Admiral Wu Shengli, who has been the commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) since August 2006, a Member of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Central Military Commission (CMC) since October 2007, and a member of the CCP’s Central Committee since 2007, will have to retire based on his age (born August 1945) no later than the 19th Party Congress in late 2017. This article addresses the requirements to become not only the next PLAN commander but to also become a concurrent CMC Member. It then examines who is qualified and is not qualified to assume those positions based on the current criteria. 
It is important to note that, over the past two decades, the PLA has adjusted the structure of the CMC and made exceptions to selection criteria and policies to allow certain people to fill CMC billets. Although no exceptions were made for Wu when he became the PLAN commander, exceptions were made for Wei Fenghe when he became the commander of the PLA Second Artillery Force (now PLA Rocket Force) and for the current CMC Vice Chairman, Fan Changlong. However, the PLA Air Force has so far adhered to all of the criteria for its next commander, Yi Xiaoguang. As such, the PLAN may very well have to “break the rules” regardless of which options it chooses.
Brief History of PLAN Commanders
As shown in Table 1, since the PLAN was created in April 1949, the PLAN has had a total of seven commanders (ONI, China’s Navy 2007).
Table 1: PLAN Commanders since 1949
|Age Assumed Position
|Age Left Position
|Aug 2006 – Present
|Jun 2003 – Aug 2006
|Nov 1996 – Jun 2003
|Relieved of Duty
|Jan 1988 – Nov 1996
|Aug 1982 – Jan 1988
|CMC Vice Chairman
|Army political commissar, S&T, R&D
|Jan 1980 – Aug 1982
|National People’s Congress Vice Chairman
|Army & Navy political commissar, miscellaneous government
|Xiao Jinguang 
|Jan 1950 – Dec 1979
Army political commissar
PLA’s 15-grade Structure
In the PLA, every organization as well as every officer is assigned one of 15 grades that are more important than corresponding primary and secondary military ranks that are typically associated with an individual or position.  Therefore, the basis for the assessment in this article revolves around the current 15-grade structure, which was implemented in 1988 when Zhang Lianzhong was the commander (China Brief February 4 and February 23). As shown in Table 2, only four grades—CMC Vice Chairman, CMC Member, Military Region (MR) Leader, and MR Deputy Leader—are relevant to this article.  Table 2 shows the primary and secondary ranks assigned to each grade, as well as the mandatory retirement age for each grade. Note that the mandatory retirement age of 65 for MR Leader-grade officers was not implemented until 1995. Furthermore, according to Alice Miller of the Hoover Institution, retirement norms for CMC members appear to have only been consolidated during Hu Jintao’s leadership of the CMC (2004–2012). According to one account, regular members of the CMC were expected to retire at 70, though with the possibility under some circumstances at 72. At the 16th Party Congress in 2002 and again at the 17th Congress in 2007, a lower retirement norm of 68 appeared to dictate retirement of Politburo members. However, the mandatory retirement age is based on their age at the time of the Party Congress. Specifically, if someone turns 68 at any time during the calendar year in which the congress is held, then they must retire at the time of the congress (The PLA as Organization v2.0, 2015; China Brief,July 22 and August 5, 2010).
|Table 2: Grades, Ranks, and Retirement Ages
|CMC Vice Chairmen
|GEN/ADM (3 stars)
|GEN/ADM (3 stars)
|LGEN/VADM (2 stars)
|MR Deputy Leader
|MGEN/RADM (1 star)
Promotion Steps to the CMC
According to John Corbett (COL, USA-ret), as of 2010, there was a generally consistent pattern that demonstrates the path to full general / admiral and to CMC Member, which combines rank and grade promotions that rarely occur at the same time. The pattern consists of the following four observable steps (China Brief, July 22 and August 5, 2010); however, there are always exceptions to every rule, particularly when it serves the needs of the military and Party:
- Step One: A LGEN/VADM in an MR Deputy Leader-grade moves laterally to a second position in the same grade. Relevant MR Deputy Leader billets in the PLAN include:
- PLAN deputy commanders and chief of staff (e.g., Director of the Staff Department)
- PLAN Fleet commanders, who serve concurrently as Theater Command deputy commanders
- Theater Command permanent deputy commanders and chief of staff (e.g., Director of the Joint Staff Department)
- Step Two: As a general rule, in order to replace the PLAN, PLA Air Force (PLAAF), and PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) [former PLA Second Artillery Force (PLASAF)] commanders as CMC members, their successors must first serve in an MR leader-grade billet for at least two to three years. As shown below, the PLA as a whole has only three MR Leader-grade billets that are relevant to the path to becoming the PLAN commander: 
- Deputy Chief of the Joint Staff Department (former Deputy Chief of the General Staff / DCGS)
- Commandant, PLA Academy of Military Science (AMS)
- Commandant, PLA National Defense University (NDU)
- Step Three: After three years or so as a LGEN/VADM in an MR leader-grade position, they receive arank promotion to full general; however, some adjustments may have been made in 2016 as a result of the restructuring.
