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Politicalization or Professionalism?
A Case-Study of the Military’s Discourse in China
Civil-military relations; Political discourse; Professionalism; Computer-assisted text analysis;
China, People’s Liberation Army
After decades of military reform, how does the Chinese military justify its persistent role in
politics and social life? This mixed-methods study examines the discursive strategies used by
military deputies to understand how a semi-professional military speak to its relations to the
Party, its own organizational missions and goals, and potential conflicts between them.
Computer-assisted text analysis is combined with targeted deep reading to identify and
examine latent topics in comments made by military deputies between 2001 and 2017. The
findings show that the military deputies simultaneously mobilize a political discourse and a
discourse of professionalism. This duality of discourse constitutes a source of legitimacy for
the military’s pursuit of corporate interests.
This manuscript has been accepted by
Armed Forces & Society
Politicalization or Professionalism?
A Case-Study of the Military’s Discourse in China
China’s recent emergence as not only an economic, but also a geopolitical power, has
renewed attention to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as a rising global player. Since
2012, China’s defense budget has been second only to that of the United States
. To many
outside observers, the PLA has boosted its aggression in territorial disputes during this time
(Continetti, 2018). Beyond Asia, Chinese troops have been deployed throughout the world to
regions of conflict through the U.N. peacekeeping platform (Lanteigne, 2018). Behind
China’s increasing military presence and commitment at the global stage lie its decades-long
efforts to reform and modernize its armed forces. Despite early success in strategic weapon
development, these efforts were interrupted in the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976.
They then lagged because of the civilian authority’s reduced commitment to defense spending
in the era of economic reform. Around the turn of the century, military reforms gathered
momentum, leading to notable doctrinal, technological, and organizational breakthroughs
(Cheung, 2013; Wuthnow & Saunders, 2017). These breakthroughs were soon noticed by the
U.S. In 2002, under the provision of the National Defense Authorization Act, the U.S.
Secretary of Defense began submitting an annual report on China’s military strategy to
Despite progress, China’s military reform has failed to deliver one prospect that several
outside China observers predicted in the 1980s. (Jencks, 1982; Joffe, 1987). A more
technologically sophisticated and modern warfare-adapted (i.e. more professionalized) PLA
wavered little over its political involvement and special ties to the Chinese Communist Party
(CCP). Although there are signs of cracks between the civilian authority and the military
leaders in certain incidents (Lo, 2014; Chase, et al., 2015), the PLA remains a trusted ally of
the CCP in the eyes of most China experts. It also continues to play an important role in
China’s political and social life.
Political roles for the military, though common among non-democracies (and democracies
as well some argue), are viewed as violating the norms of professional armed forces. Thus,
after decades of military modernization and professionalization, how does the Chinese
military legitimize its role in politics? How does a semi-professional military – if the PLA
can be characterized as such – speak to its relations to the Party, its own organizational
missions and goals, and potential conflicts between them? To answer these questions, I used a
mixed-methods research design to examine the discursive strategies of military deputies. I
combined computer-assisted text analysis with targeted deep reading to identify and examine
latent topics in the comments of military deputies at the Chinese congress, the National
People’s Congress (NPC), in 2001-2017. These comments were collected from the PLA
Daily, the official newspaper of the PLA. I found that the military deputies simultaneously
mobilize a political discourse emphasizing loyalty and tradition, and a discourse of
professionalism highlighting the military’s expertise and corporateness. Although it generates
tension, this duality of discourse constitutes a source of legitimacy for the military’s pursuit
of corporate interests, painting the PLA as the defender of the Chinese nation and its “great
The remainder of this article begins with an introduction to the three major theories on
civil-military relations and the military’s political role in the Chinese case. Then, I explain the
mixed-methods research design and data, before presenting the findings from the analysis. I
close the article with a brief discussion of what this study means to the study of the military’s
political role in China and beyond.
2. Theorizing Civil-Military Relations in China
Party-army relations and the politicization of the PLA
Politization of the military is a key feature of Leninist party-state systems, in which “all
political and administrative structures are subordinated to a hegemonic party, hierarchically
organized along democratic-centralist lines” (Perlmutter & LeoGrande, 1982, p. 779). This
feature is cultivated and perpetuated through a political work system that penetrates
communist armed forces. In China, such a system was created to “infuse troops with
revolutionary and nationalistic fervour, conduct propaganda work among peasants, and
ensure Party control over the military” over the course of the revolutionary struggle and the
Anti-Japanese War. Thus, “the PLA’s identity has been inextricably intertwined with the
Party/state” since its early years (Shambaugh, 1991, pp. 531-532; see also Wortzel, 2002).
