Saturday, February 6, 2016

What does "rule of law" mean when applied to Chinese military matters?

The South China Morning Post has an article on new legal measures in China that are intended to prevent future abuses in PLA administration (e.g., selling promotions). It is titled "Legal ties to hold China's army to account under Central Military Commission chief." The subhead, however, explains that the purpose is to prevent the country's president, who heads the CMC, from being made a figurehead when it comes the PLA matters. Excerpt:
The Central Military Commission’s new political department is working on a raft of official documents and specific measures to make sure all of the army is accountable to the head of the CMC, now chaired by President Xi Jinping, the army’s mouthpiece said on Friday. 
The move comes just days after Xi visited the cradle of the Communist Party’s revolution in the remote mountains of Jinggangshan in Jiangxi province in what analysts said was to show he had consolidated power after a military overhaul. They said the department’s activities were to ensure Xi was not preempted like his predecessor Hu Jintao, who was treated as figurehead by his two deputies, Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou when he was CMC chairman from 2004 to 2012. 
The PLA Daily said the Political Work Department, one of 15 newly established units under the CMC, was revising and drafting documents to make sure all arms of the military were accountable to the CMC chairman. The department would also come up with specific measures for all party committees in the army, as well as an ideological educational campaign, the report said.
If this is an accurate account of the back story, what are we to make of it? Just another step in the consolidation of the president's power, in the particular context of the army, or a good government measure that is consistent with what in the U.S. would be called "the unitary executive"? I.e., that the political and party leadership of the country must have control of (and responsibility for) all executive functions, including the armed forces. The latest clues suggest that what seems from a distance to be a monolithic political structure in fact has complexities and satrapies that can be both inefficient and hazardous or at least inconvenient to the top management. One wonders why military matters are regulated by a "commission" rather than a single accountable official. The editor will speculate that the arrangement is there in order to dilute power and prevent the development of what could be competition for the top spot(s) in political and party institutions. Further from the article:
According to the constitution, the CMC chairman has overall responsibility for the commission, serving as the commander-in-chief of the PLA. 
Hong Kong-based military expert Liang Guoliang said that such a accountability system and rule had not been implemented in the past decades due to a lack of legal sense. 
“Mao didn’t need any legal foundation because of his political influence. Deng revised the constitution, but failed to expand the constitutional law into legal documents because he didn’t face any critical challenges like his successors Jiang Zemin and Hu, the CMC’s first and second generation civilian leaders,” Liang said.
If this struggle for control is the heart of the matter, can the package of PLA-related legal reforms that is currently in the works be expected to foster the rule of law in military fields such as the administration of justice. In an environment where central political control is the highest priority, as the latest developments suggest, achieving judicial independence in the PLA will be a very tall order.

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