Assessing the PLA’s Promotion Ladder to CMC Member Based on Grades vs. Ranks – Part 2

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 16

On July 19, Central Military Commission (CMC) Chairman Hu Jintao promoted 11 military officers to three stars (general/admiral), bringing the total since 1988 to 129 officers (Xinhua News Agency, July 27) [1]. Based on previous patterns, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will most likely promote a few more officers to three stars during at least one ceremony per year in mid-2011 and 2012. Together, these promotions will help determine the next cadre of members and vice chairmen of the Party’s CMC to be elevated during the 18th Party Congress in late 2012. These promotions will also help determine the next Minister of National Defense, as General Liang Guanglie will have met his mandatory retirement age by the next Party conclave.

Although these rank promotions are important indicators of who the next leaders might be, the purpose of this two-part series is to provide China watchers with another important analytical tool—the PLA’s grade structure—to use in discerning patterns in the promotion ladder within the PLA. While rank and grade promotions, as well as an officer’s age, are visible indicators, personal relationships (guanxi) and an Army-dominated system add a less predictable but arguably equally important layer, especially for ascertaining who the next CMC vice chairmen will be. China watchers therefore must use all of these tools to help predict who the next cadres of Chinese military leaders will be.

Age as a Key Factor

Age is also a key factor in predicting who the next CMC vice chairmen and members will be. According to Dr. Alice Miller of the Hoover Institution:

“The retirement age of 68 for Politburo members is based on the year they were born and the year that a Party Congress opens or closes. Specifically, if the Party continues to adhere to this rule for the 18th Party Congress in 2012, any Politburo member who was born in 1944 or before will retire, and anyone who was born in 1945 or after is eligible to remain in their position until the next Party Congress. The year 1945 would be the cutoff date for Politburo members. So if [emphasis added] the 1994 PLA regulations still hold, then 1) the retirement age for CMC members is 70, which means their cutoff date to retire would be 1942, and 2) they could remain in their position if they were born in 1943 or later. However, if the age for CMC retirement has been lowered to 68, then 1945 is the cutoff date” [2].

CMC Vice Chairmen

As Figure 1 shows, there does not appear to be a set pattern for the appointment of CMC vice chairmen, except that each appointee previously served as a CMC member. Whereas the 16th Party Congress’ CMC had three vice chairmen, one of whom served concurrently as the Minister of Defense, the 17th Party Congress has only two vice chairmen, neither of who is serving concurrently as the Minister of Defense. In light of the current circumstances, it is safe to say that the 18th Party Congress will have at least two vice chairmen, but it is not clear if one of them will also be the Minister of Defense.

Figure 1: CMC Vice Chairmen (1995-2010)

Vice Chairman

Concurrent Positions

Previous Position

Guo Boxiong (2002-2010)

Member, 16th and 17th CCP Politburo

Executive DCGS and CMC Member (1999-2002)

Xu Caihou (2004-2010)

Member, 17th CCP Politburo

Member, 16th CPC Secretariat

Director, GPD and CMC Member (2002-2004)

Cao Gangchuan (2002-2007)

Member, 16th CCP Politburo

Minister of National Defense (2003-2007)

Director, GAD and CMC Member (1998-2002)

Zhang Wannian (1995-2002)

Member, 15th CCP Politburo

CGS and CMC Member (1992-1995)

Chi Haotian (1995-2002)

Minister of National Defense (1993-2003)

CGS and CMC Member (1987-1993)

Of note, although two military officers have served on the CCP Politburo for at least the past two decades, none have served on the Politburo Standing Committee since Liu Huaqing retired in 1996 [3].

Minister of Defense

Whereas Chi Haotian and Cao Gangchuan served concurrently as CMC vice chairmen, members of the CCP Politburo and Minister of National Defense, the current Minister of National Defense, Liang Guanglie, is concurrently a CMC member but not a vice chairman or Politburo member. As a result, it is difficult to predict who the next Minister of National Defense will be and whether he will be a CMC member or a vice chairman. Even if he is appointed as a vice chairman, there is no guarantee he will also be a concurrent Politburo member. Finally, because the Ministry of National Defense is subordinate to the State Council, the next Minister of National Defense will most likely not be appointed until the 12th National People’s Congress (NPC) in early 2013.

