Amid a sweeping round of organizational change and new personnel appointments announced last week, General Liu Yuan, the political commissar of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Logistics Department, has stepped down. The 64-year-old general is retiring one year below the mandatory retirement age for a military region leader-grade officer and at a time when he could have played a role in the forthcoming PLA overhaul. Liu has been closely linked to Chinese President Xi Jinping, both personally and through his leadership of anti-corruption investigations in the PLA. Liu’s possible ouster (Chinese officials at the highest levels rarely leave their posts voluntarily or for illness) suggests Xi faces more opposition within the PLA than most analysts presume.
Military reform measures have been bandied about since Xi Jinping took charge in November 2012, but little concrete appeared until he presided over a Central Military Commission (CMC) conference and announced a series of sweeping organizational reforms. They include the creation of a ground forces headquarters with concomitant changes elsewhere in the military structure, a restructuring of the four general departments (Staff, Armament, Logistics, and Political), and the transformation of the seven military regions into a smaller number (possibly five) of battle zone commands.
The first of these reforms were implemented last Thursday when the CMC announced the creation of three new organizations, including the PLA Strategic Support Force (SSF). This new force probably will take over the role of the General Logistics Department as well as some support functions from the General Staff and General Armament Departments. In case Gen. Liu’s retirement reads as though he made way for a younger commissar who could stay in place to oversee organizational change, the SSF’s political commissar, Liu Fulian, is no more than a year younger than Liu.
The last few years preceding these reforms have seen an aggressive anti-corruption campaign to root out the deliberate waste and misuse of PLA resources that sapped military strength. Liu played a signature role in one of the campaign’s great successes: the fall of General Logistics Department Deputy Director Gu Junshan. Some observers speculated that Liu would lead the new anti-graft discipline inspection commission within the military that is set to begin operating this year.
The Liu retirement is the latest of a small but growing number of signals that some PLA leaders and mid-level officers are unhappy with Xi’s reforms and his effort to root out military corruption. In November, prior to the reform announcement, an article in the PLA Daily suggested the long-awaited dismissal 300,000 troops would have a negative impact on social stability if they were not properly compensated. The article was quickly removed, but it survived a few days longer on the Ministry of National Defense website. Moreover, it has taken three years, a new leading small group, 860 seminars, 900 officer surveys, and several party plenary conference work reports to reach the reform announcement. Part of this is undoubtedly related to the complexity of the task and the need to build consensus. But consensus-building also implies disagreement.
What should we take from Liu’s departure?
First, Xi Jinping’s much-touted strongman status may be oversold. Xi displays the trappings of power, but the reality may be more complicated. Centralized policymaking does not necessarily translate into more effective policy implementation. Xi’s powerbase includes part of the PLA, but these developments undermine any assumption that the PLA is a unified institution with respect to politics.
Second, if Liu’s retirement was forced, then Xi is not even in a position to protect one of his own people within the military. Just as Xi tried to bag “tigers” — senior-level officials like Gu and former CMC Vice Chairman Xu Caihou — in his anti-corruption campaign to clean up the military, Gen. Liu is a “tiger” for opponents of Xi’s reforms. The effect will ripple outward, creating uncertainty.
Third, the narrative of the PLA “adhering to the absolute leadership” of the Chinese Communist Party is complex. The military does not obey blindly, and those whose perspectives differ from the senior-most leadership have options for bureaucratic resistance. It is one thing to suggest the PLA would never coalesce around a coup attempt, but another entirely to suggest that the PLA does not have ways of resisting or reshaping top-down decisions.
For those who believe in the institutionalization of Chinese politics, Liu’s retirement probably would appear to be nothing more than the proper retirement of an officer whose department no longer exists. The professionalizing PLA has few billets for senior political commissars, and Xi may be trading Gen. Liu for sidelining other senior PLA officers closely related to other current and past leaders to reduce military factionalism. The politics of large organizations, however, lies in the people who run it. No matter how meritocratic the career ladder, selections at the top become political as more qualified people are produced than there are slots to fill.
A note of caution is warranted to temper any overreaction to Gen. Liu Yuan’s departure. The wide-ranging set of reforms promulgated at the end of November probably would take years to shake out properly even without any internal opposition. The PLA probably has reached a point of no return with President Xi’s announcement; reform will go forward unless individuals in the military leadership want to create a public break with the party’s leadership. Whatever the pathologies of civil-military relations in China, the likelihood of a PLA revolt is slim. The exact contours and the staffing of new organizations, however, may be up in the air, and organizational change on such a wide scale always provides latitude for “entrenched interests” to influence the process. The Liu retirement probably is one of the first of what will be many skirmishes as the PLA goes through its most significant change since the 1950s.
Peter Mattis is a Fellow in the China Program at The Jamestown Foundation and author of Analyzing the Chinese Military: A Review Essay and Resource Guide on the People’s Liberation Army (2015).