This special historical connection with the Party authority also ascribes the military a role in
elite power struggle (Joffe, 1996; Li & White, 1993).
Although most political scholars – and some experts of civil-military relations in
democracies – see military politization as intrinsic to communist regimes, those studying
Chinese civil-military relations are aware of its historical origins and potential to change, as
influenced by factors such as the strategic environment, technological developments, and
power transition and new civilian leaders’ political capital (Shambaugh, 1991). As early as
1993, Li contended that bureaucratic and corporate hurdles undermine the effectiveness of the
political work system at the grassroots level. Over the last two decades, there have also been
signs of cracks in civilian control over the military at the top level (Ghiselli, 2018; Wuthnow
& Saunders, 2017), as some have observed that civilian heads of the Central Military
Commission (CMC) had been sidelined by their military deputies in the Jiang Zemin and Hu
Jintao administrations (Mulvenon, 2015). These phenomena contradict the theory of political
control, and drive a distinct strand of research on military professionalization as an
Professionalism with Chinese characteristics?
The study of military professionalization in China is derived from Samuel P. Huntington’s
(1957) theory. According to Huntington, military professionalism has three dimensions: 1)
the armed forces’ professional violence management competence, 2) the responsibility to
society at large rather than to specific civilian groups (e.g., political parties), and 3) the
corporate character, meaning that achievement in the military profession is measured in terms
of experience, seniority, education, and ability, and is reflected in ranking. In the Chinese
case, the efforts to modernize the Chinese military’s professional competence can be traced
back to the early Mao years. To a limited extent, such efforts created an officer corps inclined
to meeting its professional, rather than political, roles (Joffe, 1965; Godwin, 1978; Jencks,
1982). This course was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution and only resumed in the late
1970s after Mao’s death. Still, by the turn of the century, substantial evidence of
professionalization had been collected, documenting progress in the PLA’s professional
competence at managing both violence and corporate characters. For instance, for most of the
Mao Era, political activities took priority over military activities. Beginning in the 1980s,
though, the priorities were reversed to grant more time and resources to the latter (Joffe,
1987; Jencks, 1982). Also, senior revolutionary officers were encouraged to retire, and legal
age limits were set. Thus, officers who were younger, better educated and more
professionally competent were promoted (Bullard, 1977; Dreyer, 1996).
From the beginning, however, China scholars were aware that even if Huntington’s idea of
professionalism as “apolitical” military is true in Western democracies, it cannot be applied
unconditionally to the Chinese case, given the political structure and the PLA’s history and
tradition of political involvement. Harlan Jencks (1982) offers an early attempt to narrow this
gap between theory and the Chinese reality. He argues that the direction of
professionalization in China is not necessarily complete depolarization, yet it could be
“political quiescence.” Jencks’s idea of military professionalism with Chinese characteristics
retains two dimensions in Huntington’s original theory: the armed forces’ professional
competence at managing violence, and the corporate character; meanwhile, it admits the
military has several political identities, but distinguishes them from proactive political
This “diluted” idea of military professionalism is a logical extension of the Huntingtonian
theory. Both theories assume that the military’s political role is abnormal and should be
minimized in a normative sense. Thus, Jencks’s idea inherits the tension between professional
missions and non-political commitments in Huntington’s theory. In reality, corporate interests
and an exclusive claim of expertise could credentialize the military establishment in the eyes
of the public in that politicians and public officials find it politically suicidal to challenge in
the U.S. case (Lachmann, 2020). Similarly in China, beginning in the 1990s, scholars note
that the military establishment expands – rather than minimizes – its role in certain areas of
policymaking where its professional expertise is deemed central (Ji, 2014; Swaine, 1998). As
Thomas J. Bickford (2001, p. 28) writes, in the Chinese system (and probably most political
systems), such a role can “open the door to bargaining, coalitional behavior between the PLA
and civilian groups, political influence, perhaps even directives to civilians by military
personnel” (also see Li, 2017). In other words, the PLA’s professional expertise grants it with
– rather than deprives it of – a normalized role in politics.
Conditional compliance: A new trend?