CMC Members

Part 1 identified the CMC member billets and briefly discussed the protocol order and difference between the directors of the four General Departments and commanders of the PLAN, PLAAF and Second Artillery. The following paragraphs discuss the Military Region (MR) leader-grade billets and how they are a stepping-stone to the CMC member grade.

The MR leader grade is the most complicated grade to understand, because the PLAN, PLAAF and Second Artillery are MR leader-grade organizations, but their commanders are CMC member-grade officers. Figure 2 shows the key billets with MR leader grades.

Figure 2: Military Region Leader-Grade Billets and Ranks [4]



Ranks (Primary and Secondary)

MR leader

Commander and PC, MR

Commander and PC, PLAN

Commander and PC, PLAAF

Commander and PC, Second Artillery

Commandant and PC, AMS

Commandant and PC, NDU

Deputy chiefs of the General Staff

Deputy directors, GPD

General and Lt. General

According to Retired Colonel John Corbett, the July 2010 group of promotions demonstrates the path to full general, which combines rank and grade promotions consisting of three observable steps:

·         Step One: Lieutenant generals (LTGs) in a Military Region (MR) deputy leader-grade move laterally to a second position in the same grade

·         Step Two: After three or so years, they receive a grade promotion to an MR leader-grade position, and

·         Step Three: After three years or so as a LTG in a MR leader-grade position, they receive a rank promotion to full general [Note: Since the rank-to-grade adjustment in 1994, all MR leader-grade officers in the PLA have received their third star.] [5].

In order to become a CMC member-grade officer, an officer first serves in one of the above MR leader-grade billets; however, not every officer who serves in one of these billets becomes a CMC member.

An analysis of previous CMC members, the following paragraphs, along with John Corbett’s three-step cycle, identify some basic patterns in the PLA promotion ladder. See below for more information about the PLAN, PLAAF and Second Artillery commander grade situation.

Chief of the General Staff

The Chief of the General Staff (CGS) is the director of the General Staff Department. As shown in Figure 3, the CGSs have always served in at least one assignment as an MR commander. The current CGS since 2007, Chen Bingde, served previously as the commander of the Nanjing MR (1996-1999), commander of the Jinan MR (1999-2004) and director of the GAD (2004-2007) [6].

Figure 3: Chiefs of the General Staff (1987-Present)

GSD Director

Previous Position

Previous Position

Chen Bingde (2007-Present)

Director, GAD

Commander, Jinan MR

Liang Guanglie (2002-2007)

Commander, Nanjing MR

Commander, Shenyang MR

Fu Quanyou (1995-2002)

Director, GLD

Commander, Lanzhou MR

Zhang Wannian (1992-1995)

Commander, Jinan MR

Commander, Guangzhou MR

The GSD generally has four to five deputy Chiefs of the General Staff (DCGS) billets. Until the early 2000s, Army officers held almost all of those billets. Since then, however, PLAN and PLAAF officers, but no Second Artillery officers, have served as a DCGS. To date, no Army officers who have served as a DCGS have become the CGS; however, Guo Boxiong served as the executive DCGS and concurrently as a CMC member before being promoted directly to CMC vice chairman. On the other hand, serving as a DCGS is one of three possible MR leader-grade billets, along with serving as the commandant of the Academy of Military Science or National Defense University, for Navy and Air Force officers to become their respective service commander and a CMC member.

Director, General Logistics Department

A review of the career track for the PLA’s four GLD directors since 1978, as shown in Figure 4, provides some indications of the qualifications required to become the next director. Of particular note, the last three officers were military/command track officers rather than logistics track officers, while Zhao Nanqi was a political officer [7]. In addition, Fu Quanyou moved from the GLD to become the CGS in 1992.

