Assessing the PLA’s Promotion Ladder to CMC Member Based on Grades vs. Ranks – Part 1

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 15

As China approaches the 18th Party Congress in late 2012, followed by the 12th National People’s Congress (NPC) in early 2013, China watchers have begun to speculate about the next cadre of Chinese military leaders who will become members and vice chairmen of the Communist Party’s Central Military Commission (CMC) [1]. The premise of these analyses tend to focus on which officers either already have or might receive their third star (shangjiang) as a general or admiral between now and 2012. Unlike the U.S. military, whose generals and admirals wear four stars, PLA generals and admirals wear only three stars. While military rank is an important distinction in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) hierarchy, a closer examination of the promotion path to becoming a CMC member reveals that it depends more on the PLA’s 15-grade (zhiwu dengji) structure than its 10-rank (junxian) structure [2].

This two-part series thoroughly examines the grade requirements for PLA officers to become the director of each of the four General Departments—General Staff Department (GSD), General Political Department (GPD), General Logistics Department (GLD), and General Armament Department (GAD)—and the commander of the Navy (PLAN), Air Force (PLAAF), and Second Artillery. These articles also discuss their respective protocol order on the CMC, which is different for the four directors (based on position) and the three commanders (based on seniority). This is important because the protocol order and placement of the PLAN, PLAAF and Second Artillery commanders on the CMC as a “policy promotion,” which is not an automatic promotion upon becoming the commander, implies that the eight members of the CMC may not be equal in terms of their authority.

Although the article does not speculate on potential CMC members in 2012, it does lay down an analytical framework, which leads to the speculation that the next Second Artillery commander may not immediately become a CMC member until he meets time-in-grade requirements. The article raises the question whether non-Army officers might serve as CMC vice chairmen.

PLA Grades vs. Ranks

The terms “grade” and “rank” are basically synonymous in the U.S. military, whereby each branch has 10 officer grades and their equivalent rank (e.g. an O-10 can be a four-star general or admiral). In the PLA, however, grades are based on an officer’s position and are more important than ranks. As a result, PLA writings usually refer to officer positions or grades and have few references to ranks.

Within the PLA, an officer’s grade, not rank, reflects authority and responsibility across service, branch, and organizational lines. While rank is a key indicator of position within the hierarchy of foreign militaries, grade is the key indicator of authority within the PLA. In the PLA commanders and political commissars (PC), who are collectively called “leaders” (lingdao or shouzhang), are co-equals and hold the same grade, but they often do not wear the same rank.

For example, the current commanders of the Beijing Military Region (MR), Lanzhou MR and Nanjing MR each received their third star as a general on July 19, 2010, while each MR’s political commissar remains as a two-star lieutenant general. Meanwhile, the political commissars for the Guangzhou MR and Chengdu MR each received their third star, while the commanders remain as two stars (Xinhua News Agency, July 19). 

Each PLA Organization Is Assigned a Grade

Another major difference between the U.S. military and the PLA is that the U.S. military assigns grades to officers and billets but not to organizations, whereas the PLA assigns grades to every officer and billet as well as every organization (e.g. operational and support unit headquarters, academic institutions, and research institutions). With only a few exceptions, the organization’s grade is the same as that of the commander and political commissar. For example:

·         The Four General Departments are all CMC member-grade organizations, and each director is a CMC member-grade officer.

·         The PLAN, PLAAF and Second Artillery are MR leader-grade organizations, and each political commissar is an MR leader-grade officer; however, each commander is currently a CMC member-grade officer (see discussion below).

·         The Academy of Military Science (AMS) and National Defense University (NDU) are MR leader-grade organizations, and each commandant and political commissar is an MR leader-grade officer.

·         The one exception is that the Ministry of National Defense (MND), which actually serves as the foreign affairs arm of the PLA, is not assigned a grade.

Current Grade and Rank Structure

In 1988, the PLA implemented its current grade and rank system, which has 15 grades and 10 ranks, as shown in Figure 1. The previous system, which had 17 grades, was implemented in 1979. The PLA implemented its first rank system in 1955 and abolished it at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1965. It did not re-institute a new system until 1988.

Most importantly, each grade from Platoon leader to MR leader has a primary and secondary rank. At the same time, however, certain ranks, such as a one-star (major general/rear admiral) can be assigned to one of four grades (MR deputy leader, corps leader, corps deputy leader, and division leader as noted in * underneath Figure 1). In addition, each grade has a mandatory retirement age. It is not clear, however, what the mandatory retirement age for CMC members is, but it may be either 68 or 70. The retirement age for CMC vice chairmen is also unclear, but may be 70 or above.

The PLA did not implement a mandatory retirement age of 65 for MR leader-grade officers until 1995. Based on interviews with PLA officers, the mandatory age for CMC Members following the 16th Party Congress was set at 70, but that may have changed following the 17th Party Congress.

Figure 1: Current PLA Grade and Rank Structure

Retirement Age

Grade

Primary Rank

Secondary Rank

70?

CMC chairman (junwei zhuxi)

CMC vice chairmen (junwei fuzhuxi)

N/A

GEN/ADM

N/A

68/70?