Several scholars have grasped this newly obtained political impact of the PLA. James
Mulvenon (2001) characterizes it as “conditional compliance,” an alliance between the
military institution and the Party based on consensus and bargaining. In this alliance, the PLA
gets an augmented role in narrowly circumscribed policy areas crucial to its corporate
interests – including military modernization, defense planning, and foreign and security
policy – in return for its refraining from other policy issues and from challenging “the
principle of civilian control of the military.” This arrangement represents a consensus
between the Party and the military, but it is far from permanent. The military’s compliance,
according to Mulvenon, is based on “the military’s satisfaction with the job performance of
the top leadership, as well as the extent to which the preferences of military and civilian
leaders remain congruent” (2001, pp. 321-323; see also Ji, 2006, 2016).
Like the professionalism model, the conditional compliance model indicates a rise in the
military’s institutional autonomy and a corresponding decline in Party control. The difference
between the two models is that the latter, instead of seeing the military as “quasi-
professional” and politically quiescent, acknowledges proactiveness in the military’s renewed
political role and attributes it to the military’s enhanced capability to advance corporate
interests. Therefore, it positions the military at an advantage in its alliance with the Party.
Meanwhile, the conditional compliance model downplays – if not totally overlooks – the
politicalization of the PLA. Nevertheless, what this model does not address is how the armed
forces could legitimize such a turn. This would be a shift from a branch organizationally
interlocking with the hegemonic party to an organization strategizing to maximize its own
corporate interests in a political system still dominated by the Party. Neither does it specify
how such newly acquired institutional autonomy responds to its own century-long history of
fighting alongside the Party and proclaiming, as it still does, to be the “people’s army.” Does
the old discourse of political loyalty, or the recent discourse of professionalism, simply
disappear as the PLA amasses the institutional autonomy to promote its own agenda? What
other sources of legitimacy do the military mobilize to justify its institutional existence and
actions? The existing literature does not answer these empirical questions, which are my
focus of this study.
3. Research Design
In this study, my goals were two-fold. First, I wanted to understand how the Chinese
military legitimizes its involvement in politics, after decades of military modernization under
the guidance of the Chinese Communist Party. How does it speak of its relations with the
Party, its own organizational missions and goals, and potential conflicts between them?
Second, I want to examine how the military’s discursive strategies relate to their
policymaking actions within the party-state system. To address these questions, I developed a
mixed-methods research design to examine the discursive strategies used by military deputies
and to understand how their discourse is related to policymaking actions. I combined
computer-assisted text analysis with targeted deep reading (Nelson, 2017; Fligstein,
Brundage, & Schultz, 2017) to study the political discourse on military deputies. I then
conducted a quantitative analysis of military deputies’ public comments, using LDA topic
modeling, a machine learning method for identifying thematic structures in text (Blei, 2012).
It specified major topics in these deputies’ comments, and based on these specified topics, I
conducted a qualitative deep reading of top weighted comments to dig into the discursive
In this study, I created a dataset of public comments of those elected to represent the PLA
at the National People’s Congress (NPC) between 2001 and 2017. I collected these comments
from the PLA Daily, the official newspaper of the Central Military Commission, which
oversees the PLA. I regarded these comments as representing the military institution in
general, rather than individual military deputies. Note that these military deputies were
elected through a multi-tiered representative electoral system under the supervision of the
PLA Election Commission.
Their reported comments were filtered by PLA Daily’s reporters
and editorial board. Thus, they were the products of a collective process of both reporting and
Some may be concerned with whether deputies could speak frankly at the NPC, which is
viewed by many as a “rubber stamp” congress that serves to legitimize the Party’s rule.
However, the burgeoning literature on representation at People’s Congresses in China tells a
more nuanced story. Through studies at both national and local levels, scholars have found
the People’s Congresses play an informational role by channeling substantive grassroots
knowledge to the political authority (Manion, 2015; Truex, 2016). They also serve as arenas
for inter-agency coalition-building (Lü, Liu, & Li, 2018) while co-opting social groups and
interests into the establishment (Sun, 2014; Sun, Zhu & Wu, 2014; Truex, 2016). Most
existing literature has focused on civilian representation in China, and a thorough comparison
between military and civilian representation is beyond the scope of this study. Still, as the
only non-region-based delegation at the NPC, the PLA delegation may differ from provincial
delegations in one crucial way. While provincial delegations are composed of deputes from
various walks of life, the PLA delegation has less internal diversity regarding professional
and organizational background. Since NPC rules forbid cross-delegation bill-sponsorship,
deputies’ ability to form profession- or organization-based coalitions is circumscribed, expect
in the PLA delegation. Therefore, the PLA delegation is more likely than provincial
delegations to advocate for unified organizational identity and interests. This feature of the
delegation undergirds the design of using military deputies’ public comments to gauge the
PLA’s institutional identity. Admittedly, this dataset may magnify the PLA’s Party loyalty, but
a stronger case could be made if the analysis lends support to the military’s professional
To collect this dataset, I used the CNKI database to search for PLA Daily articles
containing the top-weighted word “People’s Congress”, between 2001 and 2017. Then, I
checked each one to confirm its relevance before exporting it. This process gave me 415
news articles regarding the NPC. I then extracted the quotes of military deputies from these
This process returned 4,299 quotes, with an average length of 160 words.
