Peter Mattis writes for The Diplomat that talk of political reform has threatened the unity of the CCP and, as evidenced by a number of recent official Chinese media articles, has also stoked concern over the loyalty of the People’s Liberation Army to the party:
Mao Zedong’s famous dictum that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” and that “the Party commands the gun” highlights the role of the PLA and the People’s Armed Police as guarantors of CCP rule. At times of political uncertainty, the loyalty of the military (and now paramilitary) forces is the foundation that allows the party to take political risks. Breaking down entrenched interests in a system that has promoted cadres based on perpetuating the CCP is bound to create divisions within the party, because it changes the rules on rising officials who have a stake in the status quo and others who may fall if exposed.
Observers probably should see PLA loyalty as a prerequisite for political reform, when the challenge of reform involves breaking down an ossified party bureaucracy that seems to encourage corruption-based interest groups. And the constant refrain that CCP should control the PLA may be a sign that reform discussions are real, if uncertain in implementation.
Although some rumors about military nationalization may be true, this alternative explanation is plausible. If the PLA’s loyalty to the party, especially to Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, cannot be assured, then there is little reason to expect Chinese leaders to risk a bruising debate capable of publicly splitting the leadership. The key lesson of the tumultuous events of 1989 was that leadership should not show public disunity. The PLA loyalty drumbeat suggests this is a real concern. Continuation probably should be taken as sign of growing instability within the leadership and an end to the current possibilities of internal CCP reforms.