Peng Liyuan Rises Up the Ranks: Implications for Xi’s Despotic Rule

Publication: China Brief Volume: 24 Issue: 11

Image circulating online of Peng Liyuan in military uniform. (Source: Screenshot from陳破空縱論天下)

Executive Summary:

  • Recent behavior by General Secretary Xi Jinping suggests a contradiction in his approach to leadership. While he has sacked protégés, suggesting a reckoning with past personnel decisions, he continues to prioritize personal connections and loyalty over competence. This centralization of power is exemplified by the promotion of his wife, Peng Liyuan, to a senior position in the CMC’s opaque Cadre Assessment Committee.
  • The rise of the Fujian Faction in recent years, with Cai Qi as the main beneficiary, illustrates the shifting factional landscape. Cai, a close associate of Xi, has gained significant control over state security and party building.
  • The “Xi Family Army,” which includes loyal acolytes at the top of the military, is experiencing cracks. Notable figures like Lieutenant General Zhong Shaojun have been removed quietly from their positions, alongside more high-profile sackings of protégés.
  • Peng’s increasing public profile and potential elevation within the military hierarchy has invites comparisons to Mao Zedong’s reliance on his fourth wife, Jiang Qing, during the Cultural Revolution.


Recent behavior from Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) indicates a contradiction. One the one hand, sackings of protégés suggests a reckoning with the failure of his previous personnel selection. On the other, his solutions appear to double down on prioritizing personal connections and loyalty over competence. One recent development underscores levels of personalization and centralization of power within the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that have not been seen since Mao Zedong. Namely, the promotion of Xi’s wife, the world-renowned PLA singer Peng Liyuan (彭丽媛), who has the ranking of major-general, to the position of a senior staff in the hitherto unknown Central Military Commission’s Cadre Assessment Committee (中央军委干部考评委员会) (Deutche Welle Chinese, May 13; Lianhe Zaobao [Singapore], May 5). Xi seems to have further consolidated power by calling the much-delayed Third Plenum of the CCP Central Committee for July. Doubts prevail, however, about the paramount leader’s grip over the upper echelons of the Party-state apparatus.

Xi’s Uncertain Control

Xi Jinping has eroded norms and distorted the distribution of power throughout his decade-long rule of the PRC. He has relegated the State Council to a mere policy-executive organ under the direct control of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), reducing its capacity for designing policy. Meanwhile, the two PBSC members usually in charge of economic and financial policymaking—Premier Li Qiang (李强) and Executive Vice-Premier Ding Xuexiang (丁薛祥)—have also been relatively sidelined (Radio Free Asia, March 19; VOA Chinese, January 1). Li is nominally ranked second in the Politburo pecking order and, along with Ding, is seen as a personal favorite of Xi. Nevertheless, they are seldom seen with the supreme leader and do not seem to have been given executive power over important economics-related portfolios.

In factional terms, there has been a power shift. The so-called Zhejiang Faction—a reference to officials who worked with Xi when he was party chief of the coastal province from 2002 to 2007—was formerly in the ascendancy. Now the Fujian Faction—those officials with whom the supreme leader built his career and reputation from 1985 to 2002 in the coastal province opposite Taiwan—has more clout. The biggest beneficiary of this change has been the fifth-ranked PBSC member, Cai Qi (蔡奇), who is head of the CCP Secretariat and Director of the Central Committee General Office. Cai had worked with Xi in both Fujian and Zhejiang. He is currently in charge of state security, but also of “party building,” a code word for vetting officials by assessing their loyalty to the top leader. The 68 year-old Cai even issues occasional orders on economic policy. He was the only PBSC member accompanying Xi on the latter’s visit to the United States last November, his just-completed European tour, and his welcoming ceremony for President Vladimir Putin on May 16 (Xinhua, May 16; VOA Chinese, April 12; Bloomberg, January 10).

Military Machinations

Xi’s apparent problems with the military’s top brass also illustrate cracks in the regime. Leaders ranging from Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping were able to hang on to power through ironclad control of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Since Xi consolidated power after his first term as chief of the Party and the state (2012–2017), for the most part the commander-in-chief has been able to install protégés in top-echelon posts of all PLA divisions. Xi has also been able to exploit the large-scale restructuring of the command-and-control apparatus in 2015–2016 to further fill upper PLA ranks with loyalists (BBC, July 27, 2016; RFI, January 7, 2016).

The so-called “Xi Family Army (习家军)” is now beset with problems, however. The first sign of growing problems for this group (the term is a reference to the loyalty of the supreme leader’s handpicked generals) arose last August with the mysterious disappearance of then defense minister General Li Shangfu (李尚福) and the near- simultaneous absence from PLA functions of Li’s predecessor General Wei Fenghe (魏凤和) (RFI, January 24; Radio Free Asia, December 13, 2023). At least 20 generals and senior cadres working for the Rocket Forces and departments in charge of equipment and procurement have also been detained on corruption charges (RFI, October 5, 2023; Voice of America, August 1, 2023). This personnel overhaul was possibly a contributing factor for the CMC’s recent decision to replace the Strategic Support Force with the Information Support Force (see China Brief, April 26, April 26).

