Major Reshuffles in China’s Military and Security Leadership

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 1

PAP Commander Wang Jianping

President and Commander-in-Chief Hu Jintao has reshuffled the leadership of China’s military and security forces to speed up rejuvenation and raise the efficiency and combat-readiness of the generals. The supremo also wants to ensure the officers’ loyalty to the Hu Jintao or Communist Youth League (CYL) Faction, which is the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) dominant clique. The quality of the top brass has assumed criticial importance because, at a time of growing socio-political instability, the military forces are playing an increasing role in maintaining order and upholding the CCP’s “perennial ruling party status.”

Since the October 1 National Day military parade, dozens of senior appointments in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the quasi-military People’s Armed Police (PAP) —both of which report to the Central Military Commission (CMC) headed by Hu—have been announced by the official media. Given the party’s reliance on the PAP to crack down on “the three evil forces of separatism, terrorism and religious extremism” across the nation, high-level personnel changes at the PAP deserve special attention. In late December, Lieutenant General Wang Jianping was appointed PAP Commander. The 56-year-old General Wang replaced General Wu Shuangzhan, 64, who is retiring after having served a record ten years as head of the paramilitary force. Wang and about two dozen officers were promoted in what the Chinese media described as one of the largest-ever reshuffles since the PAP was set up in 1983 (, December 26, 2009; People’s Daily, December 31, 2009).  

A native of Hebei Province, General Wang is deemed a protégé of President Hu’s. A fast-rising star within the military and security establishment, Wang was elevated two times in 2009—from PAP chief of staff to Vice-Commander, and then Commander. Like most senior PAP staffers, Wang began his career in the regular army. His career might have benefited most from having served as Commander of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) PAP from 1996 to 2000. With conditions in Tibet and Xinjiang expected to remain unpredictable for the near future, the PAP is Beijing’s main weapon in thwarting “splittist” activities in China’s vast western flank. Moreover, experience in Tibet—where Hu served from 1988 to 1992 as party secretary—is deemed critical for senior military and security cadres (Xinhua News Agency, December 26, 2009; Southern Metropolitan News [Guangzhou], December 25, 2009). It is perhaps not coincidental that the newly minted Party Secretary of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, Hu Chunhua, 46—the most senior-ranked among Sixth-Generation cadres—also earned his spurs in the TAR. Both General Wang and Hu Chunhua (who is not related to Hu Jintao) have impressed the President with their ability to “nib the destabilizing forces in the bud” (See “CCP Party Apparatchiks Gaining at the Expense of Technocrats,” China Brief, December 16, 2009).

In addition to Commander Wang, eight other senior PAP headquarters staff received their commissions from the CMC recently. They included the Deputy Commander, Lieutenant General Xue Guoqiang, as well as Chief of the General Staff, Major General Niu Zhizhong and Director of the Political Department, Major General Wei Liang. Quite a number of these newly elevated officers have college degrees in addition to diplomas from military academies. General Xue, 58, for instance, is a graduate of the elite Nanjing Political Academy. Equally significant are reshuffles of provincial PAP commanders and political commissars. Within China’s 31 provincial-level PAP brigades, nine commanders and 15 political commissars have been named since last autumn. Personnel shifts in regions plagued by ethnic strife have attracted the most attention. Soon after the July 5, 2008 Urumqi riots, Xinjiang PAP vice-commander Major General Chi Baowen was promoted Commander. Chi’s predecessor, Major General Dai Sujun, was given a lateral transferal to PAP headquarters. General Dai, who had become Xinjiang PAP Chief just nine months earlier, had to vacate his post to take political responsibility for the uncontrolled outbreak of violence in the summer. While his new position—Vice-Chief of Staff at PAP headquarters—did not amount to a demotion, it seems clear that the career of the 54-year-old officer has been dealt a big blow (, December 25, 2009; [Qingdao], August 15, 2009).

Personnel changes in the four headquarters of PLA units—the General Staff Department (GSD), General Political Department (GPD), General Logistics Department (GLP), and the General Equipment Department (GED)—as well as major divisions reflect the strict implementation of the retire-at-65 regulation for generals. As in the case of the PAP, the CMC has rewarded PLA officers who boast solid academic and professional credentials, including long stints in renowned military institutes. Examples include GPD Vice-Director Lieutenant General Tong Shijing, who was formerly political commissar at the National Defense University; and the Assistant GDP Director, Lieutenant General Nian Fuchun, who is a former vice-political commissar at the Academy of Military Sciences. Exceptionally qualified officers were given double promotions. Thus, Major General Niu Hongguang, a Chief of Staff at the GED, was elevated to GED Vice-Director; and Lieutenant General Hou Shusen, a Chief of Staff of the Shenyang Military Region took the proverbial helicopter ride to the post of Vice-Chief of the General Staff, the No. 2 slot at the GSD (People’s Daily, December 31, 2009; Wen Wei Po [Hong Kong], December 15, 2009).