CMC member (junwei weiyuan)

GEN/ADM

N/A

65

MR leader (daqu zhengzhi)

GEN/ADM

LTG/VADM

63

MR deputy leader (daqu fuzhi)

LTG/VADM

MG/RADM*

55

Corps leader (zhengjunzhi)

MG/RADM*

LTG/VADM

Corps deputy leader (fujunzhi)

MG/RADM*

SCOL/SCAPT

50

Division leader (zhengshizhi)

SCOL/SCAPT

MG/RADM*

Division deputy leader (fushizhi) /

(Brigade leader)

COL/CAPT

SCOL/SCAPT

Grade and Rank Promotion Schedule

When discussing PLA promotions, one must clarify whether it is a promotion in grade or a promotion in rank, because they typically do not occur at the same time. In the PLA, officers must serve in a particular grade and rank for a minimum amount of time before being promoted to the next grade and rank. Furthermore, with only a few exceptions, PLA officers are not normally promoted in grade and rank at the same time. For example, regulations specify that officers from first lieutenant to colonel receive a rank promotion every four years, but receive their grade promotions from platoon leader to division leader every three years. PLA regulations specify three years time-in-grade and four years time-in-rank for platoon to corps-level officers [3].

This stair step approach is reflected in the primary and secondary rank structure shown in Figure 1 above. It is not clear what the time-in-rank and time-in-grade requirements are for one-star flag officers and corps leader and above grades, but it appears that there is definitely a minimum requirement for each—possibly three to four years.

It is also important to understand which billets have the same grade. For example, unit deputy commanders and the Chief of Staff (e.g. director of the Headquarters Department) always have the same grade.

PLA units have multiple deputy commanders. For example, every Military Region has five deputy commanders, one of which, since 1988, is the Military Region Air Force (MRAF) commander. Since 1988, the commander of each of the PLA Navy’s three fleet headquarter has also concurrently been a Military Region deputy commander.

As a result, a Chief of Staff can move directly to becoming the commander. For example, the current director of the GAD, General Chang Wanquan, previously served as the Lanzhou MR Chief of Staff and the Beijing MR Chief of Staff before becoming the Shenyang MR commander. He did not serve as an MR deputy commander.

CMC Member Grade

Knowing what grade the PLA assigns to each billet helps China analysts understand what the probable promotion ladder to the CMC member and vice chairmen grades looks like. Yet, the CMC member-grade, as well as the military region leader grade, is complicated.

·         First, the current senior CMC member, General Liang Guanglie, is concurrently the Minister of National Defense [4].

·         Second, the grade for all of the Four General Departments and each director is CMC member grade.

·         Third, the PLAN, PLAAF and Second Artillery are MR leader-grade organizations, but their commanders are CMC member-grade officers.

Figure 2 provides information for the CMC members and their protocol order under the 16th and 17th Party Congresses. Their protocol order, which is based on either their organization or seniority, provides some insight into the CMC member grade.

Figure 2: CMC Members under the 16th and 17th Party Congresses (Protocol Order)

Organizational Protocol Order

Position Protocol Order

16th Party Congress

17th Party Congress

CMC Protocol Order Criteria

Army

GSD

Chief of the General Staff

1

1

Based on Organization

GPD

Director

2

2

GLD

Director

3

3

GAD

Director

4

4

Navy

Commander

6

6

Based on Seniority

Air Force

Commander

5

7

Second Artillery

Commander

7

5

As can be seen, the protocol order for the four General Departments, regardless of who the leaders are, remains the same. The reason for this is that these four organizations are assigned the grade of CMC member. For example, even though Li Jinai and Liao Xilong became CMC members in 2002, Chen Bingde, who became the GAD director in 2004, is still listed first due to his position as Chief of the General Staff based on the protocol order for the Four General Departments.

Conclusion

Although the author does not assume to predict the potential CMC members in 2012, the author does speculate that the next Second Artillery commander may not immediately become a CMC member until he meets "time-in-grade" (TIG) requirements. The promotions in 2010 will provide the first glimpse at the PLA’s possible leaders who will emerge at the 18th Party Congress in 2012. However, one should not focus on the ranks but on the grades, especially the MR leader-grade level that will be addressed in the second part of this series. This is particularly important when determining who the next Navy, Air Force and Second Artillery commanders, will be, as well as the next Chief of the General Staff.

Notes

1. See Cheng Li, China’s Midterm Jockeying: Gearing Up for 2012 (Part 3: Military Leaders) and Alice L. Miller, “The 18th Central Committee Politburo: A Quixotic, Foolhardy, Rashly Speculative, but Nonetheless Ruthlessly Reasoned Projection,” in China Leadership MonitorJune 28, 2010, Issue 33, which is available at http://www.hoover.org/publications/china-leadership-monitor. See also Joseph Y. Lin, “Reorientation of China’s Armed Forces: Implications for the Future Promotions of PLA Generals, China Brief, Vol X, Issue 13, June 24, 2010, 7-10, which is available at http://www.jamestown.org/uploads/media/cb_010_64.pdf.

2. The information in this article is taken mostly from Kenneth W. Allen and John F Corbett, Jr., Civil-Military Change in China: Elites, Institutes, and Ideas After the 16th Party Congress, Dr. Andrew Scobell and Dr. Larry Wortzel, eds., Strategic Studies Institute, Carlisle, PA, 2004, Chapter 8, 257-278, which is available at www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/pub413.pdf ; and China’s Navy 2007, The Office of Naval Intelligence, Chapters 1 and 2, 1-16, which is available at www.fas.org/irp/agency/oni/chinanavy2007.pdf.

3. PLA Officer Rank Regulations Amended on December 20, 2002. PLA Active-Duty Officer Law, Published on December 28, 2000. Interviews with PLA officials in Beijing during November 2006 and November 2010.

4. In China, the Ministry of National Defense is responsible only for implementing the PLA’s foreign affairs. It does not have a political commissar. Liang Guanglie’s two predecessors, Cao Gangchuan and Chi Haotian, were concurrently CMC vice chairmen.