China’s Navy Gets a New Helmsman (Part 2): Remaining Uncertainties

Publication: China Brief Volume: 17 Issue: 4

Part 1 of this series discussed Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong’s background, meteoric rise, and recent promotion to PLAN Commander. However, his appointment raises a number of questions about his role in the PLA Navy’s modernization, his promotion’s implication for China’s promotion system, and about his predecessor’s continued presence on the Central Military Commission. Part 2 will explore these important factors in depth and suggest possible conclusions and implications.

Promotion to commander of the PLA Navy has traditionally carried with it appointment to the PLA Central Military Commission (CMC), China’s highest military decision-making body. However, the latest Chinese state media reports state that Admiral Wu Shengli still serves on the CMC (Xinhua, March 5). In his capacity as a high-ranking CCP member, Wu has been a full member of the CCP Central Committee since 2007, serving on the 17th and 18th Committees. It remains uncertain when and how, or even if, Shen will assume similar roles. Perhaps there is a deliberate overlap so that Wu can help Shen learn the ropes.

During the 1990s and 2000s, there was a generally consistent path to full general/admiral and to CMC Member, combining rank and grade promotions that rarely occur simultaneously (China Brief, July 22 and August 5, 2010). However, it has always remained unclear who decides the appointment of any key leadership positions in the CMC, including the vice chairmen, the minister of national defense, directors of the four departments, and the services, as well as the theater command leaders. Shen’s appointment then raises a number of questions:  1) did Wu Shengli submit Shen’s name, or not, or as one of several names; 2) did the PLAN Party Standing Committee submit several names and then vote; 3) did the CMC vice chairmen or Xi Jinping submit Shen’s name; and 4) does the full CMC vote on the final contenders? 5) What if any role did personal connections (guanxi)—known to be a key factor in selecting any PLA leaders at multiple levels—play in his selection? [1] Examination of the general steps used for promotion and notable exceptions to these rules provides a framework for understanding the dynamics at play during Shen’s promotion.

Although none of the six previous PLAN commanders, including Shen, have had similar career paths, they have met the required time-in-grade and  time-in-rank requirements (See Table 2 in Part 1 of this series) (China Brief, July 22, 2010; August 5, 2010). [2] While the bullets below show the pattern in 2010; it is clear that the PLA is already adjusting past practices to meet Xi’s new requirements.

  • Step One: A LGEN/VADM in a Theater Command (TC) (former MR) Deputy Leader-grade moves laterally to a second position in the same grade. Relevant TC 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 TC deputy commanders
    • TC 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 a TC (former MR) leader-grade billet for at least two to three years. As shown below, the PLA as a whole has only three TC (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 approximately three years as a LGEN/VADM in a TC (MR) leader-grade position, they receive a rank promotion to full general. However, it is theoretically possible that some adjustments may have been made in 2016 as a result of the restructuring of the PLA.
  • 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.

The primary reason for this four step process was to help eventual CMC members broaden their areas of expertise beyond just their service experience. Prior to 2004, such experiences were vital, as only Army officers were on the CMC. Despite the addition of the commanders of the Air Force, Navy, and Rocket Forces, the Ground Forces still predominate. Although the PLA has always had general guidelines for promotions, politics has frequently intervened. A review of how the CMC has been organized since the PRC was created in 1949 shows that the CMC’s structure has been adjusted multiple times to allow certain personnel to take key positions. [3] If Shen does, in fact, become a CMC Member in late 2017, this will be one of those cases.

Although the PLA has generally implemented the four-step process in recent years, several changes have occurred under Xi in order to allow certain people to fill key billets. [4] In this, as in other areas, Xi is making bold efforts at restructuring, but the methods that he is using leave institutions, processes, and rules unclear. This lack of predictability is both confusing and of potential concern. While piecemeal rule changes are thus clearly underway to meet new directives from a powerful Xi, the full extent and overarching logic of Xi’s new rules will not become fully apparent until the 19th Party Congress this autumn.

Options for Shen

Although it is clear that Shen has become the PLAN commander, it appears that Wu has retained his position as a CMC member until at least the 19th Party Congress in late 2017. As such, Shen most likely received a promotion in grade from TC Deputy Leader to TC Leader on the day he took office.

