Parsing the Selection of China’s New High Command

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 22

The August 1st Building, Headquarters of the PLA

In choosing the ten uniformed officers who make up China’s new Central Military Commission (CMC)—seven new appointments and three incumbents, two of whom have moved to more senior positions—Beijing has charted a decidedly middle course. It is crucial to examine not only how the new lineup’s career experiences differ or resemble their predecessors, but also the implications of the alternative selections that did not occur. Given both the pool of candidates technically eligible and rumors in the Hong Kong and international press over the past two years about the identity of the leading candidates, Beijing chose against several scenarios that would have had different implications for the future of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The slates of outgoing and newly appointed CMC members share some common characteristics. Like their predecessors, the majority of the new CMC have held operational commands at the forefront of the PLA’s efforts to train for high-tech war. Several probably caught the attention of senior military and civilian leaders while serving in high-profile roles in humanitarian assistance/disaster relief efforts, which increasingly serve as proxies for combat experience [1]. Some fought in China’s brief clashes with Vietnam in 1979 and/or the 1980s. With the revival of professional military education (PME) in the 1980s after the Cultural Revolution, almost all have received PME and in some cases held senior positions at PME institutions.

There, however, are differences. China’s new CMC lineup has slightly greater diversity of experience across China’s seven military regions than the outgoing group, who were appointed between 1999 and 2007. Significantly, with former PLA Air Force (PLAAF) Commander Xu Qiliang’s promotion to a CMC vice chairman—the highest position held by an air force officer in the post-Mao era—and his replacement with another PLAAF officer, non-ground force officers now hold four of the ten uniformed seats on the CMC.

Nevertheless, the new lineup as a whole suggests incremental rather than wholesale change. Though this is not startling, it is interesting that Beijing did not opt for one of several other scenarios debated by PLA watchers over the past two years. One possibility included non-ground force officers making up half of the new CMC and two out of the three most senior uniformed positions [2]. Such a scenario, if combined, with the appointment of reform-minded ground force officers, might have generated momentum to reform the PLA’s ground-centric command structure. At the other end of a spectrum, one “wild card scenario”—embodied in some purported CMC lineups circulating on the Chinese-language Internet earlier this year—was a highly political CMC, packed with political commissars. Such a CMC might have been focused narrowly on preserving party rule in the face of concerns about political stability in the wake of the Arab Spring, fears of a slowing economy and several high-level political scandals over the past year, including the fall of Politburo member Bo Xilai. In such a scenario, Xu Qiliang might have been passed over for a vice chairman position in favor of a career political officer.

There were, however, a few surprises even in the middle-of-the-road outcome that materialized. One was the new CMC lineup’s early emergence on November 4—with the appointment of two new CMC vice chairmen at the final meeting (or “plenum”) of the outgoing 17th Central Committee rather than the 1st Plenum of the 18th Central Committee on November 15. Another was Beijing’s selection of Jinan Military Region (MR) Commander Fan Changlong, age 65, as the senior uniformed vice chairman over General Armament Department (GAD) Director Chang Wanquan, age 63. Chang had long been expected to become vice chairman, and his promotion would have followed the pattern of only elevating existing CMC members to that body’s top posts. Instead, Fan not only leapt over Chang, but also skipped a military grade, which is extremely rare [3]. Fan is eminently qualified, having served in senior positions in two MRs and in the General Staff Department (GSD) in Beijing. Though preparations began before his tenure, since 2004, the Jinan MR he led has conducted crucial experiments in joint logistics, command structures and training methods (PLA Daily, December 16, 2008; November 11, 2008). Fan will be past the mandatory retirement age at the next party congress and is therefore likely to serve only one five-year term.