Equally significant, several rising stars had distinguished themselves in unconventional campaigns such as the reconstruction of Sichuan Province after the devastating earthquake of May 2008. This reflected a just-issued CMC directive on the fact that the PLA must boost its capacity in mobilization and operations that are not related to military combat (Xinhua News Agency, December 1, 2009). Given the fact that China had not been at war since 1979, large-scale maneuvers ranging from combating natural disasters to fighting pirates in international waters have given up-and-coming officers an ideal platform to prove their mettle. For example, the new Vice-Chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General Sun Jianguo and the new Assistant Chief of the General Staff, Major General Qi Jianguo, had impressed the CMC with their leadership of relief and rebuilding projects in Sichuan (People’s Daily, December 29, 2009; China News Service, December 15, 2009)

From the perspective of factional politics, it is significant that President Hu is speeding up personnel changes in the defense and security establishment in the run-up to the 18th Party Congress in 2012. A key goal of the CMC Chairman is to dilute the stranglehold that “princelings”—the sons of party elders—have on a sizeable number of top slots in the PLA and the PAP. After all, the so-called Gang of Princelings, which is headed by Vice-President Xi Jinping, is deemed the clique that will give the most competition to the CYL Faction in the coming decade or so (See China Brief, “Hu Jintao Picks Core Sixth-Generation Leaders,” May 15, 2009). The strength of the Gang of Princelings is demonstrated by the fact that quite a few of the freshly elevated officers are the sons of illustrious party elders and generals. They include General Zhang Haiyang, the Political Commissar of Chengdu Military Region who was made Political Commissar of the Second Artillery Corps, or the Strategic Missile Forces, last month. Zhang is the son of General Zhang Zhen, a former Politburo member and CMC vice-chairman. Another princeling who just won promotion is the Assistant Chief of the General Staff Major General Chen Yong. His father is the former Commander of the Shandong Military District, General Chen Fangren (, December 30, 2009; Zhengzhou Evening Post [Zhengzhou], December 30, 2009). The CYL Faction, by contrast, is thinly represented, if at all, in the PLA and the PAP.

According to unpublicized decisions made at the 17th Party Congress of 2007, Vice-President Xi, 56, the most senior-ranked among China’s Fifth-Generation leaders, is slated to take over the post of Party General Secretary and State President from Hu at and soon after the 18th Party Congress. However, Xi’s failure to be made a CMC vice-chairman at the Fourth Central Committee Plenum last September has fed speculation that Hu will hang on to his CMC chairmanship beyond the 18th CCP Congress (Straits Times, December 9, 2009; Apple Daily [Hong Kong], November 12, 2009). “Xi’s delayed entry into the CMC suggests that Hu Jintao would like to remain in charge of the military a few years past his retirement from the party general secretary’s position in 2012,” said Northwestern University Sinologist Professor Victor Shih. “Hu would like to maintain power in order to place trusted followers from the CYL system in important [party and state] positions. This is especially important for Hu as the influence of princelings is growing rapidly in China" [1].  

Apart from personally selecting the country’s top PLA and PAP officers, President Hu has effectively raised his prestige among the top brass by giving the forces double-digit annual budgetary boosts—as well as repeatedly raising the salaries and fringe benefits of military personnel. Last month, the CMC approved unprecedented four-fold and six-fold increases in insurance payouts to soldiers who died in the course of duty, and those honored as “martyrs” respectively (Wen Wei Po, March 6, 2009; China News Service, December 25, 2009). Anxiety to win over the generals, however, may run counter to the goal of streamlining and modernizing the military structure. For instance, the long-contemplated abolition of the seven regional commands of the ground forces, deemed a relic of Maoist-era military thinking, has been delayed owing to the top brass’s opposition to the likely curtailment of a slew of senior positions. In the final analysis, President Hu and the CCP leadership must strike a balance between maintaining the generals’ loyalty and nurturing a leaner, more professional defense corps that can effectively uphold national security.

1. Author’s interview with Professor Victor Shih, January 2, 2010.