Based on the steps noted above, however, the following are potential obstacles to Shen becoming a CMC member:

  1. Shen will not receive his third star under the current rank structure until at least mid-2019, which is confusing to foreign navies who deal with him in terms of military relations since most foreign naval commanders are four stars. This is similar to Wu Shengli’s situation when he became the commander in August 2006 but did not receive his third star until July 2007. It is not clear which officers will have three stars and four stars. Furthermore, it is not clear who will remain on the CMC following the Party Congress (China Brief: Part 1, February 4, 2016; Part 2, February 23, 2016). As such, there is a possibility that (a) Shen will have his two stars upgraded to three stars but retain the rank of Vice Admiral; (b) he could get a fourth star early.
  2. Shen will only have about ten months’ time-in-grade as a Theater Command (Military Region) Leader-grade officer, which is similar to Wu Shengli’s situation when he became the commander but did not become a CMC Member for 14 months until the 17th Party Congress in 2007. [5]
  3. It is not clear if Shen has served as an alternate member of the CCP Central Committee, which appears to have been a criterion for other service commanders.

If Shen does not meet these criteria, that would raise important questions: What does that say about him, the PLAN, or a possible overall change of criteria for other leaders? One possible explanation is that, at Xi’s behest, either the PLA as a whole or the Navy, in particular, is rethinking the criteria regarding who could best serve as PLAN commander. For example, whereas the PLAAF’s next commander, General Yi Xiaoguang, has met all of the criteria to replace General Ma Xiaotian, Shen clearly has not yet met all of the criteria to replace Wu. At the same time, however, the Second Artillery Force (now Rocket Force) made an exception for Wei Fenghe by promoting him in both rank and grade before he had met the previous criteria. Although Shen’s tenure may be overshadowed by Wu’s continued presence on the CMC, he is taking over the day-to-day operations of the PLAN at a pivotal moment.

Admiral Shen’s Role in PLAN Modernization

In critical respects, the contribution of Shen’s predecessor Admiral Wu Shengli is unprecedented in its thoroughgoing nature. That is to take nothing away from Admiral Liu Huaqing, who served as the PLAN commander from August 1982 to January 1988 before becoming a CMC Vice Chairman; in a manner that has been likened to Theodore Roosevelt’s impact as a sea power promoter, including as Assistant Secretary of the Navy (CIMSEC, October 8, 2014). Liu did nothing less than rescue the PLAN from stagnant backwaters and set it on a modern course. But it was Wu who took the PLAN to an entirely new level of sophistication through complex intensive development long after most easier, simpler improvements had already been made. In a conservative service that prizes conformity, Wu did so as a forthright, vision-driven disciplinarian. His forceful personality was both noteworthy and well suited for this demanding task. Similar in the degree to which Admiral Hyman Rickover transformed the U.S. Navy in the realm of nuclear propulsion, Admiral Wu has transformed the PLAN overall—no small feat.

Wu’s transformation required a sea change in the missions, organizational structure, and institutional culture of China’s navy to a degree that would challenge any service. Rather than cloistering himself within the PLAN’s hierarchy, Wu injected himself directly in virtually every conceivable aspect of its development, including a growing interaction with foreign navies. Thanks to such thoroughgoing efforts, it can truly be said that Wu leaves the PLAN a fundamentally different service from the one he inherited in 2006. His instrumental contributions to force structure and operations catapulted the PLAN from a largely coastal defense force still focused in part on fast missile boats to an emerging blue-water expeditionary force with modern warships and submarines that are increasingly well-networked and -supported at home and abroad. It is intensifying counter-intervention capabilities along China’s maritime periphery in concert with missile and air forces ashore while expanding its influence and reach farther away.

Despite Wu’s determined efforts and the ubiquity of his fingerprints, however, the PLAN’s transition remains ongoing, leaving much for Shen to accomplish. To better understand how Shen may ultimately find his own place in the lineage and legacy of PLAN commanders, it helps to consider what his Commander in Chief Xi Jinping may ask of him. Shen shares Xi’s emphasis on realistic training. In 2003, as director of a “naval vessels training center,” Shen was credited with establishing a “new comprehensive training system for new-type vessels,” involving substantial shore-based simulation capabilities (China Youth Daily, August 3, 2003; PLA Daily, January 1, 2003). In 2007, as Commander of the North Sea Fleet’s 10th Destroyer Flotilla (支队; zhidui), Shen was quoted as emphasizing “actual combat experience” and the maintenance of “information superiority” (China Youth Daily, September 7, 2007; People’s Navy, December 11, 2006). “Efficient and rapid formation of a combat force requires resolutely stressing military training,” he stressed (PLA Daily, December 3, 2007).