PLAAF Commander Xu Qiliang’s elevation to vice chairman expands the number of service officers on the CMC from three to four of ten uniformed members. Xu, a former fighter pilot, who has served in two military regions, as chief of staff of the PLAAF, and commander of the Shenyang MR’s air force, also served as a deputy chief of the GSD. Already a PLAAF deputy chief of staff in the early 1990s, General Xu has witnessed firsthand his service’s extraordinary transformation in the subsequent two decades from a poorly-trained, technologically-backward service into an air force with the world’s third highest number of advanced, fourth-generation fighters [5]. His appointment as a CMC vice chairman testifies to the increasing prominence of the missions of the services at the expense of the traditionally dominant ground force. Nevertheless, Beijing also unexpectedly retained PLAN Commander Wu Shengli in his post rather than promoting him to a more senior CMC position. Observers had tapped Wu to become Minister of National Defense or even a vice chairman. The new lineup is therefore less “joint” than it might have been if Wu also had ascended and another naval officer replaced him as PLAN commander as many speculated, bringing the total number of service officers to five of ten uniformed CMC members.

Wu had seemed a natural fit for Minister of National Defense owing to his considerable foreign engagement experience as PLAN commander (South China Morning Post, October 20). The defense minister is the PLA’s third-most senior uniformed officer and manages its relationship with China’s state bureaucracies and foreign militaries, though he holds no operational control of forces in the field [6]. As the PLA moves incrementally in the direction of a more “joint” force, naming a navy officer defense minister also would have been a less radical departure from precedent than if Wu had been promoted to head, for example, one of the four general departments.

Instead, Chang Wanquan will become defense minister at the National People’s Congress in the spring. Chang may have received the defense minister post as a consolation prize, crowding out Wu’s promotion. There is a remote chance, however, that Chang’s new position represents an effort to make use of his experience leading the GAD, which has primary responsibility for weapons design, development, procurement and maintenance and manages China’s space and nuclear weapons programs. Outgoing President Hu Jintao made “civil-military integration,” particularly in the defense industrial sector, a high priority (“Civil-Military Integration Theme Marks PLA Day Coverage,” China Brief, August 12, 2011; Qiushi, August 1, 2011). China’s defense minister appears to be a senior CMC official who works with staff in different offices throughout the PLA’s four general departments, but the current setup for the Ministry of National Defense lacks the bureaucratic presence of the 1950s-era, Soviet-style Chinese defense ministry that had additional responsibilities over the defense industry. If those responsibilities are returned, Chang’s experience would be invaluable.

The two new service chiefs appointed to the CMC, Ma Xiaotian, age 63, as PLAAF commander, and Wei Fenghe, age 58, as commander of the Second Artillery, both had been serving as deputy chiefs of the GSD. These positions gave them experience managing issues for the entire PLA and positioned them in the right grade for promotion to the CMC, whose membership since 2004 has included the heads of the PLAN, PLAAF and Second Artillery. Wei, who previously served as chief of staff of the Second Artillery and commanded one of the Second Artillery’s bases—a career path very similar to his predecessor Jing Zhiyuan—is young enough to serve two five-year terms. General Ma, who at one point competed with Xu Qiliang to lead the PLAAF (both were appointed full members of the Central Committee when only deputy MR-leader grade officers in 2002), is only eligible for one term. His resume, however, exemplifies the diversity of command, staff and higher education experiences the PLA seeks for its senior officers. Ma served in two MRs and was the first air force officer to head the National Defense University before becoming the deputy chief of the GSD in charge of foreign affairs and intelligence (China Leadership Monitor, No. 24, November 11, 2007).

One other important observation is that Beijing did not feel the need to follow the precedent of having one operational track officer and one political track officer fill the CMC’s number one and number two uniformed positions, respectively [7]. With the exception of 2002–2004, since the early 1990s, one of the CMC’s uniformed vice chairs has been a career political officer. Chinese leaders evidently did not think departing from this trend was destabilizing enough to hold back Xu Qiliang’s appointment as a vice chairman.

Heightened concerns about political reliability, however, may have played out in other appointments. The only new career political officer named to the CMC is the former Guangzhou MR Political Commissar Zhang Yang, age 61, as director of the General Political Department (GPD). Zhang’s youth makes him eligible for two terms, and he hails from an increasingly important military region with responsibilities for possible contingencies in Taiwan, the South China Sea and China’s land border with Vietnam. His most important characteristic, however, may have been his quiet contrast to several of the outspoken generals most familiar to PLA watchers, especially those associated with particular policy positions or with cross-cutting family ties to civilian elites, who were not appointed to the CMC.

