This article briefly discusses the history of the political commissars (PCs, zhengwei) for the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN) and Air Force (PLAAF) since the services were established in 1949, especially during the tumultuous period the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. The article then discusses the career path for the past four PCs and makes some predictions about who will replace the current PLAN PC, Admiral Liu Xiaojiang, and PLAAF PC, General Tian Xiusi, when they reach their mandatory retirement age of 65 based on their grade of military region (MR) leader (zheng dajunqu zhi) in 2014 and 2015, respectively .
The article will primarily examine the career paths of PCs who entered service after the PLAN and PLAAF were created in 1949. As noted in the companion background piece, political leadership billets include the director (zhuren) of the Political Division/Department (DPD), deputy DPD, and the PC and DPCs at every level (“China’s Military Political Commissar System in Comparative Perspective,” China Brief, March 4) . The article begins by identifying the grade and rank structure for these key political officer billets.
Key Political Officer Grades and Ranks
Every officer, organization, and billet is assigned one of the PLA’s 15 grades and 10 ranks. In addition, each officer’s grade is assigned a primary and secondary rank. In the PLA, career advancement is based on grade, not rank, promotions. Table 1 shows the grades and ranks for the PC, DPC, and DPD billets in the PLAN and PLAAF Headquarters and the fleet and MRAF Headquarters. As shown, the PLAN and PLAAF DPC and DPD, as well as the fleet and MRAF PCs all have the same grade but different responsibilities, which accounts for why some DPCs serve concurrently as the DPD and why a DPD can be promoted in grade as a PC without being a DPC.
Table 1: Key Political Officer Grades and Ranks
MR Deputy Leader
Corps Deputy Leader
PLA Navy Political Officers
As shown in Table 2, the PLAN has had 12 PCs since 1949.
Table 2: PLAN Political Commissars
Year Started (age)
1949 – 1957
1957 (45); 1971 (59)
Hu YanlinHu Yanlin
Although PLAN histories list the PCs as shown in Table 1, it is quite complicated for the period of 1949 until 1979 when Ye Fei became the PC (China Military Encyclopedia, 2007). The PLAN did not have a PC until 1957; however, Liu Daosheng, who was the DPC and concurrently the DPD from 1950 to 1957, basically served as the PC .
From 1957 to 1979, the PLAN’s PCs were identified as the PC, the first PC (diyi zhengwei), or the second PC (di’er zhengwei), but there were overlaps and their exact relationships and responsibilities are not clear. Online biographic information and the Dictionary of China’s Communist Party Central Committee Members for 1921–2003 reveal some discrepancies from an orderly succession process in these posts:
- Su Zhenhua served as the PC from 1957 to 1973 and as the first PC from 1973 to 1979, but he was ineffective for most of this period;
- Wang Hongkun served as the second PC from 1966 to 1977, but basically served as the PC from 1966–1967;
- Li Zuopeng served as a PLAN deputy commander starting in 1962 and as the first PC from 1967 to 1971, but functioned as the PC.
Li Zuopeng’s Impact on the PLAN
Until the late 1970s, Li Zuopeng probably had the most significant, negative impact on PLAN development, because, for all practical purposes, he ran the Navy from 1962 until 1971. He was born in 1914 in Jiangxi Province and joined the Red Army in 1930. In 1935, he began working in the General Staff Department (GSD) and participated in the Long March. From 1939 to the early 1950s, he served in various Army staff, training, school, and command positions, including the commander of the 4th Field Army’s 43rd Army. In 1962, he was assigned to his first PLAN position as a deputy commander. In 1967, he became the PLAN PC and was later assigned as a concurrent deputy chief of the General Staff (DCOGS) and Central Military Commission (CMC) member (China’s Navy 2007).
Under Defense Minister Lin Biao’s tutelage, Li essentially took over command of the PLAN, which negatively affected the PLAN’s direction of development. After the Cultural Revolution was launched, this battle became worse, especially during the period from 1967 to 1971. During this time, Li advocated politics above all else, and he brutally persecuted officers who disagreed with him, thus destroying unit development. When Lin Biao’s plane crashed in September 1971, Li was immediately arrested. Ten years later, the PRC’s highest court tried and sentenced him to 17 years. Although he was arrested in 1971, his policies continued to negatively affect PLAN development through the end of the decade (China’s Navy 2007).