Figure 4: GLD Directors (1987-Present)

GLD Director

Previous Position

Previous Position

Liao Xilong (2002-Present)

Commander, Chengdu MR

Deputy Commander, Chengdu MR

Wang Ke  (1995-2002)

Commander, Shenyang MR

Commander, Lanzhou MR

Fu Quanyou (1992-1995)

Commander, Lanzhou MR

Commander, Chengdu MR

Zhao Nanqi (1987-1992)

Deputy Director and Deputy Political Commissar, GLD

Political Commissar, Jilin Military District, Shenyang MR

Director, General Armament Department

A review of the career track for the PLA’s four GAD directors since 1998, as shown in Figure 5, provides some indications of the qualifications required to become the next director. As can be seen, there is no specific pattern for selecting the GAD director. While Cao Gangchuan, who later became the Minister of National Defense and a CMC vice chairman, spent his career on the equipment/armament track, Li Jinai was a political officer, and Chen Bingde and Chang Wanquan were military/command track officers. Of particular note, no deputy directors of the GLD or GAD have become the director. The main reason for this is that, unlike the DCGS and GPD deputy director billets, the GLD and GAD deputy director billets are MR deputy leader-grade billets, not MR leader-grade billets, and their primary and secondary ranks are one and two stars. As a result, they would most likely not skip a grade to become the GLD or GAD director. As with every PLA rule, however, there are occasional exceptions. For example, one of the GAD deputy directors since 2001, Li Andong, was promoted to three stars during the July 2010 ceremony [8]. It is not clear what this promotion means for Li Andong’s next assignment.

Figure 5: GAD Directors (1998-Present)

GAD Director

Previous Position

Previous Position

Cao Gangchuan (1998-2001)

Director, CMC Military Trade Office

General Planning Division, Military Equipment Department, GSD

Li Jinai     (2002-2003)

Political Commissar, COSTIND

Deputy Political Commissar, COSTIND

Chen Bingde (2004-2007)

Commander, Jinan MR

Commander, Nanjing MR

Chang Wanquan (2007-Present)

Commander, Shenyang MR

Chief of Staff, Lanzhou MR

PLAN, PLAAF and Second Artillery Commanders

The situation is also complicated for the PLAN, PLAAF and Second Artillery commanders. As shown in Figure 2, the grade for these three organizations is that of MR leader; however, the commander of each organization was designated a CMC member with the equivalent grade in 2004 [9].

As noted in Part 1, although the protocol order within the PLA for the three organizations is always Navy, Air Force and Second Artillery, the protocol order for the three commanders at the 16th and 17th Party Congress was based on their seniority as commanders.

According to the author’s interviews with various PLA officials during meetings in Beijing, the reason for this is that the three commanders are CMC members based on a “policy promotion” (zhengce shengji), which is not an automatic promotion upon becoming the commander. As a result, they are listed by their individual seniority rather than their organization’s protocol order. The fact that they are “policy promotion” CMC members may imply that they do not have the same authority as the directors of the four General Departments.

To replace the PLAN, PLAAF and Second Artillery commanders as CMC members, their successors must first serve in an MR leader billet and have the rank of three stars. The three MR leader-grade billets that are logical stepping-stones for the PLAN and PLAAF commander position are DCGS, AMS commandant and NDU commandant. For example, Zhang Dingfa served as the AMS commandant from November 2002 until he became the PLAN commander in 2003 and CMC member in September 2004. Both Xu Qiliang and Wu Shengli served as a DCGS until they became their service’s commander.

Second Artillery, which is an independent branch (bingzhong) rather than a service (junzhong) like the Army, Navy and Air Force, may have to delay placing Jing Zhiyuan’s successor immediately on the CMC. As of now, no Second Artillery officers are in an MR leader-grade billet. Although Jing Zhiyuan became a CMC member in 2004, no Second Artillery officers have ever served as a deputy in any of the Four General Departments or as the commandant of AMS or NDU. The possibility exists that Jing’s successor, like Wu Shengli in 2006, will serve as the commander with the grade of MR leader for a period of time before being appointed as a CMC member.