- Step Four: In order to become a CMC Vice Chairman or CMC Member, the officer must also be a member of the CCP Central Committee.
Although the PLA generally implements the four-step process, there are always exceptions to the rule.
During the 16th Central Committee’s Fourth Plenum in 2004, the CMC added the PLAN and PLASAF commanders as CMC Members for the first time. Although the PLAAF commander was also added, this was less of a new precedent as two other PLAAF commanders had previously served on the CMC (NASIC,People’s Liberation Army Air Force 2010).  As a general rule, the commander and political commissar (PC) have the same grade as their organization; however, in this case, each of the three commanders were given a “policy promotion” to CMC Member even though the PLAN, PLAAF, and PLASAF (now PLARF) are only MR Leader grade organizations. Even so, the PC is the secretary of the Party Committee and the commander, who has a higher grade, is the deputy secretary.
The amount of time that someone must serve in an MR Leader-grade billet before becoming a CMC Member-grade officer has apparently changed. For example, when Wu Shengli was appointed as the PLAN commander in August 2006 to replace Zhang Dingfa, who had terminal cancer and died in December 2006. Wu had only served as an MR Leader-grade officer in a DCGS billet for 26 months, and he only had two stars for three years. In addition, he was not a member of the CCP Central Committee. As a result, when he became the PLAN commander, he did not receive his third star until July 2007. In addition, he was not placed on the CMC as a CMC Member-grade officer and did not become a CCP Central Committee member until the 17th Party Congress in October 2007. Although he was not an official member until October 2007, he most likely attended all of the CMC meetings but just didn’t get a formal vote.
The policy apparently changed by the time Wei Fenghe replaced Jing Zhiyuan as the PLASAF commander in October 2012. For example, Wei had only served as a DCGS for 22 months when he became the commander at the 18th Party Congress and received a rank promotion to general at the same time after having already served as a lieutenant general for four and a half years. He was also added as a CMC Member one month later.
CMC Vice Chairmen
As Table 3 shows, there does not appear to be a set pattern for the appointment of CMC vice chairmen, except that, with the exception of Fan Changlong, each appointee previously served as a CMC Member (China Brief, July 22 and August 5, 2010). Whereas the 16th Party Congress’ CMC had three vice chairmen, one of whom served concurrently as the Minister of Defense, the 17th and 18th Party Congresses have had only two vice chairmen, neither of who is serving concurrently as the Minister of Defense. Of As Table 3 shows, there does not appear to be a set pattern for the appointment of CMC vice chairmen, except that, with the exception of Fan Changlong, each appointee previously served as a CMC Member (China Brief, July 22 and August 5, 2010). Whereas the 16th Party Congress’ CMC had three vice chairmen, one of whom served concurrently as the Minister of Defense, the 17th and 18th Party Congresses have had only two vice chairmen, neither of who is serving concurrently as the Minister of Defense. 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.