Three military “princelings” (or children of former high-level officials) all surnamed Liu (no relation among them), for example, who were widely rumored in the international press to be contenders for the CMC, will instead remain in their posts [8]. Liu Yuan, political commissar of the General Logistics Department (GLD) and son of former President Liu Shaoqi, delivered an unusually blunt anti-corruption speech in January and then toppled a GLD deputy director (Sydney Morning Herald, November 10; South China Morning Post, February 1). This may have given other senior military leaders pause about their security should Liu be appointed to higher office. He also had penned the introduction to a prominent public intellectual’s book advocating a particular domestic reform direction (Wall Street Journal, May 23, 2011). More explicitly, Liu Yazhou, political commissar of the National Defense University and son-in-law of former President Li Xiannian, has advocated openly for democratization and other controversial positions (Want China Times, August 1; South China Morning Post , August 1; Qiushi, August 16, 2004). Finally, PLAN Political Commissar Liu Xiaojiang is the son-in-law of the late reformist party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, whose funeral ceremony sparked the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations. Although Liu has not openly advocated reform, he has worked to honor Hu’s memory—something now implicitly linked to political reforms [9].

In contrast, two of the new CMC selectees, former Beijing MR Commander Fang Fenghui and former Shenyang MR Commander Zhang Youxia, were long-considered almost certain to be appointed to the CMC. Both have served in multiple MRs. Both are young enough to serve two five-year terms. Both also are politically well-connected. Fang is presumably a protégé of outgoing CMC Vice Chairman Guo Boxiong under whom he served in the Lanzhou MR. Fang also orchestrated the PLA’s role in China’s 60th anniversary parade in 2009 (South China Morning Post, November 8). Zhang is the son of former GLD Director Zhang Zongxun, who served with incoming Party General Secretary Xi Jinping’s father in the headquarters of the First Field Army in the 1940s. The younger Zhang is a veteran of both China’s 1979 conflict with Vietnam and early 1980s border clashes.

Neither Fang nor Zhang, however, were considered the most likely choice to lead the GSD until early this year, when the leading candidate, executive deputy chief of the GSD Zhang Qinsheng, age 64, (no relation to Zhang Youxia) reportedly clashed publicly with his colleagues at a holiday banquet, torpedoing his career (New York Times, August 7). Zhang—a prominent defense intellectual and early enthusiast among the PLA officer corps of the way information technology was transforming modern warfare—had been director of the Campaign Teaching and Research Office and then Dean of Studies at China’s National Defense University (China Leadership Monitor, No. 17, January 30, 2006). He had served as director of the GSD’s Operations Department and later as assistant to the chief of the GSD in charge of intelligence and foreign affairs before being given command of the Guangzhou MR in 2007—presumably to give him the operational command experience requisite for higher office. Had Zhang been selected, he would have brought considerable diversity in terms of staff and higher education experience to the new lineup, despite being limited to one term. Instead, Zhang’s collapse opened the way for Fang to become chief of the GSD. Zhang Youxia became director of the GAD. Zhao Keshi, age 65, commander of the Nanjing MR, who would have otherwise been forced to retire, became director of the GLD. Zhao’s experience in the Nanjing MR—which is responsible primarily for Taiwan contingencies—may have figured in his selection; however, the necessarily limited number of senior ground officers eligible for this promotion probably assisted in his rise.

Zhao Keshi and Fan Changlong’s appointments at their advanced age also assures that the CMC will experience another significant turnover—of half its uniformed members—in five years. In 2017, at least the senior CMC vice chairman, director of the General Logistics Department, Minister of National Defense, and commanders of the PLAN and PLAAF are likely to retire. Beijing will then have another opportunity for either more thorough reform or retrenchment.