Figure 6 provides information concerning Jing Zhiyuan’s, Wu Shengli’s and Xu Qiliang’s path to the CMC member grade and three stars, which is helpful in illustrating the situation. Any possible successors must meet the grade, rank and age requirements to be eligible. This is particularly important because, in the PLA, one cannot skip a grade and must serve in a grade for a certain period before being promoted to the next.

Figure 6: PLAN, PLAAF and Second Artillery Commander Promotions



CMC Member


3 Stars

Previous Position

Jing Zhiyuan, Commander, Second Artillery & CMC member


Sep 2004

Jan 2003

Sep 2004

Chief of staff, Second Artillery

Wu Shengli, Commander, PLAN & CMC member


Oct 2007

Aug 2006

Jul 2007


Xu Qiliang, Commander, PLAAF & CMC member


Oct 2007

Oct 2007

Jul 2007


Given their birth years, Jing will be required to retire at the time of the 18th Party Congress in 2012, while Wu and Xu will not be required to retire until at least the 19th Party Congress in 2017.


As noted, the purpose of this two-part series is to encourage China watchers to focus on the PLA’s grade system rather than just the rank system. While promoting officers to three stars is an indicator of who might be assigned as the next cadre of leaders, the officers must apparently also meet certain time-in-grade requirements before moving to the next higher grade. This is especially important when trying to predict who will replace Jing Zhiyuan as the Second Artillery commander and when he will be appointed to the CMC. In addition, grade considerations are important in predicting who will be appointed as the next CMC vice chairmen and the Minister of National Defense. While the two-part series examines the grade and rank structure, it is still too early to definitively predict who will assume all of the key positions in 2012.


* The author would like to recognize the input of John Corbett, Dennis Blasko and Dr. Alice Miller whom provided valuable information for this two-part series.

1. Since the PLA reintroduced ranks in 1988, the CMC has promoted 125 PLA and 4 People’s Armed Police (PAP) officers to three stars in 17 ceremonies. From 1994 through 2006, ceremonies were held every two years. Special ceremonies have been held since 2004 for certain officers assuming CMC member- or MR leader-grade billets. During 2007-2009, four ceremonies were held, but for only 10 officers altogether.

2. Correspondence with Dr. Alice Miller on July 28, 2010.

3. In August 1982, Liu Huaqing became the third PLA Navy commander and a member of the CCP’s 12th Central Committee. In January 1988, he replaced his Navy uniform with an Army uniform to begin the final phase of his military career in the CMC, where he eventually became the senior vice chairman. From 1992 to 1996, he also served as a member of the 10th CCP Central Committee’s Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee.

4. See and readSubMain_10495434_0.html.

5. Correspondence and discussions with John Corbett on July 27, 2010.

6. Background information for all of the officers discussed in this series comes from their internet biographies on China Vitae plus more detailed information from Profiles of China Communist Party Central Committee Members from 1921-2003, Chinese Communist Party School Press, October 2004.

7. The PLA has five officer career tracks: military/command, political, logistics, equipment/armament, and special technical.

8. Li Andong has served most of his career in equipment and armament-related billets within the GSD and then the GAD after it was formed in 1998.

9. In 2004, the PLAN, PLAAF and Second Artillery commanders were appointed to the CMC as members. Zhang Dingfa and Jing Zhiyuan became the first PLAN and Second Artillery commanders to be appointed as CMC members; however, Qiao Qingchen was the third PLAAF commander to be a CMC member. The first PLAAF commander, Liu Yalou, was a CMC member from November 1956 to May 1965, and the fourth commander, Zhang Tingfa, was a member from August 1977 to September 1982. To further complicate the situation, the political commissar for the Navy, Air Force, and Second Artillery—each of whom hold the grade of MR leader—are the Party Secretary for their respective organization’s Party Committee, while the commanders serve as the deputy Secretary.