Table 3: CMC Vice Chairmen (1995–2016)
|Fan Changlong (2012-Present)
|Commander, Jinan MR (not a CMC Member) (2004-2012)
|Xu Qiliang (2012-Present)
|Commander, PLAAF and CMC Member (2007-2012)
|Guo Boxiong (2002-2012)
|Executive DCGS and CMC Member (1999-2002)
|Xu Caihou (2004-2012)
|Director, General Political Department & CMC Member (2002-2004)
|Cao Gangchuan (2002-2007) & concurrent Minister of Defense (2003-2008)
|Director, General Armament Department & CMC Member (1998-2002)
|Zhang Wannian (1995-2002)
|Chief of the General Staff & CMC Member (1992-1995)
|Chi Haotian (1995-2002) & concurrent Minister of Defense (1995-2003)
|Chief of the General Staff & CMC Member (1987–1993); Defense Minister & CMC Member (1993–1995)
Who is Eligible to Replace Wu Shengli?
This section discusses who the possible contenders are to replace Wu as the concurrent PLAN commander and CMC Member and what contingencies might have to be implemented in order to actually meet the criteria.
Given that Wu did not turn 68 until after the 18th Party Congress in 2012, he was allowed to remain as the commander until the 19th Party Congress in late 2017, at which time he will be 72 and will have to retire. Ironically, at the time of the 18th Party Congress, Wu and then PLAAF commander Xu Qiliang were the only two CMC Member-grade officers who were qualified in terms of the time-in-grade criteria to become CMC Vice Chairmen. It appears that three things happened. First, the Army, who controlled the CMC at that time, was not willing to allow two non-Army officers to serve as the Vice Chairmen. As a result, General Fan Changlong, who had served as the commander of the Jinan Military Region as an MR Leader-grade officer for eight years became one of the two Vice Chairmen along with Xu Qiliang. In other words, Fan “skipped a grade” (e.g., CMC Member) to become a Vice Chairman-grade officer, which is almost unprecedented for any grade level in the PLA’s history; however, the PLA has historically adjusted the CMC membership to meet certain goals.  On the other hand, if Xu Qiliang had not become a Vice Chairman, then General Ma Xiaotian, who would have reached age 65 in August 2014, would have had to retire at that time and would not have become the PLAAF commander at the 19th Party Congress. It is the author’s opinion that Wu Shengli personally chose to remain as the PLAN commander because he felt he could make more of a difference for the PLAN by staying in that position.
Admiral Sun Jianguo as a Potential Candidate
By applying the grade criteria to determine who will replace Wu, there is only one eligible person today, and that is Admiral Sun Jianguo, who is currently one of the six Deputy Chiefs of the Joint Staff with the grade of MR Leader (China Brief, June 20; August 18, 2015; February 7, 2014). Although there are also exceptions to the rule, the PLAN has painted itself into a corner, since Sun Jianguo turns 65 in February 2017 and should retire at that time unless he becomes the PLAN commander and a concurrent CMC Member before he retires.
As such, concerning Sun Jianguo, there are three options. First, Wu could step down as the PLAN commander before Sun turns 65. Since Sun became a Deputy Chief of the General Staff (now Joint Staff) in January 2009 and received a promotion to admiral in July 2011, he already has enough time in grade and rank to assume both positions. Sun was also an alternate member of the 17th Party Congress in 2002 and a full member of the 18th Party Congress in 2012. Second, the PLA could make an exception and allow Sun to remain on active duty past his mandatory retirement age, so that he can assume both positions at the 19th Party Congress. Third, Sun retires before the end of 2016 to allow someone else to have the MR Leader grade for at least a year before the Party Congress. Whoever that person is would replace Wu at the Party Congress; however, because he would not have enough time in grade, he would not automatically be made a CMC member. It also depends on when that person receives his third star.
Another option, which most likely will not happen, is that the PLAN, PLAAF, PLARF commanders, as well as the newly created PLA Army’s (PLAA) commander, are not added to the CMC as CMC Members at the 19th Party Congress; however, if this occurs, whoever replaces Wu would have to retire at age 65 (China Brief February 4 and February 23). Yet another option is to bring in a non-navy officer as the PLAN commander as happened in the early years of the PLAN with Ye Fei and Xiao Jinguang. Although this is highly unlikely, exceptions have been made recently for PC billets. For example, the current PLAN PC, Admiral Miao Hua, had never spent a single day in the PLAN before becoming the PC in December 2014, at which time he was “promoted in rank” from lieutenant general to Navy lieutenant general (e.g., vice admiral) (Sina.com, December 24, 2014). He received his second star in July 2012 and his third star in July 2015 (CCTV, August 2, 2015). In addition, General Tian Xiusi, who served as the PLAAF PC from October 2012 to July 2015, was a career Army officer and had never served in the PLAAF (China Brief, Parts One and Two, March 4, 2013).
