, General Wei Fenghe, State Councilor and Minister of National Defense, General Li Zuocheng, Chief of Joint Staff,  Admiral Miao Hua, Director of the CMC Political Work Department, and General Zhang Shengmin, Secretary of the CMC Commission for Discipline Inspection, also a Deputy Secretary of the CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection

CMC Organization

          The exact internal organisation of the CMC is highly secretive. However, until 2015 it is known that the CMC contained least five key departments. The Joint Staff Department is the nerve center of the entire Chinese military command and control system, responsible for daily administrative duties of the CMC. The General Office processes all CMC communications and documents, coordinate meetings, and convey orders and directives to other subordinate organs. During the 2015 military reform, by order of Chairman Xi Jinping, 15 departments were created to replace the 5 organs, which were disbanded. The new 15 departments are, The General Office, Joint Staff Department, Political Work Department, Logistic Support Department, Equipment Development Department, Training and Administration Department, National Defense Mobilization Department, Discipline Inspection Commission, Politics and Legal Affairs Commission, Science and Technology Commission, Office for Strategic Planning, Office for Reform and Organizational Structure, Office for International Military Cooperation, Audit Office, and Agency for Offices Administration.

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CMC Control over People’s Liberation Army (PLA)

          The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is the armed forces of China (PRC) and of its founding and ruling political party, the  CPC. The PLA consists of five professional service branches: the Ground Force, Navy, Air Force, Rocket Force, and the Strategic Support Force. Units around the country are assigned to one of five theater commands by geographical location. The PLA is the world’s largest military force and constitutes the second largest defence budget in the world. The PLA is one of the fastest modernising militaries in the world and has been termed as a potential military superpower, with significant regional power and rising global power projection capabilities. The PLA is under the command of the Central Military Commission (CMC) of the CPC. It is legally obliged to follow the principle of civilian control of the military, although in practical terms this principle has been implemented in such a way as to ensure the PLA is under the absolute control of the Communist Party. Its commander in chief is the Chairman of the Central Military Commission (usually the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China). In times of national emergency, the People’s Armed Police and the China Militia act as a reserve and support element for the PLAGF. China’s military reserve forces will be formally placed under the centralised and unified command of the CPC and CMC, both headed by President Xi Jinping, from July 1, 2020, to ensure the ruling party’s “absolute leadership” over it and build a world-class army. China’s thrust of the reforms included a reduction of the ground forces and an increase in the role and scope of the Navy and the Air Force as part of China’s push to expand its global influence.

To Summarise

          The rapid expansion of the size and capability of the PLA as it pursues a long-term, comprehensive military modernization program in support of China’s more assertive regional strategy, is clearly visible. While China’s desire to develop a military commensurate with its diverse interests and economic power is understandable. however, China’s coercive approach to security is problematic and of increasing concern to the region. China will employ this growing military capability in support of its interests. Its belligerent muscle flexing approach has implications for the region.

All Strings in one Hand. Image Source:

Alexandra Fiol-Mahon writes for Foregn Policy Research Institute, and says throughout history, leaders in China have often resorted to implementing anti-corruption campaigns. Though these campaigns are a means of curbing extreme levels of corruption, they are also an effective method of pursuing political goals. The latest leader to utilize this technique is current President Xi Jinping, who has built a campaign with a reach that compares only to initiatives seen under his most infamous predecessor, Mao Zedong. Although many differences separate the background, goals, and execution of Mao’s and Xi’s anti-corruption campaigns, the basic objective is the same: to rid the party of any political opposition or potential rivals.

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          Fifth-generation Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jiping is the first to hold all three of the nation’s top offices — President of the People’s Republic of China for life, General Secretary of the CCP, and Chairman of Central Military Commission and has become the most influential leader of China. As Santanu Chakraborty writes in OpIndia, China’s reputation of invincibility has grown under the leadership of President Xi Jinping as the nation has expanded its control over Eurasia, Africa, and the western hemisphere. China has managed to use its global clout to buy out or copy the industrial and technological properties of other countries. While the world was appreciating its rise, China was discreetly co-opting the minds of the western intelligentsia.

Xi being compared with Hitler. Image Source:

Like Hitler, Xi Jinping has crafted a cult of personality and projects himself as one who has been born to bring back the glory of past times. Xi projects his party leadership as the emperor who can bring back the glory of imperial times and take revenge of the West for opium wars just like Hitler used to promise in the 1920s and 1930s to bring back “racial supremacy” and “Puritanism”. Like Xi, Hitler combined the offices of chancellor and the president to create the post of “Fuehrer und Reichskanzler” in 1934. The world needs to watch closely the great power vested in the Chairman CPC to control every organ of the state and especially the military and all strategic forces.

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Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

7 thoughts on “Chinese Communist Party’s Military- Xi Jinping’s Absolute Control

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