Evaluating Trends in Central Military Commission Membership

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 1

By Leah Kimmerly

Leadership ascension in China has long been an opaque and unpredictable process. The 17th Party Congress, due to convene this year, will present another opportunity for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to reshuffle its top leadership. Included in this will likely be new members of the Central Military Commission (CMC), China’s most powerful military body. It is expected that any changes of CMC membership will correspond with recent efforts to include representation from all four branches of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as well as the General Departments. Of particular note may be the individual selected to succeed Hu Jintao, who will prepare to enter his final term as the president of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

The Evolving Composition

Historically, CMC members have not served a set number of years, nor have the most senior members necessarily become the next vice-chairmen. Past CMCs have also fluctuated in size, with some having seven members, others nine, and in others, such as the present, 11. These variations in structure and composition result from the fact that there is no mention of CMC membership regulations in either the Constitution of the CCP or the Constitution of the PRC. Stemming from this has also been the longstanding unpredictability of when the CMC changes its membership. Since 1992, there has been a noticeable effort by the Chinese leadership to coincide changes in CMC membership with the National Party Congresses held every five years. Given that the CCP Central Committee has final authority over the CMC Chairman’s recommendation(s) for membership expansion, the timing makes practical sense for both bodies. These systematic appointments have been a consistent trend and a marked shift from the periods when crises served as the primary drivers of membership change (e.g. the Peng Dehuai affair in 1959, the Lin Biao affair in 1971, Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989).

As an army of the party rather than of the state, the membership of the CMC has always been composed of officers with both political and operational experience. In the past, the nature of the CMC members’ political experience was based primarily upon revolutionary credentials and personal loyalties. Following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and the subsequent reshuffling of power in Beijing, trusted Party Elders served as CMC vice-chairmen in order to enforce PLA loyalty to the Party and especially to Deng Xiaoping [1]. With the retirement of the “old guard” in 1997, however, a more formalized structure of career political officers and combat arms officers was instituted and political military officers (PMOs) shared the vice-chairmen positions with operational military officers (OMOs). This marked the beginning of a new structure for the CMC, in which career political officers now share responsibility with officers of the combat arms.

This trend is reflected in the CMC vice-chairmanships of Yang Shangkun, Liu Huaqing and Zhang Zhen. In 1989, both Yang and Liu were CMC vice-chairs. Yang was also President of China and Liu, Commander of the PLA Navy (PLAN); both held elite status in the Party. These appointments signified a departure from the 1987 CMC (appointed with the 13th CCP Congress), in which Yang and Zhao Ziyang (the then-CCP General Secretary) served as vice-chairmen. Yang was a veteran of the Long March with extensive military experience, although no longer an active duty PLA officer. Zhao, on the other hand, was a civilian political leader without any military experience. After Tiananmen and the inauguration of a new CMC in 1989, Liu became vice-chair to replace Zhao (who had been purged from the CCP and government). Immensely loyal to Deng Xiaoping, Liu was a high-ranking military officer with considerable operational experience, matching his colleague Yang’s qualifications more closely. Zhang Zhen, a Party Elder and retired PLA officer with revolutionary experience, replaced Yang in 1992. As veterans of the civil war against the Nationalists, these three officers’ revolutionary experience and personal loyalty to Deng helped smooth party-army relations and consolidate his power base after the controversial use of force in 1989 [2]. By keeping the CMC vice-chair positions staffed with loyal Party Elders, Deng ensured that the PLA remained clearly under the control of the Party.

Rebalancing for the Future

A move toward equal representation between OMOs and PMOs in vice-chair positions began in 1997 with the retirement of this older generation. The appointment of new vice-chairs also signaled a more balanced focus by the leadership on operational concerns and military modernization. In association with the 15th CCP Congress, the CMC appointed Chi Haotian and Zhang Wannian as its new vice-chairmen. Chi, then the Minister of National Defense, had a long career of political commissar posts and positions in various political departments of the PLA. Chi was the first political military officer appointed to a vice-chair position in over 20 years; since there was no longer the presence of Party Elders/revolutionary veterans on the CMC, Chi served as the new means of representing Party interests and influence. Zhang, on the other hand, was clearly an operational military officer, with extensive experience serving in leadership roles in various military regions and as head of the PLA General Staff Department (GSD). Chi and Zhang were joined by Hu Jintao (Jiang Zemin’s designated successor) in 2002, but when Hu rose to become Chairman in 2004, Chi and Zhang were replaced by Guo Boxiong (OMO), Cao Gangchuan (OMO) and Xu Caihou (PMO) [3].