Su Zhenhua, who served twice as the PLAN commander was dominated by Li Zuopeng and was virtually ineffective. Deng Xiaoping finally appointed Ye Fei, who had never served in the PLAN and was at that time the Minister of Transportation, as the PLAN PC in February 1979 and then as the commander a year later to help put the PLAN back on track.
PLAN Political Commissar Career Paths
The following bullets provide background information on the four PCs who joined the PLA after the PLAN was created in 1949:
- Zhou Kunren joined the PLAN in 1956 as a medical technician and served in medical billets onboard various vessels until he shifted to the political officer track onboard vessels in 1967. He later served in political officer leadership positions (Political Department, DPC, and PC) in a vessel zhidui (flotilla) and the East Sea Fleet (ESF) and South Sea Fleet (SSF) Headquarters. He also served as a deputy director in the PLAN Political Department and as a DPC. Following his tour as the PLAN PC (1993–1995) and concurrent Party Committee deputy secretary, he became the PC for the General Logistics Department (GLD) but wore an Army uniform. Zhou first received medical training as a student. He attended the PLA Military College basic course for eight months in 1980 and the provincial–level cadre course at the Central Party School for seven months in 1985–1986.
- Yang Huaiqing joined the PLAN in 1958 as an enlisted member and then became a culture staff officer and served primarily in second-level political organization and cadre department billets until he assumed leadership positions as a Political Department director and PC at a naval base starting in 1985. From 1990 on, he served in PLAN Headquarters as a DPD, DPC, and PC, as well as a concurrent Party Committee deputy secretary. He received his initial education and training as a student at a naval training unit. In 1987, he studied at the Central Party School for four months. In 1994 he took a four–month graduate course at the National Defense University (NDU). From 1997 to 2007, he took a graduate course by correspondence from the Central Party School.
- Hu Yanlin joined the PLAAF in 1959 as a pilot cadet and shifted from being a pilot to political officer leadership billets early in his career. In 1990, he transferred to PLA Naval Aviation as a political officer, where he served as an air division DPC and PC before moving to leadership billets in Naval Aviation Headquarters. He then became the director of the PLAN’s Political Department, followed by serving as a DPC and PC. Besides his pilot cadet training, he attended the NDU basic course for two years from 1986 to 1988, and a short course at the Central Party School in 1991.
- Liu Xiaojiang began his career in 1970 as an enlisted member in the PLA’s railway corps. He then served in the GSD as a secretary (mishu), including working under Admiral Liu Huaqing while he was a deputy chief of the General Staff and PLAN commander. From 1984 to 1998, he served in various General Political Department (GPD) Cadre Department and Culture Department billets. From 1998 to 2008, he served as a deputy director of the PLAN’s Political Department and then as a PLAN DPC and concurrent director of the Discipline Inspection Committee before becoming the PC in 2008. As an MR leader–grade officer, Liu will have to retire at the age of 65 in 2014.
A review of the above four PLAN PCs found the following similarities and differences:
- Only Zhou and Yang spent their entire career in the PLAN;
- Yang and Hu first served as the director of the PLAN Headquarters Political Department and concurrently as a Party Standing Committee member before becoming a deputy PC and then the PC;
- All four served as a deputy PC;
- Only Zhou served as a fleet PC;
- The starting age for as the PC was 56 for Zhou and Yang, 59 for Liu, and 60 for Hu, and only Zhou moved on to another position (GLD PC at age 58) before retiring at age 65.