In 2011, as Commandant of the Naval Command College, Shen helped to develop a 31-person “Blue Force Center” that served as a “whetstone” in honing opposition force exercises targeting principal foreign opponents along the “formidable enemy” model, particularly their “command decision-making procedures and methods of operation” under realistic conditions of the “future maritime battlefield.” Having supported multiple PLAN fleets in online exercises, monitored real world events, and produced and submitted reports to PLAN leadership, the Center is credited with “accelerating the transformation of the naval troops’ combat power generation model” (People’s Navy, June 21, 2014). Shen was also credited with improving integrated joint instruction and training, and embracing stricter assessment criteria for a “Training and Assessment Program Outline”: “If you lower the requirements in peacetime training, you are bound to suffer a great loss in wartime” (People’s Navy, October 14, 2011; PLA Daily, October 6, 2011; People’s Navy, February 10, 2014). Such achievements may be one of a variety of ways in which Shen caught the attention of and impressed his superiors, as well as their civilian masters.

Finally, unfolding events will likely make Shen’s South Sea Fleet experience particularly germane. With Shen’s elevation, moreover, in the first instance of a non-ground forces officer assuming charge of a Theater Command, former North Sea Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Yuan Yubai (袁誉柏) was promoted to head the South Sea-focused Southern Theater Command on or before January 13, 2017 (Global Times Online, January 22; Global Times, January 22).


For Xi, the PLAN is a versatile foreign policy tool and indispensable to realizing his vision of the “China Dream.” This role brings heightened opportunities and challenges for Shen’s service. For a variety of reasons, the U.S. and China appear headed for greater tension in the Near Seas, particularly the South China Sea. Yuan’s elevation may likewise represent a new level of resolve and operational focus for Beijing regarding the South China Sea. While politically prestigious and budgetarily lucrative, however, the PLAN’s responsibilities in these troubled waters will impose constant challenges and the risk of sensitive mistakes—a significant burden for Shen.

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is Professor of Strategy in, and a core founding member of, the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. He serves on the Naval War College Review’s Editorial Board. Since 2008 he has been an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. Erickson received his Ph.D. and M.A. from Princeton University and studied Mandarin at Beijing Normal University’s College of Chinese Language and Culture. He can be reached through

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.


  1. Alison A. Kaufman and Peter W. McKenzie, Field Guide: The Culture of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, CNA, February 2009, Kenneth W. Allen and John F. Corbett, “Predicting PLA Leader Promotions,” in Andrew Scobell and Larry Wortzel, eds., Civil-Military Change in China: Elites, Institutes, and Ideas After the 16th Party Congress, (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, September 2004). Peng Wang & Jingyi Wang, “How China Promotes Its Military Officers: Interactions between Formal and Informal Institutions,” Lecture, University of Hong Kong, October 11, 2016, Peng Wang, “Military Corruption in China: The role of guanxi in the buying and selling of military positions,” China Quarterly, Volume 228, December 2016, pp. 970-991,
  2. Exceptions that the PLA has permitted to date include the following: During the 16th Central Committee’s Fourth Plenum in 2004, for the first time, the CMC incorporated the PLAN and PLASAF commanders as Members. Although the PLAAF commander was also added to the CMC, this was less novel as two other PLAAF commanders had previously served there. Typically, the commander and political commissar (PC) have the same grade as their organization. In this instance, however, each of the three commanders was given a “policy promotion” to CMC Member even though the PLAN, PLAAF, and PLASAF (now PLARF) are only MR Leader grade organizations.  When Wu became the commander, he apparently had to meet the above criteria. Specifically, when he was appointed as the PLAN commander in August 2006 to replace Zhang Dingfa, who had terminal cancer and died in December 2006, he had only served as an MR Leader-grade officer in a DCGS billet (MR Leader grade) for 26 months. As a result, he was not added to the CMC until October 2007. Although he was not an official member until October 2007, he most likely attended all of the CMC meetings but was unable to cast a formal vote. Furthermore, whereas previous service commanders all had their third star upon taking office, Wu did not receive his third star until 11 months after he became the commander and one month before he became a CMC member. In addition, Wu was not a member of the CCP Central Committee when he assumed command and did not become a CCP Central Committee member until the 17th Party Congress in October 2007. 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.
  3. “The Central Military Commission,” in Hu Guangzheng, ed., China Military Encyclopedia Version 2, Military Organization (军制) Volume 1. Beijing: China Encyclopedia Publishing House, July 2007, pp. 22–31. This volume updates the information from 1995 to 2005.
  4. There are always exceptions, however, such as the case of General Wei Fenghe. 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. On December 31, 2010, Lieutenant General Wei Fenghe (魏风和) was promoted in grade from his position as the Second Artillery chief of staff (e.g., Director of the Headquarters Department) with the grade of MR deputy leader (副大军区职) to become the first Second Artillery officer to serve as one of the deputy chiefs of the General Staff (DCOGS) with the grade of MR leader. The sole purpose of this promotion was to allow him to have the proper grade so that he could become the next commander. When Wei became the Second Artillery commander on October 26, 2012, he was also promoted in grade. He did not receive his third star until November 2012.