According to three sources who hold the ranks of vice-head of department or above in PLA-related units, another unexpected personnel move this year has been the downfall of Lieutenant General Zhong Shaojun (钟绍军). The 56-year-old former secretary and speechwriter for Xi started working for the supreme leader when the latter was party secretary of Zhejiang. While he had had no military experience, Zhong was catapulted to being one of the commander-in-chief’s most trusted defense-related aides soon after Xi’s ascendance to the top in 2012, rising to become the Director of the Office of the CMC Chairman. Zhong’s removal has occurred noiselessly, with no mention in official media. The sources cited speculation that Xi had pinned part of the blame for the large number of recent sackings of military officials on Zhong. It remains unclear what has happened to Zhong, or where he is now.

Xi’s removals of protégés and trusted military personnel suggest that he is concerned about his own security, as well as that of the regime. After all, the PLA is the bulwark of the Party-state’s security, even more so than the quasi-military People’s Armed Police, the regular police, and the state-security personnel. It is the main defender against both internal and external challenges to socio-political stability. At the height of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, Mao Zedong turned to the army to restore order. Deng Xiaoping later mobilized PLA army soldiers to put down the student movement in mid-1989. Moreover, responsibility for the “liberation” of Taiwan, the one achievement that Xi counts on to justify his claim as the Mao of the 21st Century and the CCP’s greatest leader, falls to the PLA (Penn Global, May 8; Media.defense/gov, April 24, 2023). Xi cannot afford to see disloyalty among the top brass or a diminution of the fighting power of the military forces. This is ever more urgent as newer combat domains such as space and cyberspace come into strategic focus. However, by sacking his protégés, Xi has dented his authority and has fallen into the proverbial position of “seeing an enemy behind every tree and every stalk of grass.”

The Rise of Peng Liyuan

A degree of paranoia would be understandable, given the apparent lack of fidelity within the “Xi Family Army (习家军).” This has perhaps led to the appointment of his wife, Peng Liyuan, to a senior staff position in the hitherto unknown CMC’s Cadre Assessment Committee (中央军委干部考评委员会). The Cadre Assessment Committee is believed to have been established after the end of the pandemic in late 2022. This also reflects Xi’s overall distrust of the top brass. Until the major structural reforms to the PLA in 2015–2016, vetting of the fealty of cadres was done by the General Political Department. Following the reorganization of the top CMC units, disciplinary and loyalty issues have at least theoretically been handled by the newly created Political Work Department.

Until early 2024, PLA artist and singer Peng had kept a low profile, much like the wives of previous leaders Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. This year, however, she has started making regular appearances in official media. Having lived in Beijing since her marriage to Xi in 1987, Peng has formed close working relationships with senior Shanghai Gang leaders such as former vice-president Zeng Qinghong (曾庆红) and his young brother Zeng Qinghuai (曾庆淮), who was an active player in the capital’s cultural scene. [1] It is believed that Peng played a pivotal role in introducing Xi to senior Shanghai Gang leaders, including former president Jiang. There has been no official confirmation that the 62 year-old Peng, who has the ranking of major-general, has been elevated to the rank of lieutenant-general. However, it is almost certain that she is now in charge of vetting the loyalty of up-and-coming generals in the forces. There is also speculation that Peng will be inducted into the politburo at the upcoming Third Plenum. The rise of Peng has invited unflattering comparisons to Mao’s dependence on his fourth wife, Jiang Qing, to launch a series of political vendettas during the 1960s and 1970s (Radio Free Asia, March 28; VOA Chinese, March 8).

Crucial questions concern Xi’s capacity to exert unchallenged authority over the PLA and whether he is receiving the best counsel on defense issues. This has become critical as the military and geopolitical situation in the Indo-Pacific Region deteriorates by the day. Xi is understood to be committed to “liberating” Taiwan during his tenure in power. Given the likelihood that Xi will win a further five-year term as party general secretary and commander-in-chief at the 23rd Party Congress in 2027, a decision on ways and means to “unify” Taiwan seems likely before his last five-year term ends in 2032 (Yahoo News/TVBS, March 15; BBC, September 29, 2022). Xi’s aspirations are currently undermined by concerns about the capabilities of the PLA’s military hardware. Many advanced items in the PLA’s arsenal are based on Russian designs, yet Russian armaments have received some criticism during its invasion of Ukraine (ASPI, December 1, 2023; Economic Times, September 13, 2023). Meanwhile, Indo-Pacific allies of the United States such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia are enhancing their defense ties with Washington even as each country is boosting defense spending with a view to “containing” the PRC.


During the upcoming Third Plenum, the propriety of Xi’s military appointments—including the ascendency of his wife—could be discussed in private. In public, Xi is yet to reveal the reasons behind the sacking of top-level generals and protégés. The plenary session will doubtless issue a communiqué stressing loyalty to policies initiated under the guidance of “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era.” The wisdom and competence of the commander-in-chief could be questioned, however. This will likely not come in the form of open outbursts of dissent, but through some form of behind-the-scenes maneuvers of the Central Committee’s 205 full members and 171 alternate members.


[1] Guo X. The “Core” Leader and Elite Politics in Practice. In:The Politics of the Core Leader in China: Culture, Institution, Legitimacy, and Power. Cambridge University Press; 2019: 329-387.