The Next Tier
Should Sun Jianguo depart from the picture, the next group of eligible personnel at the MR Deputy Leader-grade level include the six PLAN deputy commanders, the PLAN chief of staff, the three fleet commanders, and PLAN officers who are serving as permanent Theater Command deputy commanders and chiefs of staff. However, only certain personnel are eligible based on their time-in-grade and time-in-rank. Furthermore, even if one of them were selected at the end of 2016 or any time in 2017, they would not have served enough time as an MR Leader-grade officer to receive the grade of CMC Member. As such, they may be in the same situation that Wu Shengli was in when he became the commander in 2006 but wasn’t added to the CMC until 2007. Table 4 provides a list of the personnel who meet the grade and rank requirements.
|Table 4: Other Eligible PLAN Personnel
|Date Assumed Position
|MR Deputy Leader Grade
|PLAN Deputy Commander
|Commander, North Sea Fleet
|PLAN Deputy Commander
|PLAN Deputy Chief of Staff
|PLAN Deputy Commander
|Commander, North Sea Fleet Aviation
|PLAN Deputy Commander
|Commander, South Sea Fleet
|Commander, North Sea Fleet
|Chief of Staff, North Sea Fleet
|Commander, East Sea Fleet
|Commander, South Sea Fleet
|Commander, South Sea Fleet
|Commandant, Naval Command College
Possible Replacements for ADM Wu Shengli
As a general rule, deputy commanders are listed on the Standing Committee in protocol order based on their priority, not on the time that they assumed their billet or their age. However, not all deputy commanders are on the Standing Committee.
Based on the information in Table 4, the most logical candidate is VADM Tian Zhong, who has been one of the PLAN deputy commanders since January 2014 and is currently listed as first in protocol order on the Standing Committee among the six deputy commanders (Renmin Haijun, July 6; Baike.Baidu).  He was promoted in grade to MR Deputy Leader in December 2013, when he became the commander of the North Sea Fleet and a concurrent deputy commander of the Jinan MR. Tian was promoted to RADM in 2001 and VADM in 2009, making him competitive for promotion to Admiral in 2017. He also became a member of the CCP Central Committee during the 18th Party Congress in 2012. Since Tian was born in 1956, if he is not promoted in grade, he will have to retire at age 63 in 2019.
Although Liu Yi is listed second in protocol order as a PLAN deputy commander, he does not have the command experience that Tian Zhong has and has only served in one MR Deputy Leader-grade billet so far. The third deputy commander who is a possible contender is VADM Ding Yi, who is listed third in protocol order. Furthermore, no information was found for either of them being selected as an alternate member of member of the Party Standing Committee. If neither of them are promoted in grade, they will have to retire at age 63 in 2018 and 2022, respectively.
Although Jiang Weilie became a deputy commander in December 2014 and previously served as the commander of the South Sea Fleet, both of which are MR Deputy Leader-grade billets, he does not yet appear to be a member of the PLAN’s Standing Committee. Theoretically, if he were a top contender, he would be on the Standing Committee and listed at the top of the protocol order. The one factor that he does have in his favor is that he was selected as an alternate member of the 18th Party Congress’ Central Committee in 2012. If he is not selected as the next commander, he will have to retire in 2018 at age 63.
Concerning the three fleet commanders, each of whom are also concurrent Theater Command deputy commanders, Su Zhiqian has served the most time in MR Deputy Leader-grade billets and has been a VADM since 2010. He has also served as the commander in two separate fleets; however, he has not been selected as an alternate or member of the Central Committee.
