Xi Jinping’s PLA Leadership, in Context
For The Diplomat, M. Taylor Fravel and Dennis Blasko challenge recent portrayals by the Western media of Xi Jinping as “a more assertive and forceful leader of China’s armed forces.” From defense spending to public statements, and his attitudes on territorial disputes, Fravel and Blasko claim that Xi’s policies “reflect far more continuity with those of past leaders than is commonly perceived:”
What does this all mean?
On the one hand, like past top leaders in the post-Deng era, Xi is seeking to build a strong relationship with China’s armed forces, which is key to cementing his status as both CMC chair and CCP general secretary. He’s moved more quickly than either Jiang or Hu because he has been able to assume the CMC chairmanship without a senior party figure looking over his shoulder. Jiang became CMC chair while Deng was still very active in Chinese politics, while Hu had to two wait two years before Jiang relinquished that post. Ironically, the relatively smooth transition has enabled Xi to move more quickly in consolidating his position as commander-in-chief.
On the other hand, China’s basic approach to military modernization remains unchanged. It is premised on ensuring the loyalty of the military to the party and not the state. The long-term goal is to recapitalize China’s armed forces to achieve mechanization and partial informatization by 2020 – a goal set by Jiang Zemin in the late 1990s – and to complete its military modernization by mid-century, 2049. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Xi has set 2049 for the fulfillment of the “China dream.” Xi is the new leader of China’s armed forces, but he is not yet pursuing new policies.