LDA topic models
To understand the discursive strategies employed by military deputies, I fit the corpus to
the Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA) topic models. Topic models are “probabilistic models
for uncovering the underlying semantic structure of a document collection based on a
hierarchical Bayesian analysis of the original texts” (Blei & Lafferty, 2009, p. 71). The
models analyze “the co-occurrence of words within a document over a large number of
documents to reverse engineer these topics from the larger corpus” (Nelson, 2017, pp. 15). In
this study, I use the popular LDA topic modeling algorithm (DiMaggio, Nag, & Blei, 2013;
Blei & Lafferty, 2009). A mixed-membership model, LDA “treats each document as a
mixture of topics” and “allows documents to ‘overlap’ each other regarding content” (Silge &
Robinson, 2017, p. 85). This feature suits this study because it allows one comment to contain
distinctive discourse, such as political and professional discourse, simultaneously.
One advantage of using topic models is that they work well with standardized text from
traditional media like newspapers and journals. Also, topic models avoid the human bias
introduced by manually coding large corpora. As Guo and colleagues have found (2016),
LDA analysis is more valid than the dictionary-based approach. Nevertheless, this advantage
is a double-edged sword, and topic modeling is often criticized for being completely
inductive and regarded as useful only for descriptive research (Hillard, Purpura, & Wilkerson,
2008). Yet, political and social scientists have demonstrated that topic modeling can be an
effective tool for quantifying large corpora to understand political structure and mechanisms
(e.g., Grimmer, 2013; Lucas, et al., 2015; Liebman, Roberts, Stern, & Wang, 2017). Amy
Catalinac (2016) used LDA topic models to quantify the shift between localized projects and
foreign policy in the study of how electoral reform has shaped attention to national security in
Like Catalinac, I guided the analysis of topics identified by LDA models with a research
interest in politicalization and professionalism. I fit the corpus of military deputies’ comments
to a 43-topic model, and this decision is explained and verified in Appendix 1. From the 43-
topic model, I extracted 15 top-weighted words and 15 top-weighted documents for each
topic. I then labeled these topics based on reading the words and documents. Then, I
classified these topics into five categories: political, professional, troop administration, non-
defense policy, and others. I focused on two categories, political and professional. I then
generated two sub-categories under the professional category: mastery of violence, and
national defense strategy. To supplement the LDA results and narrow the gap between the
computer algorithm and human interpretation, I conducted a targeted deep reading of the 15
top-weighted documents for each topic in the political and professional categories.
LDA topic models results
To give a general idea of topics and categories generated from the LDA model, I present
top-weighted words of selected topics for each substantive category in Table 1 (see Appendix
2 for the complete list of all 43 topics).
(TABLE 1 ABOUT HERE)
Figure 1 presents the proportion of each category in the corpus. Each of the political and
the professional categories accounts for around a third of the corpus. About one-tenth of the
corpus address issues regarding troop administration. Another one-fifth deals with non-
defense policy, such as economic development and social welfare. The remaining tenth of the
corpus does not fit into any substantive category, and is clustered in the others category.
