On November 30, 2020, the top decision-making body of the Chinese Communist Party convened to review regulations to improve China's "combat effectiveness" (See APPENDIX). Without explicit mention of China's strategic capabilities, the meeting emphasized Xi Jinping Thought and loyalty to the Party as guiding tenets in strengthening its armed forces. As the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, Xi Jinping presided over the Politburo meeting and emphasized China's need to "prepare for war by integrating political works into all links [chain of command] of combat effectiveness." While calls to enhance China's war-readiness have become clichés in statements issued by the CCP, this meeting offers a prescient reminder of where the true loyalties of China's regular forces lie. That is, to the Party - not to the people.
Army Political Work
As the first order of business, the meeting discussed revisions to the "Regulations on Political Work in the Army." Professing that political work is the "lifeline of the PLA," the meeting affirmed the "Party's absolute leadership over the military" - a tacit acknowledgement of the subordinate status of the PLA to the will of the CCP. Later in the discussion, attendees committed to persisting in applying Xi Jinping Thought in order to "ensure absolute loyalty, absolute purity, and absolute reliability" of the armed forces.
Party allegiance is an inalienable priority for the CCP, as the PLA is first and foremost the military wing of the Party. Only after its victory in the Chinese Civil War did the PLA also became the regular armed force of the PRC, however its unique Party-Army relationship remains. Accordingly, the PLA is obliged to follow the dictates of the Party and all servicepeople swear an enlistment oath to "obey the leadership of the Communist Party of China." As one of the founders of the forerunner to the PLA, Chairman Mao Zedong summarized his doctrine of absolute civilian control as "the Party commands the gun; the gun must never command the Party." Endowed with its mandate to defend the Party and the PRC from threats within and without, the Party has an imperative to ensure loyalty and ideological cohesion within the ranks of the PLA.
United Front Work Department
The second set of revisions related to the role of the "Regulations on the United Front Work Department," alluding to an official organ of the CCP that is responsible for coordinating domestic and foreign influence operations to support Party objectives. The meeting affirmed the role of the United Front Work Department as a "magic weapon" and urged for the Party Central Committee to "strengthen the planning and deployment in their respective regions and departments." Through emphasizing the importance of the United Front Word Department in complementing China's strategic capabilities, the Politburo has signaled its intent to wage hybrid warfare to achieve its objectives.
Established in 1942, the United Front Work Department has supported the military on numerous occasions through espionage, fundraising, exerting political influence, and disseminating propaganda, including during World War II and the Chinese Civil War. More recently, the UFWD has also been deployed to pacify the restive regions of Xinjiang and Tibet. The UFWD's foreign operations have attracted global condemnation for covertly attempting to build influence and cultivate support for the CCP, especially among the Chinese diaspora. Flexing its reach and responsiveness, UFWD-linked organizations in multiple countries were activated in early 2020 to purchase and export medical supplies to support China's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a non-combatant political force, the UFWD represents a hybrid complementary to China's regular warfighting capabilities.
The third and final category of "regulations" discussed in the meeting focused on consolidating the authority of the Party and its members in leading the PLA. The meeting reinforcing the leadership of party members within the PLA and encouraged them to "consciously play a vanguard and exemplary role" in "fighting against all actions that may shake the foundation of the party and hinder the party's cause." In doing so, the Politburo intends for party members to "create a clean political ecology" by uprooting dissent and assuring allegiance to the Party. Acknowledging that not all PLA servicepeople are Party members, they are nonetheless expected to "respect the dominant status of party members and inspire Party members to participate in Party building." By elevating the status of Party elements and urging vigilance against the Party's enemies, the CCP likely hopes to consolidate its powerbase within the PLA to ensure its own survival.
The tension in defining and consolidating the Part-Army relationship is squarely situated in the broader discourse around "military nationalization" in China. Emerging in prominence in the 1980s, reformist elements within the Party and PLA advocated for the processes of "military nationalization" or "depoliticization", whereby the PLA would move away from its role as guarantor of the CCP's political power. This policy found precedent in the Nationalist government of China after World War II, and prior to 2014 the Party tolerated discussion on this process within official and scholarly circles. In recent years however, the Chinese propaganda machine and academics have vocally attacked this concept - calling for the Party and PLA to "resolutely reject nationalization of the armed forces". In an attempt to censure discussion of 'military nationalisation', the topic is now taboo and has been deemed as an attempt to "overthrow the CCP's ruling position and subvert the system".
'Prepare For War'
Notwithstanding the provocative overtones inherent in calls to "prepare for war", this is nothing new. At the risk of becoming a cliché, variations of this message have predictably featured in press-releases for many years – typically following a high-level engagement between Xi Jinping and the PLA. In October this year, Xi Jinping called on the PLA to "put all minds and energy on preparing for war," echoing the message he delivered in May this year for the PLA to "explore ways of training and preparing for war." Likewise, Xi's first order to the PLA in 2019 was for it to "prepare for a comprehensive military struggle," while in October 2018 he advised the Southern Theatre Command of the PLA to "prepare for war."
While the outcomes of this Politburo meeting are not strong indicators of an impending conflict, it nonetheless serves as an unambiguous reminder that China has significantly bolstered its military capabilities in order to credibly realize its domestic and foreign policy objectives by force, if necessary. The meeting should also alert observers to the Politburo's willingness to use hybrid warfare through its regular armed forces and non-combatant United Front Work Department to militate against threats from within and from without. Above all, this meeting reaffirms the Party's ongoing efforts to consolidate its political and ideological support from within the ranks of the PLA to ensure the stability and longevity of CCP rule.
