Mao Zedong said, famously: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” China’s late revolutionary leader added, only a tad less famously: “The Party commands the gun and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party.”

The Party is, of course, the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) and the gun is the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which comprises China’s armed forces. The PLA, however, no longer seems to abide by Mao’s command that it accept party control but instead has struck off in its own direction.

It is not that China’s military leaders have openly defied the CPC but rather they ignore the guidance of party and government leaders. “The PLA has become a force unto itself,” said an experienced US China-watcher. “It is unaccountable to China’s political leaders.”

David Lai, a scholar born and educated in China before emigrating to the United States and becoming an American citizen, has written that the PLA has gradually loosened its ties to the CPC as the armed forces have become more professional. The party, he said, “is clearly fighting a losing battle.”

A different view was expressed by a scholar from Taiwan, the self-governing island claimed by China. He contended that the CPC had not lost control of the PLA but then said, however, that Chinese commanders routinely ignore the political officers assigned to their units.

For Americans from Hawaii to Washington, D.C., the possibility of a disruptive PLA has caused anxiety. For the Pacific Command and the Pentagon, which are responsible for deterring China, it has added a complication to an already tense confrontation.

For think tanks and scholars, the possibility of an aggressive PLA not controlled by a more cautious party hangs over every deliberation. And those who do business with China worry that friction between the CPC and the PLA could spill over into the economic realm.

Unlike most of the world’s armed forces, the PLA is not a national army but a party army. China’s military services explicitly owe their allegiance to the Communist Party, not to a constitution, government, or nation. It is as if the U.S. armed forces pledged allegiance to the Democratic or Republican Party.

In 1978, the late Deng Xiaoping, then China’s paramount leader, proclaimed “Four Modernizations” intended to vault China into the top rank of world powers. In priority, China was to improve its agriculture, then its industry, and the science and technology to undergird a modern nation.

National defense was given fourth priority, with Deng urging PLA leaders to be patient. The next year, the PLA was ordered to “teach a lesson” to Vietnam, whose army was among the most experienced in the world. The outgunned and outmaneuvered PLA was trounced.

Later, as China’s economy surged forward, it produced funds needed to modernize the PLA. American officers who dealt with the Chinese noticed a change in attitude as the PLA acquired new weapons, built up training programs, and spent less time running farms and businesses.

In recent years, American officers have seen the Chinese become more self-confident, ask better questions, and disclose better information in dialogue. That, in turn, has given way to arrogance and belligerence. Some senior U.S. officers say they have been surprised by the personal hostility of Chinese officers.

The PLA, after years of denying visiting American officers access to their bases, now shows them off. When the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, was in China recently, he was invited on a rare visit to the headquarters base of the Second Artillery, which is China’s nuclear force.

Less forceful political leadership has contributed to the diluted control over the PLA. Hu Jintao, the current general secretary of the CPC, and Jiang Zemin before him were party technocrats who lacked the standing of Deng and Mao. New political leaders are due to take office next year and are not expected to be any stronger.

The CPC’s 12-member Central Military Commission is the instrument through which the party supposedly guides the PLA. Its chairman is Hu Jintao and a vice chairman is Xi Jinping, considered Hu’s heir apparent. The other 10 members are all generals, however, and several have been outspoken critics of the United States.

China watchers in the United States said they thought China would continue to prod the U.S., both verbally and with action such as harassing U.S. warships in international waters. As the same time, they expected the Chinese to stop short of causing all-out fighting.

The danger lies in the Chinese potential for miscalculation, stepping over a line and triggering a lethal U.S. response. Said a China watcher, “They are just not well informed about us and they don’t have enough control over their forces.”

About the Author

  • Richard Halloran
    Richard Halloran, who writes the weekly column called “The Rising East,” contributes articles on Asia and US relations with Asia to publications in America and Asia. His career can be divided into thirds: One third studying and reporting on Asia, another third writing about national security, and the last third on investigative reporting or general assignment. He did three tours in Asia as a correspondent, for Business Week, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He is the author of Japan: Images and Realities and To Arm a Nation: Rebuilding America’s Endangered Defenses, and four other books. As a paratrooper, Halloran served in the US, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. He has been awarded the George Polk Award for National Reporting, the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense, the U.S. Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Medal, and Japan’s Order of the Sacred Treasure. He holds an AB from Dartmouth