Although there are no clear patterns for determining who the next PLAN PC will be, the field can most likely be narrowed down to officers who are serving as a deputy PC and previously served as a deputy director and/or the director of the PLAN’s Political Department. Furthermore, they most likely did not serve as a fleet PC. Based on the information available, one of the top contenders is most likely Vice Admiral Ma Faxiang, who has been the director of the PLAN Political Department since June 2011 (club.xilu.com/xinguancha, January 16, 2010). Ma previously served as the PC for the PLAN Equipment Research Academy (2004–2008) and as the PC for the PLAN Test and Training Base (2008–2011). It is not clear what his date of birth is, but it is probably around 1954, which would make him eligible to replace Liu Xiaojiang in 2014. The two current deputy PCs, Wang Yaohai and Wang Sentai, were born in 1950 and 1951, respectively, which makes them too old to replace Liu in 2014. As a result, Ma will most likely replace Wang Yaohai as a deputy PC and then could become the PC in 2014.
PLA Air Force Political Officers
As shown in the Table 3, the PLAAF has had 12 PCs since 1949, three of whom became the commander.
Table 3: PLAAF Political Commissars
Year Started (age)
In May 1950, Wu Faxian became a PLAAF DPC and concurrently DPD. For all practical purposes, he served as the PC when Xiao Hua, who was the PC for less than six months, was transferred to the General Political Department (GPD). Like the PLAN, the PLAAF’s development suffered during the Cultural Revolution because of PLAAF commander Wu Faxian’s involvement with Defense Minister Lin Biao. Wu, who had been the PLAAF political commissar from 1957 to 1965, was appointed PLAAF commander in May 1965 but still served as the party secretary and de facto PC. He was assigned concurrently as a DCOGS and a deputy director of the CMC’s General Office. When Lin’s aircraft crashed in Mongolia in September 1971 after an alleged abortive coup against Mao Zedong, Wu Faxian was immediately arrested. He was tried 10 years later and sentenced to 17 years in prison (People’s Liberation Army Air Force 2010). After Wu’s arrest, the PLAAF subsequently went without a commander until May 1973.
When Deng Xiaoping gained control of the Communist Party in 1978, he sought to keep a much tighter rein over the PLAAF than the other service arms. He sought to upgrade China’s airpower capabilities, but one of his unstated purposes was to assert his authority over what he and other senior officials regarded as a “potentially dangerous service” partly because of its ability to move troops around China rapidly in times of crisis . After Deng took control, Zhang Tingfa, who had previously served as the PLAAF PC was appointed the PLAAF commander and party secretary until 1985, which provided additional political control.
PLAAF Political Commissar Career Paths
The following bullets provide background information on the four PCs who joined the PLA after the PLAAF was created in 1949:
- Ding Wenchang joined the PLA in 1951 as an Army cadet and then served as a PLAAF aircraft mechanic before switching to the political officer career track, where he held various staff officer and leadership billets. He served as the PLAAF Political Department director and then the PC. He attended the Central Party School for five months in late 1983 and NDU for three months in 1989.
- Qiao Qingchen joined a PLAAF Aviation Prep School in 1956 and then attended an Aviation School before serving as a pilot. Throughout his career, he shifted back and forth between aviation commander and political officer billets. He served as the Beijing MRAF commander, then the PLAAF PC and finally the PLAAF commander, where he was the party secretary in all three billets. In 2004, he became a CMC member. In 1990, he attended a four–month course at the Central Party School.
- Deng Changyou joined the PLAAF in March 1968 as an enlisted force engineer and was then commissioned as a platoon leader. He spent his early career as a political officer in engineering units before moving into command post, air corps, and MRAF political officer leadership billets. He then served as the PLAAF DPD before becoming the PC. He attended the PLA Political College for two years (1981–1983) and took a correspondence course from the Central Party School for over two years (1993–1996).
- Tian Xiusi joined the PLA in 1968 as an enlisted member. After becoming an officer and company commander, he shifted to the political track. Spent his career in the Xinjiang Military District and then the Lanzhou MR Headquarters until becoming the Chengdu MR PC in 2009. He transferred to the PLAAF as the PC in 2012. He attended the NDU Basic Course for a year (1994–1995) and a Political Work Course at the Xi’an Political College for almost two years (2002–2004). Tian assumed his position in October 2012 and will have to retire at age 65 in 2015.