Beginning with the CMC inaugurated during the 16th CCP Congress in 2002, there has been a clear trend toward staffing the CMC with operational military officers. The 2004 decision to augment the CMC membership to include officers from all military services and departments—GSD, General Political Department (GPD), General Logistics Department (GLD) and General Armament Department (GAD)—is further evidence of this fact. In addition to PLAN Commander Zhang Dingfa, PLA Air Force (PLAAF) Commander Qiao Qingchen and Second Artillery Corps Commander Jing Zhiyuan, the current CMC also consists of Liang Guanglie (OMO and head of the GSD), Li Jinai (PMO and head of the GPD), Liao Xilong (OMO and head of the GLD) and Chen Bingde (OMO and head of the GAD), as well as Vice-Chairmen Guo Boxiong, Cao Gangchuan and Xu Caihou. With the representation of the PLA General Departments and the different services, the operational military officers hold a significant and potentially permanent majority in the CMC. Over time, this will likely make CMC decision-making more responsive to the practical needs of the PLA.

The current CMC, with its higher percentage of OMOs and service representation, reflects the PLA effort to develop joint operational capabilities. In 1999, the PLA issued a gangyao (roughly translated as a “set of regulations”) on joint operations [4]. Adding the commanders of the different services to the CMC is part of this transformation; making the CMC joint is a critical, early step toward achieving joint operational capability. Having the heads of each service on the CMC, similar to the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, will allow for more effective coordination and management in times of military crisis (i.e. Taiwan or North Korea). This will give the collective group greater knowledge of the requirements of implementing joint operations and will eventually give a more prominent voice to the needs of the PLAN, PLAAF and Second Artillery Corps.

Future Trends

The 17th Party Congress will occur in 2007, and if the PRC effort to institutionalize succession procedures is any indication, changes may occur in the membership of the CMC. Most indicative of any changes is the mandatory retirement age of 70 for CMC members. Of the current CMC members, only Cao Gangchuan will be over 70, making it likely that he will retire from the CMC (and his post as Minister of National Defense). If other changes do take place, it is likely that the PLA’s emphasis on joint operations will result in the continued representation of all four services. It is also believed that officers with extensive command experience in one of the Military Regions critical to a possible Taiwan scenario (Jinan, Nanjing and Guangzhou) will be represented. This has been the case in the past (for example, Liang Guanglie and Chen Bingde have such experience). Officers who have rotated between political and operational PLA posts are expected to serve; this is a reflection of the PLA’s recently initiated effort to provide officers with more well-rounded military experience. Finally, it is possible that the chosen successor to Hu Jintao will also be appointed to the Commission, in order to prepare him to take over when Hu steps down (as scheduled) after a second five-year term. Hu’s career followed such a process with one important caveat: he became a CMC vice-chairman in 1999, two years after the 15th Party Congress and five years before he replaced Jiang Zemin as chair. This suggests that Hu’s successor may not be appointed until 2009. Of course, there is the possibility that the PRC will not adhere to its recently-established system of succession. It is most likely, however, that this institutionalized process will be followed; if a civilian is appointed to a vice-chair position in the next few years, this person will almost certainly be Hu’s replacement. Other new faces that appear on the CMC this year will be a manifestation of the recent developments in the transformation of the PLA.


1. Marti, Michael E., China and the Legacy of Deng Xiaoping (Washington, D.C.: Brassy’s, 2002), p. 148.

2. Ibid., p. 159.

3. Nan Li, “The Central Military Commission and Military Policy in China,” The People’s Liberation Army as Organization: Reference Volume v1.0 Conference Proceedings; The RAND Corporation, 2002.

4. Bi Jianxiang, “Joint Operations: Developing a New Paradigm,” China’s Revolution in Doctrinal Affairs, James Mulvenon and David M. Finkelstein, eds. (2006), pg. 29.