There is little doubt that Admiral Wu Shengli will retire as the commander of the PLA Navy and as a concurrent CMC Member at the time of the 19th Party Congress in late 2017. However, the question is who is qualified from a grade and rank perspective, as well as having served on the Central Committee, to replace him for both billets. Today, only one person, Admiral Sun Jianguo, meets the criteria of becoming a CMC Member based on the PLA’s 15-grade structure; however, based on the PLA’s mandatory retirement regulations for each grade, he may have to retire before the Party Congress, thus leaving a black hole for any possible successors. Two possible options are 1) for Wu to step down at the end of 2016 and allow Sun to take his place, or 2) for the PLA to make an exception and allow Sun to remain on active duty past his mandatory retirement age of 65. Either of these options, as well as selecting one of the current PLAN deputy commanders as not only the commander but as a CMC Member and Central Committee Member, will set a precedence for the promotion process for all of the services in the future.
When Wu Shengli became the PLAN commander in August 2006, he was not allowed to become a CMC Member for over a year because he did not have enough time in grade. Furthermore, he did not have enough time-in-rank to be eligible to receive his third star. As such, he did not receive his third star until July 2007 and did not become a CMC Member until October 2007. In 2012, the PLA apparently reduced the time required for the PLARF commander, Wei Fenghe, to serve in an MR Leader-grade billet (Deputy Chief of the General Staff) before becoming the commander and a concurrent CMC Member. Although a few PLAN personnel could easily be promoted in grade to become the PLAN commander with the grade of MR Leader, none of the potential candidates, including current PLAN deputy commanders or fleet commanders, will come close to meeting even the lowest time criteria for becoming a concurrent CMC Member-grade officer.
For comparison purposes, the PLAAF has been grooming General Yi Xiaoguang to replace General Ma Xiaotian as the commander at the 19th Party Congress. In order to do this, Yi became one of the Deputy Chiefs of the General Staff (now Joint Staff) with the grade of MR Leader in August 2014 and was promoted to full general in July 2016. In addition, when the time comes for the new PLA Army (PLAA) commander, General Li Zuocheng, to be added to the CMC, he will have already served in an MR Leader-grade billet as commander of the Chengdu MR since July 2013 and received his third star in July 2015.
Kenneth W. Allen is a Senior China Analyst at Defense Group Inc. (DGI). He is a retired U.S. Air Force officer, whose extensive service abroad includes a tour in China as the Assistant Air Attaché. He has written numerous articles on Chinese military affairs. A Chinese linguist, he holds an M.A. in international relations from Boston University.
- Of note, the PLAN does not have Chinese equivalent terms for Western naval ranks, such as admiral, captain, commander, or lieutenant. The PLAN uses Army ranks in Chinese publications and merely adds “Navy” in front of each rank, such as “Navy general” (海军上将); however, it translates it as “admiral” in English publications. In Chinese, the PLAN identifies the U.S. Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations (美国海军作战部) and as a “Navy general” or just a “general” (上将).
- At the age of 46, Xiao Jinguang became the Navy’s first commander. Technically, he held the position until December 1979. In 1962, however, Xiao came under attack from Defense Minister Lin Biao, and Lin relieved him of his PLAN duties in January 1967. When Lin’s plane went down over Mongolia in September 1971, Xiao was reinstated but came under immediate attack from Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing. For all practical purposes, the PLAN’s political commissar, Li Zuopeng, ran the Navy from 1962 until he was arrested immediately after Lin’s plane crash.
- In the PLA, officers receive a grade promotion every three years up to Regiment Leader and a rank promotion every four years up to colonel. After that, they must still serve a minimum number of years in their current grade and rank before receiving separate grade and rank promotions, which rarely occur at the same time.
- Note: The PLA will most likely rename the MR Leader and MR Deputy Leader grades to Theater Command Leader and Theater Command Deputy Leader grades, respectively, around the time of the 19th Party Congress in late 2017 (China Brief February 4 and February 23).
- For example, PLAN Commander Zhang Dingfa served as the AMS commandant from November 2002 until he became the PLAN commander in 2003 and CMC member in September 2004. Wu Shengli, former PLAAF Commander Xu Qiliang, and current PLARF Commander Wei Fenghe all served as a DCGS until they became their service’s commander.
- Liu Yalou was a CMC member from November 1956 to May 1965, and Zhang Tingfa was a member from August 1977 to September 1982.
- PLA Encyclopedia, December 2007
- ONI, The PLA Navy: New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century, 2015