A review of the above PLAAF PCs found the following similarities and differences for the three career PLAAF officers:
- They each spent their entire career in the PLAAF without any billets in the GPD or an MR Headquarters;
- They each worked their way up the career ladder in unit, air corps/command post, and MRAF Headquarters billets;
- None of them served as an MRAF PC, and only Deng served as an MRAF deputy PC;
- Ding and Deng served as a deputy director of the PLAAF Political Department and then concurrently as the director of the Political Department, where they were also a member of the Party Standing Committee;
- None of them served as a PLAAF deputy PC;
- All three took an in–residence or correspondence course from the Central Party School while serving in deputy corps leader or corps leader billets;
- The starting age as PC was 55 for Deng, 59 for Ding, and 60 for Qiao, and only Qiao moved on to another position (PLAAF commander at age 63) before retiring at age 65;
- Only Qiao moved back and forth between PC and commander billets throughout his career;
- Only Deng served as the head of a Discipline Inspection Committee, which was in an MRAF Headquarters.
Assuming the another outside officer is not chosen, the most likely person to become the next PC is Lieutenant General Fang Jianguo, even though his profile contradicts most of the patterns above. The key factor is that Fang, who will be 60 years old in 2015, became the director of the Political Department in December 2012, while moving up as the senior deputy PC in protocol order.
Although no complete profile is available, Fang was born in 1955 and apparently spent most of his career in Army political officer billets, including serving as the secretary to General Chi Haotian from 1985 until 2000 when Chi was the Jinan MR PC and then the Chief of the General Staff. In 2006, Fang transferred to the PLAAF as a deputy director in the PLAAF Headquarters Political Department. In 2007, he became the Lanzhou MRAF PC. In June 2012, he became one of the PLAAF’s deputy PCs and in December 2012 became first in protocol order and was appointed as the concurrent director of the Political Department.
The PLAN and PLAAF have each had 12 PCs since the services were created in 1949. Although there is no clear career path for predicting who the next PCs will be, this article surmises that the most likely candidates are Vice Admiral Ma Faxiang and Lieutenant General Fang Jianguo, respectively, based on their age and having served in the headquarters’ Political Department as a deputy director and the director. Fang is currently the senior deputy PC, and Ma will most likely become a deputy PC in the next year.
Aside from these tentative predictions, the information provided both here and the comparative companion to this article allows for a broader and more generalized assessment of the higher echelons of the PLA’s political officer system. It is quite evident that the PLA’s senior political officers have widely varied operational backgrounds, educational experiences and long–term career paths, cutting across institutions, positions and even services. As was also seen with the Soviet and KMT systems described in the comparative background, a technical/operational background (or at least experience) is generally considered necessary for political officers to be effective; yet, at the highest levels, such backgrounds are not necessarily as vital, and certainly no specific background can be considered mandatory in any of the three systems.
Thus, there can be little in the way of absolute and specific requisites in terms of background and career path for the senior political leadership, and, ultimately, it may well be a truism that, in an armed force attached to a political party, interpersonal connections and bureaucratic wrangling may well carry the greatest weight in determining the leaders of its system of political control.
- The PLA did not institute a mandatory retirement age of 65 for military region leader–grade officers until 1995.
- The commander, PC, and deputies are called zhuguan, and the directors of the Headquarters, Political, Logistics, and Equipment Departments are called shouzhang. Collectively, they are called lingdao (leaders).
- Unless otherwise noted, biographical information comes from online Chinese wikis with entries on individual PLA officers, including <https://baike.baidu.com>.
- John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, “China’s Search for a Modern Air Force,” International Security, Vol. 24, No. 1, Summer 1999, pp. 64–94; William W. Whitson, The Chinese High Command: A History of Communist Military Politics, 1927–71, New York, Washington, London: Praeger, 1973, p. 550; Stanley Karnow, Mao and China: A Legacy of Turmoil, Penguin Books, New York, 1972, p. 429. Dangdai Zhongguo Kongjun, Beijing: China Social Sciences Press, 1989, p. 481.