(FIGURE 1 ABOUT HERE)
Figure 2 presents yearly proportions of the political and professional categories. The
proportions of these categories are consistent from 2001 to 2017, except for a notable decline
in the professional category during the transition from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao
slight decline after 2015 under the Xi administration. During each of these declines, the
political category’s portion increased, but generally the proportion changes by year are small
(with a maximum of 3% for each category) and each category maintaining a robust
proportion of the corpus. In the rest of this section, I analyze the topics of these two
(FIGURE 2 ABOUT HERE)
A political discourse: Loyalty and tradition
In a 1991 article, Shambaugh writes that “the PLA’s political work system (…) continues
to be the principal means by which the Party attempts to ‘control the gun’” (p. 528). The
topic model results confirm that this observation holds true decades later, as the PLA’s
political loyalty is declared in several topics. One topic labeled “upholding the Party’s
leadership” addresses this theme in its five top-weighted words: “Communist Party,” “lead,”
“always,” “PLA,” and “guarantee.” Loyalty is also declared to top leaders of the Party. One
topic is labeled “Hu Jintao’s speeches”. Hu was the CCP Chairman from 2002-2012. In this
topic, military deputies repeat lines from Hu Jintao’s speech on the military’s “four
awarenesses”: political awareness, awareness of the big picture, awareness of urgency, and
awareness of mission. In another topic labeled “Xi Jinping and the Party center,” deputies pay
tribute to the Party center’s absolute authority over the armed forces, pledging to safeguard
the “Central Military Commission (CMC) chairman responsibility system.” For instance, in
one top-weighted document under this topic, the military deputy says:
We must thoroughly implement the spirit of President Xi’s series of important
speeches, take on the political missions as heavy as mountains, focus on realizing the
Party’s objectives to strengthen the military under new situations, and continue to
deepen the struggles to improve the work style and fight against corruption in the
military. (Document 2,872)
In another top-weighted document under the same topic, the deputy says:
(…) We must treat maintaining and implementing the Central Military Commission
chairman responsibility system as the most urgent political issue. We must
determinately respond to Chairman Xi’s calls, forcefully implement his commands,
and resolutely complete his missions. (…) (Document 32)
The proclaimed dedication to the “CMC Chairman Responsibility System” has to be
understood within its context. This phrase first appeared in military media in October 2014,
two years into Xi’s CMC chairmanship. It contrasts with another phrase, “CMC Vice-
Chairman Responsibility System,” coined by outside observers to indicate that the civilian
chairman rules only as a figurehead of the CMC. Real control of the committee is by high-
ranking carrer officers (Mulvenon, 2015; see also Wuthnow & Saunders, 2017). By
describing “maintaining and implementing the Central Military Commission chairman
responsibility system as the most urgent political issue,” this comment reaffirms the civilian
leader’s (Xi Jinping’s in this case) absolute authority. However, it also admits the potential
hazards of civilian control, posed by high-ranking officers’ ability to manipulate their military
expertise and networks to achieve desired results from the civilian chairman who nominally
heads the CMC.
Despite implicit tension underlying the phrase “CMC Chairman Responsibility System,”
the PLA’s political loyalty to the Party is stressed as a tradition that has always been followed
– and should continue so – from generation to generation. In one topic labeled “the PLA’s
tradition,” this loyalty to the Party is framed as the military’s “red gene”:
We must build a platform for inheriting the red gene and fortifying the red front. We
must cultivate the red culture and hold activities to study the red history, read red
books, tell red stories, sing red songs, and watch red movies. We must get familiar
with the history of the Party, the country, and the army, guide officers and soldiers to
be in awe of history and admire predecessors and strengthen their identity with the
history. (…) We must improve the idea of publicity and education, integrate the red
gene into the veins of officers and soldiers imperceptibly. (Document 3,389)
In this comment, the “red” history “of the Party, the country, and the army” reflects a
discourse of history constructed to shape soldiers’ identity and strengthen Party control over
the armed forces. Therefore, “inheriting” this history becomes a technical issue of
perpetuating Party control, and this comment offers a solution to this problem.
Other topics within the political category also address thought work in the rank and file,
the work style of leaders and Party members in the PLA, and the military’s morale and spirits.
In general, this analysis identifies a strong political discourse with two key components:
loyalty and tradition. The analysis also specifies potential challenges to civilian control
within the military institution, though in a tone confirmative of the Party leader’s authority.
