At The Diplomat Minxin Pei attempts to reassure me that the PLA (Chinese military) remains under the firm control of the CCP (civilian leadership):

While the PLA may not have decisive influence over major policy, it does have enormous operational freedom. If we analyze recent incidents that contributed to tensions between China, its neighbors, and the United States, these could be characterized, mostly, as dangerous tactical moves. Here, again, we first need to resist the temptation to exonerate the civilian leadership completely.

It is reasonable to assume that the PLA personnel were acting under general and vague directives approved by the civilian leadership. For example, it is no secret that the Chinese government has long viewed American surveillance activities along its coasts with anger. One can thus surmise that the civilian leaders have approved, in principle, that the PLA take counter-measures. However, the PLA has enormous discretion in terms of setting operational parameters.

Although there is the possibility that the PLA, as an organization, may not have well-developed procedures to set operational freedom for its front-line officers, the more likely culprit behind recent incidents is a mindset prevalent among Chinese military officers. In Chinese, this mindset is called ninzuo wuyou, or “rather left than right.” In plain English, the essence of this mindset is that officials throughout the chain of command (or officials in the entire bureaucratic system of the Chinese state) have a proclivity to interpret—and implement—generally vague top-level policy directives in a more aggressive (usually more conservative than liberal) direction. In domestic affairs, this mindset has resulted in excessive repression. In foreign policy, the same mindset leads to disproportional response or overly risky actions.

Unfortunately, based on past record, it seems that officials who have committed more “leftist” acts have either done well or avoided punishment. For example, one PLA general who threatened to “nuke” the United States a few years ago has not only retained his job, but has remained one of the most visible official spokesmen on security issues. So far, no PLA official responsible for any of the incidents that damaged Chinese ties with its neighbors or the U.S. is known to have been disciplined.

or, said another way, the Chinese military has exploited its operational freedom aggressively and the civilian leadership has done nothing about it. Are you reassured now?

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