Sourcing Note: Judgments about the comparative career attributes of the incoming and outgoing CMC lineups are derived from data on their individual careers found in three places apart from official curricula vitae that have been cross-checked. The sources are as follows: 

(1) Online Chinese wikis with entries on individual CMC members, including <http://baike.baidu.com> and <http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/>;

 (2) Hong Kong journalism, primarily several collective biographies of China’s military leaders, including the following: Xu Santong, Junzhong Shaozhuangpai Zhangwo Zhongguo Bingquan [Up-and-Coming Generals Take Over China’s Military Leadership], Hong Kong: Haye Chubanshe, 2009; Yu Shiping, Xin Taizi Jun: Fubei Da Jiangshan, Women Bao Jiangshang [The New Princeling Military: Our Fathers’ Generation Took Power, We Will Protect It], Hong Kong: Mingjing Chubanshe, 2010; and Jin Qianli, Diwudai Jiangxing: Zhonggong Dui Tai Zuozhang Zhongjian Renwu  [The Fifth Generation’s Military Stars: The Chinese Communist Party’s Crucial Figures in a War with Taiwan], Hong Kong: Xiafeier, 2006, in addition to profiles of individual military leaders that have appeared in the Hong Kong magazine Chien Shao [Frontline] over the past decade;

(3) Biographical details contained in scholarly analysis of the last major CMC turnover in 2002 from, especially, Dean Cheng, Ken Gause, Maryanne Kivlehan-Wise, James Mulvenon and David Shambaugh.

Notes:

  1. According to the Hong Kong press, for example, Liang Guanglie and Fan Changlong drew the attention of senior leaders (including then-Vice President Hu Jintao) during flood fighting efforts in 1998. See the chapter on Fan in Jin Qianli cited above, pp. 300–314.
  2. If both Xu Qiliang and Wu Shengli had been promoted to more senior CMC positions, their presence combined with their replacements as air force and navy commanders, along with the presence of the commander of the Second Artillery Corps, would have made for five of ten uniformed officers on the CMC not hailing from the ground force. This was the most favored scenario by many China leadership watchers.
  3. Our understanding of the crucial role of the PLA grade structure in determining the eligibility of CMC candidates is based upon the published and unpublished work of Kenneth Allen. Any errors, however, are the authors’ own. See, for example, “Assessing the PLA’s Promotion Ladder to CMC Member Based on Grades vs. Ranks – Part 1” China Brief, July 22, 2010, and “Assessing the PLA’s Promotion Ladder to CMC Member Based on Grades vs. Ranks – Part 2,” China Brief, August 5, 2010.
  4. Guo Boxiong had been promoted to the CMC in 1999 as a deputy chief of the GSD. This, like Fan’s promotion directly into a vice chairman position, was a violation of the PLA’s rules regarding military grade (deputy chief of the GSD is not a CMC-member grade position), but it at least gave Guo experience on the CMC that Fan lacks. And Guo was likely chosen for this promotion precisely because he was young enough to serve too terms.
  5. The PLA’s terminology refers to these as “third generation” rather than the Western “fourth generation.”  For the scope of this transformation, see, for example, David Shlapak, “Equipping the PLAAF: The Long March to Modernity” in Richard P. Hallion, Roger Cliff, and Phillip C. Saunders, eds., The Chinese Air Force: Evolving Concepts, Roles, and Capabilities, Washington, DC: National Defense University, 2012, pp. 191–211.
  6. For a discussion of the role of the Ministry of National Defense see Dennis J. Blasko, The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century, Second Edition, New York: Routledge, 2012, pp. 36–37. Based on the defense minister’s public appearances in official state media, however, we think the defense minister’s responsibilities are broader, including civil-military integration, defense education, defense legislation before the National People’s Congress and the peacetime, preparatory aspects of coordination with civilian officials on defense mobilization issues.
  7. In the outgoing CMC, for example, Vice Chairman Guo Boxiong was an operational track officer and Vice Chairman Xu Caihou was a political track officer.
  8. Another prominent “princeling,” political commissar of the Second Artillery corps and former political commissar of the Chengdu MR, Zhang Haiyang, who is the son of former CMC Vice Chairman Zhang Zhen, may have been disqualified owing to close ties with fallen Politburo member Bo Xilai.
  9. See the account provided in the chapter on Liu Xiaojiang in Yu Shiping, cited above, pp. 255–297.