A discourse of professionalism: Expertise and corporateness
Huntington (1957) defines military professionalism as the “expertise of officership,”
responsibility to society in general, and to corporate characters. A deep reading of topics
identifies the first and the last elements in the professional category of military deputies’
comments. The sub-category of the mastery of violence contains topics such as military
training in simulated combat conditions, the system of joint command and operations,
modernization of weapons, and the standards of combat effectiveness. For instance, one top-
weighted document under the topic “able to fight and win” records an official’s inspection in
a grassroots military branch:
(…) Spend less time on chores and more on training; must avoid sideline activities
(absorbing time); what should be highlighted is “focusing more on (fighting) real
combat.” Where military leaders go, the rank and file’s attention will follow, and
devotions will be given to that aspect of work. (Document 3,619)
This theme of fighting “real combat” comes up in another topic labeled “combat effectiveness
as standards,” in which tensions between this military mission and other obligations of the
PLA are suggested. In one top-weighted document, the military deputy, Liu Zhenli, then-
commander of the 38th Army, notes:
To adhere to the standard of combat effectiveness, we must ensure that it is
exclusive and fundamental. (…) we must give one-vote veto power to the standard
of combat effectiveness. We must forcefully uphold the standard of combat
effectiveness. Otherwise, other standards will compete for time, personnel,
resources, and priority (…) Anything conducive to advancing combat effectiveness
must be vigorously promoted, and anything not about combat must be resolutely
eliminated (…) (Document 1,164)
Deputy Liu did not elaborate on what he meant by “other standards,” but the phrase of
“combat effectiveness” can be traced back to the tensions between “redness” and “expertise”
in the early post-Mao years. The phrase was first used by Deng Xiaoping in 1980 when he
criticized the over-emphasis of political work at the expense of military preparations (Liu,
2017, p. 112). At an expanded CMC conference in 1988, Deng again urged the PLA to “take
the improvement of combat effectiveness as the point of departure and the base of military
reform and building and as the fundamental standard to examine every sort of work” (from
Zhang & Zhang, 2006, p. 135). With little doubt, the emphasis on the standards of combat
effectiveness is not intended to challenge the PLA’s political identity; rather, it argues for
more “time, personnel, resources, and priority” given to the professional tasks of preparing
the PLA for real combat. It argues from the military’s perspective regarding a central issue of
civil-military relations in authoritarian regimes: the trade-off the regime has to make between
competing imperatives (Brooks, 2019).
The “redness versus expertise” dilemma is not the only source of the military’s concerns.
In a topic labeled “multi-task military missions,” the idea of “multi-task military missions”
aroused mixed feelings among military deputies. Multi-task military missions were first
raised in China’s 2006 National Defense White Paper released by the Hu Jintao
administration (Department of Defense, 2006). The issue was reiterated in the 2013 National
Defense White Paper, titled The Diversified Use of Chinese Armed Forces. In this report, the
PLA is commanded to “safeguard national economic and social development,” including but
not limited to “actively participating in national construction and rescue and disaster relief.”
While some top-weighted documents under this topic support the requirement to conduct
multi-task military missions, others voiced reservations. For instance, in one top-weighted
document, Deputy Liu Jvkui, the then-political commissar of the Gansu Provincial Military
The officers and soldiers of our army made outstanding contributions to fighting the
snowstorm early this year and were highly appreciated by deputies at the two
sessions. While emphasizing improving the ability to respond to multiple security
threats and accomplishing multi-task military missions, our military must stress
enhancing the ability to win local wars under conditions of informatization. Only
when we obtain the core military capability to win under the conditions of
informatization will we have the basis of capacity to accomplish other military
tasks. (Document 2,684)
This comment was made in March 2008, months before the Wenchuan Earthquake exposed
the cleavage between military leaders and the Hu-Wen administration over the PLA’s role in
disaster relief (Lo, 2014; Chase, et al., 2015). In the comment, the deputy juxtaposes multi-
task military missions with the “ability to win local wars under conditions of informatization”
and stresses the latter as the “core military ability” and the “basis of capacity.”
In short, there is a substantial discourse of professionalism based on the military’s expertise
and corporateness. This discourse lays the groundwork to challenge non-defense missions
ordered by the civilian authority, either political work or disaster relief. It implies no
fundamental difference with the civilian authority, and neither does it head towards explicit
de-politicization. However, it does expose a sense of corporateness, safeguarding what is
deemed to be the military institution’s core missions from intervention by outsiders – in this
case, the civilian authority.
