- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

Civil-Military “Rules of the Game” on the Eve of China’s 19th Party Congress

Andrew Scobell

October 11, 2017


This essay assesses the role and influence of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by challenging conventional assumptions about “rules of the game” for military participation in China’s political system.

Main Argument

Conventional scholarly wisdom presumes that civilian control of the military is firmly institutionalized in the People’s Republic of China, built on clearly defined normative rules and well-established structural mechanisms. This essay calls into question such assumptions through an articulation of commonly agreed on rules of the game, which highlight the conditional nature of civil-military relations in contemporary China. The analysis suggests a more nuanced framework for the PLA’s participation in politics than is widely assumed. Although the rules identified in this essay have proved resilient over the course of three decades, they are far from immutable and are subject to challenge and change.

Policy Implications

  • As the organizational reforms in China’s national security system are fully implemented in coming years, existing civil-military rules of the game are likely to evolve in minor ways and possibly become transformed in major ways.
  • If Xi Jinping continues to vigorously enforce his will on the PLA at the 19th Party Congress and beyond, then his tenure as paramount leader will have a significant impact on civil-military relations.
  • While the precise policy implications of Xi’s reforms are difficult to discern, significant changes in civil-military relations have the potential to alter fundamentally the national security policymaking process in 21st-century China.

    Note: This essay was prepared for the conference “Continuity and Change in the PLA: Evolution, Adaptation, and Reform,” held by the National Bureau of Asian Research, Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, U.S. Pacific Command, and Department of the Army at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, October 21–23, 2016.

Andrew Scobell is a Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation. His publications include PLA Influence on China’s National Security Policymaking (2015), China’s Search for Security (2012), and China’s Use of Military Force: Beyond the Great Wall and the Long March (2003).