Within the ideological framework of Communist revolution to which the CCP ascribes, the recurrence of rhetoric designed to keep the PLA on 'war-footing' is unsurprising. However, China has also taken concrete steps to enhance its 'preparedness' for war: China now boasts a numerically larger navy than the U.S., has developed hypersonic missiles capable of evading interception, and has reformed its personnel to become a leaner and more technological "world-class army". The completion of China's homegrown global navigation satellite system, BeiDou, also offers China's military unprecedented functionality and strategic independence from foreign systems. Taken together, these strides to modernize China's armed forces do indeed corroborate Xi Jinping's stated aim of preparing for war and enhancing the PLA's combat effectiveness.
*Heath Sloane is MEMRI's Chinese Media Studies Project research fellow.
APPENDIX - The Political Bureau Of The CCP Central Committee Meets To Review These 3 Important Documents- Chinanews.com, December 1, 2020
"The Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee held a meeting on November 30 to review the documents: 'Regulations on Political Work in the Army,' 'Regulations on the Work of the United Front of the Communist Party of China,' and 'Regulations on the Protection of the Rights of Party Members of the Communist Party of China.' Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee, presided over the meeting.
'Army Political Work Regulations'
"The meeting pointed out that political work is the lifeline of the people's army and can only be strengthened, but not weakened. The revision of the 'Regulations on Political Work in the Army' is of great significance for realizing the party's goal of strengthening the army in the new era and building the people's army into a world-class army.
"It is necessary to adhere to the fundamental principles and system of the party's absolute leadership over the military, fully and thoroughly implement the responsibility system of the chairman of the Military Commission, persist in using Xi Jinping Thought on strengthening the military to forge souls and educate people, and ensure absolute loyalty, absolute purity and absolute reliability.
"It is necessary to strengthen the centralized and unified leadership of the Party Central Committee and the Central Military Commission, consolidate the responsibility of party organizations at all levels to lead political work, and ensure the effective implementation of various political tasks.
"It is necessary to focus on concentrating efforts to prepare for war, integrating political work into all links of combat effectiveness building, and integrating it into the entire process of preparing for military struggle, and using rigid measures to promote the establishment of standards for combat effectiveness in the entire army.
SUPPORT OUR WORK
"It is necessary to adhere to the fundamental principles and systems of political work, actively promote concepts of political work, operating models, guidance methods, innovative methods and means, and promote a high degree of integration between the advantages of traditional political work and information technology.
"It is necessary to continue to maintain a pure political ecology, adhere to the comprehensive strict governance of the Party and the military, and resolutely rectify formalism and bureaucracy.
'Regulations On The United Front Work Of The Communist Party Of China'
"The meeting pointed out that the revision of the 'Regulations on the United Front Work of the Communist Party of China' is an important task for the Party Central Committee to administer the Party strictly and in accordance with the rules. It is an important measure to consolidate and deepen the spirit of reform of the Party and state institutions in the field of the United Front. In the new era, it is an inevitable requirement to bring the magic weapon of the United Front into full play.
"It is necessary to strengthen the Party's centralized and unified leadership over United Front work, to form a situation whereby the whole Party does United Front work, and raise the level of scientization, standardization, and institutionalization of United Front work.
"Party committees (party groups) at all levels must thoroughly study and implement the 'Regulations on the United Front Work of the Communist Party of China', comprehensively and accurately study and understand the theories, principles and policies of the United Front, earnestly fulfill the main responsibility of United Front work, strengthen the planning and deployment of United Front work in their respective regions and departments, truly develop the United Front, carry out United Front work well, unite all forces that can be united, and mobilize all positive factors that can be mobilized to promote the continuous consolidation and development of the patriotic cause of the United Front.
'Regulations On The Protection Of The Rights Of Party Members Of The Communist Party Of China'
"The meeting pointed out that the timely revision of the 'Regulations on the Protection of the Rights of Party Members of the Communist Party of China' is conducive to fully embodying the advantages of our Party's leadership system and bringing into play the main role of Party members.
"The broad masses of party members must correctly understand and handle the dialectical unity between obligations and rights, responsibilities and accountability, exercising rights and observing discipline.
"The exercise of Party members' rights must be predicated on the fulfillment of obligations, responsibility and discipline.
"Party organizations at all levels must strengthen organizational leadership over the implementation of the regulations, make great efforts to study and conduct propaganda, carry out regular education on the obligations and rights of Party members, strictly implement the main responsibilities, improve the system and mechanisms, strengthen its execution, ensure that various safeguards are implemented and encourage Party members to consciously play a role as a vanguard and example in the new journey.
"It is necessary to guide Party members to carry out democratic supervision, take a clear-cut stand in fighting against unhealthy trends and corruption, fight against all actions that may shake the foundations of the Party and hinder the Party's cause, so as to create a clean political ecology.
"It is necessary to implement the requirement of the 'Three Distinctions', to encourage Party members to explore boldly, be diligent and dedicated, dare to take responsibility, do things practically, and promptly clarify and rectify the names of those who have been framed with false accusations.
"Leading cadres at all levels, especially the leading comrades in charge, should take the lead in implementing the provisions of the regulations. They must not only set benchmarks and examples in fulfilling their obligations and exercising their rights, but also respect the dominant status of Party members and stimulate their enthusiasm, initiative and creativity to devote themselves to Party building and the Party's cause."
 Qi Biao [齐彪], Why Must We Resolutely Reject 'Nationalization of the Armed Forces'? [为什么要坚决抵制 '军队国家化'],” PLA Daily [解放军报], May 7, 2009.