Synthesizing the political and professional discourse
The coexistence of a strong political discourse and a professional one shapes the way in
which military deputies frame the PLA’s organizational missions and corporate interests. For
example, the top 5 documents under the topic “the PLA’s historic missions” specify several
missions, including professional missions as national defense and military reform, political
missions as constructing “a harmonious communist society” and promoting the Western
, and mixed missions, as carrying out “multi-task military missions”
(e.g., safeguarding the Beijing Olympic Games). In one top-weighted document, the deputy
comments on the Western Development Program:
(It) not only puts forward new requirements for economic and social
development, but also raises new issues for officers and soldiers stationed in the
Northwest. We must deeply understand and faithfully perform our military’s
historic missions in the new stage of the new century, pay more attention to
promoting the all-round development of officers and soldiers, and resonating
with the harmonious society (…) (Document 2,930)
The military deputy in this document recognizes a non-military mission – advancing the
Western Development Program – as the new requirements for PLA officers and soldiers
stationed in the region. It frames this mission as part of the PLA’s contribution to the Party’s
vision of “harmonious society.” Yet, this wholehearted embrace of non-military missions is
not universal. In another top-weighted document under the same topic, the deputy says:
(…) We should focus on the current education of maintaining the advanced
nature of Party members. We should showcase achievements of the education in
the strategic project of promoting talent, in the readiness for military struggle,
and in the overall improvement of the combat effectiveness of the troops.
This comment is particularly interesting because it recognizes the Party’s political doctrine as
the PLA’s guidance, while also stating that the PLA’s achievements of the doctrine should be
assessed by its professional activities – or combat effectiveness – rather than by certain
political criteria. In this way, it inserts expertise as the criterion of “redness,” justifying the
former in the name of the latter.
Under pro-defense civilian leaders, the military could justify its corporate interests by
quoting Party policies. One instance is the current Party chairman Xi Jinping’s idea of “the
Chinese dream and the dream of building a powerful military” (hereafter as “two dreams”).
By lifting the “dream of building a powerful military” to the same level of the “Chinese
dream,” Xi’s idea reverses the rank of priority in Deng Xiaoping’s policy of “four
modernizations,” in which economic development was prioritized over military
modernization (Frankenstein, 1999). Military deputies embraced Xi’s “two dreams” under a
topic labeled “Enhance the military.” In one top-weighted document, Deputy Zhong Zhiming,
then Deputy Commander of Shenyang Military Region, says:
It is the pursuit of generation after generation of Chinese to realize the great
renaissance of the Chinese nation. The dream of building a powerful military
undergirds the Chinese dream. Today, the contemporary soldiers carry up this
historic mission. We must have the courage to shoulder the burden and take on
the historic mission and responsibility. We shall never let history repeat itself.
We should always keep the nation’s renaissance in our minds and bear it on our
shoulders. (Document 2,226)
By saying “never let history repeat itself,” Deputy Zhong is reigniting the nationalist
discourse of the “century of humiliation” (Scott, 2008) and putting the burden/honor of
national renaissance on the PLA. This resonates with the elevation of the PLA’s importance
in Xi’s two dreams, positioning the PLA at the center of national strategy in a fashion not
seen since the Deng era.
As the political discourse suggests, military deputies have to recognize the civilian leader’s
commands, even when they may be detracting time and resources from the military’s core
missions. Meanwhile, military deputies also use multiple discursive strategies to mobilize
both the political and the professional discourses to promote their corporate interests.
Sometimes, this means justifying the corporate interests with the political discourse. In other
cases, a pro-defense civilian leader may provide ready-to-use discourse for military deputies
to embrace and elevate the military institution’s strategic importance.
This study found that the PLA mobilizes both a political discourse emphasizing loyalty and
tradition, and a professional discourse underlining expertise and corporateness. And these two
sets of discourse remained largely stable, in terms of proportion in the corpus, between 2001
and 2017, despite changes in Party and military leadership.
The duality of discourse
generates tension, especially when the civilian authority’s priorities conflict with the PLA’s
perception of its institutional goals and interests. Meanwhile, it also constitutes a source of
legitimacy to justify the military’s corporate interests, painting the PLA as the defender of the
Chinese nation and its “great renaissance.”
Existing theories view professionalism and corporateness as contradicting – or
undermining – the political feature of the Chinese armed forces. This dichotomy echoes the
conventional wisdom that views military professionalism as a normative restraint over the
military’s political intervention. However, this study finds that military deputies used both
professionalism and politicalization to justify the PLA’s role in politics and policymaking.
