ABSTRACT

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has the largest standing military force in the world. Like militaries that have evolved from other Communist systems, this force has a highly distinctive relationship with the political realm represented by the Party, and in the economic life of the country. The PRC cannot be called a military state – because the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its associated naval, aviation, and nuclear forces come under the direct control of the Communist Party of China (CPC). But nor can the PLA be seen as a purely military force – it has a role in the nation’s formulation of its geopolitical strategy (particular in articulating foreign policy, and policy over Taiwan), and its key leaders sit on the Central Committee of the CPC (Jakobson and Knox, 2010). Ostensibly, it has been banned from a business role since 1998 – but it still has major procurement interests and is a big stakeholder in the economic development of border areas like the Xinjiang Autonomous Region through the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (xinjiang shengchan jianshe bingtuan), better known as Bingtuan. The sheer size of the Chinese military means that it attracts intense interest. Every year, think tanks and governments, particularly the US, make estimates of its growth in spending, and argue that it is becoming a more significant factor as China emerges and becomes an increasingly powerful country. But it is in trying to define more precisely the political and economic functioning of the PLA that has caused most controversy. This chapter will look in detail at exactly what the PLA’s role is in the political economy of the contemporary PRC, and how it fits into a military-industrial framework. In particular, it will focus on the ways in which the PLA figures within the Chinese economy and the political landscape. The PLA balances a number of functions, partly political (helping the CPC maintain its monopoly on power), partly economic (ensuring its own growth and survival as an institute within the PRC), and partly social (it has always occupied a unique role within Chinese society, and has a raft of specific institutions, and structures, which carry this). In this sense, the PLA sits within the kinds of paradigms that were historically created by Leninist systems, but has managed, as the Chinese political-economic culture has marketized, to introduce similar reforms, redefinining and renegotiating its role in society while preserving this historic legacy.