This role of the military in the political domain is not peculiar to China. In the U.S., a pro-
defense coalition that some have called the Military-Industrial Complex (MIC) empowers a
critical subset of Congress members to press for defense spending expansion. This “benefits
numerous geographic constituencies, while policy has shifted most of the costs of military
spending and war onto political minorities” (Thorpe, 2014, p. 11). In China, the restrictions
on cross-constituency coalition-formation (e.g., deputies in different delegations may not
sponsor the same bill) and the handicapped power of the Congress prevent such a coalition
from emerging at the NPC. Without the influential civilian proxies and constituency interests
that the U.S. defense sector enjoys, the PLA has to cling to its traditional statuses as the
“Party’s gun” and the “people’s army.” Meanwhile, such discursive strategies and
institutional identity help justify and promote the PLA’s corporate interests, which were semi-
autonomous from those of the Party in the post-1970s era. From this perspective, despite the
likelihood of occasional civil-military cleavage, the Party’s endorsement and sponsorship is
indispensable to the “lone-wolf” PLA in the political arena.
Thus, unlike the argument
made by conditional compliance theorists, the increase in corporate interests does not
necessarily separate the PLA from the Party. Instead, to pursue these corporate interests, the
PLA has to align its agenda with the Party’s hegemonic agenda and seek justification from
the PLA’s traditional role in the Revolutionary Era. Hence, even though we may witness new
incidents indicating a civil-military cleavage as the J-20 episode did in 2011,
incidents are unlikely to be signs of fundamental transformation in the civil-military relations,
due to the PLA’s status of political isolation.
Although this study focuses on a single case, future research could compare the military’s
role in the political domain, across countries and regime types, and how it justifies this role.
Risa Brooks writes, “the military is akin to other powerful constituencies in the state in how it
derives power and impacts distributional and policy outcomes” (2019, p. 391). If this is true,
a gap between the norms of military professionalism – carrying weights to varying extents in
most regimes – and the reality of the military’s political role must be a worldwide
phenomenon. Some armed forces (e.g., the U.S. military) may rely on civilian allies to
manage their key institutional interests (e.g., defense appropriation); others may justify their
political existence by turning to traditional (e.g., the PLA) or secular (e.g., the Turkish Armed
Forces) values. Different approaches constitute different bases of – and constraints on – the
military’s influence and autonomy. In turn, this shapes the military’s position in domestic
politics and policymaking. Future research should transcend the arbitrary dichotomy between
professionalism and politicalization. Moreover, the military’s role in politics should be taken
seriously, regardless of regime type. How institutional commitments to professionalism
influence the military’s politicalization across countries is also worthy of scrutiny.
Table 1: Top 15 top-weighted words associated with selected topics in the 43-topic models
work in the
able to win
able to fight
be sure to
get rid of
Note: The second row presents topic labels, assigned by the author based on top-weighted words and top-weighted documents. Top-weighted words
are translated from Chinese.
Figure 1: Shares of topic categories in the corpus
Note: Shares of topic categories were calculated based on the share of each topic in individual documents
from LDA models.
Mastery of violence
Figure 2: Proportions of the political and professional categories
Note: Category proportion was calculated based on the total share of topics under each category in
individual documents from the LDA models.
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The extraction is executed if a quote meets one of three criteria: 1) It is a quote from a military deputy
whose name has been identified in the news; 2) it is a quote from a military deputy who has been identified as
“one military deputy” without being named; 3) it is a quote from several military deputies whose names have
not been reported. Usually, these quotes start in the news with a phrase like “some military deputies told
reporters.” Sometimes, military deputies’ comments are reported without quotation marks. In these cases, I
regard sentences between the phrase “the deputy said” and the end of the paragraph as what he/she/they said,
unless other deputies are identified in between.
Hu Jintao took office of the Chairman of the Party from Jiang Zemin in November 2002, but Jiang remained
the CMC Chairman for another two years, until Hu took over in September 2004.
An economic development program launched by the Chinese Central government to improve the economies
of China’s underdeveloped West.
This finding is counterintuitive to some extent as many studies have identified changes in civil-military
relations under different top leaders in China (e.g., Mulvenon, 2015; Wuthnow & Saunders, 2017). However,
this analysis shows that such leadership succession may cause fluctuations in but not necessarily overturn of
one set of institutional discourse. What it means beyond the discursive dimension (e.g., institutional resilience
or decoupling between discourse and practice) needs further exploration.
Note that it does not mean that I view the NPC as the only – or even primary – location where major
defense decisions are made, which actually takes place at the CMC. However, the CMC is not a venue for
coalition-building while the National Congress is – at least for civilian delegations in China and for the
Military-Industrial Complex in the U.S.
During Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s 2011 visit to China, the test flight of the J-20 stealth fighter
aircraft seemed to supervise not only the U.S. team but also Chinese President Hu Jintao. Some speculated this
incident indicating a civil-military cleavage (for details, see Scobell, 2011).