PLA Personnel Shakeups And Their Implications

Publication: China Brief Volume: 24 Issue: 3

Assembly of a Long March 5 at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. (Source: CASC)

Executive Summary:

  • Dong Jun’s appointment as Defense Minister and changes in the PLA Rocket Force leadership mark a strategic shift towards bolstering military diplomacy, particularly with Russia, and enhancing combat and technological readiness, reflecting Dong’s significant role in shaping future military strategy.
  • The leadership overhaul within the PLA highlights a concerted effort to root out corruption, critical for maintaining the military’s operational integrity and effectiveness. This move is partly inspired by the need to avoid the operational pitfalls seen in the Russian military’s performance in Ukraine.
  • The hiring of PLA officers from services outside the Rocket Force, as well as those with personal connections to Xi Jinping, indicates a desire to start afresh, while also suggesting the extent of corruption within PLARF.
  • Analysts believe the ousting of officials like Li Shangfu will not necessarily directly weaken the PLA’s combat capabilities, given the defense minister’s primarily diplomatic role. However, it also suggests that Li, with his technical background, was perhaps not well-suited to his role. Nonetheless, it prompts speculation about future military diplomacy and technological focus.


On January 30, Chinese state media reported that Wang Xiaojun (王小军) had been removed from the 14th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) (People’s Daily, January 30). Since June 2019, Wang had served as Director and Deputy Secretary of the Party Committee of the First Research Institute of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC; 航天一院). This follows the expulsion in December of Wu Yansheng (吴燕生), who had also served at CASC as its chairman and party chief (Caixin, January 30). CASC is the leading, state-owned defense-aerospace conglomerate in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) (China Brief, November 30, 2023; ASPI, 16 December, 2019).

Wang and Wu are only the latest in a growing list of top officials and executives within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to have disappeared in recent months. The most high-profile, former Foreign Minister Qin Gang (秦刚) and former Defense Minister Li Shangfu (李尚福), were sacked in June and October, respectively (People’s Daily, October 24, 2023). No reasons have been officially divulged, but their disappearances are most likely due to crimes such as compromising classified information or engaging in corrupt activities. Whatever the truth, the recent shake-ups in the upper echelons of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have attracted international attention and speculation about the current state of the Party’s army. However, while some analysts consider that Li’s removal might affect the PLA’s combat strength, this is not necessarily the case. After all, the duties of the defense minister in the PLA do not involve commanding troops and initiating arms build-up efforts. Rather, they are focused on military diplomacy and interactions with foreign military counterparts.

Li Shangfu: The Wrong Man For The Job

Li Shangfu’s fall from grace likely extends beyond his stint as Defense Minister and the corruption-related irregularities in which he is suspected of being involved. Another factor contributing to his early exit from the circles of power within the CCP may have relate to his prior service experience. Li spent most of his time in the military at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center (西昌卫星发射中心) in Sichuan Province, which was then subordinate to the now-defunct General Armament Department (总装备部; GAD). He joined as a technician in 1982, and remained there for over three decades, before moving to GAD in 2013. In both his time at Xichang and at the GAD, his work involved the handling of technology developments in fields like aviation. Li has a PhD in engineering which, coupled with his expertise in military technology, could complement the insufficiencies of other members of the Central Military Commission (CMC) who would otherwise have to consult with outsiders for answers to technology issues (UDN, October 26, 2023; China News, March 13, 2023).

Li’s skillset may not have been well-suited for the role of defense minister. This position is oriented toward military diplomacy and interaction with high-ranking officers from foreign militaries. As such, Li’s specialization in military technology specialty was likely not relevant for much of his work. Indeed, it would have been out of place in discussions and exchanges of opinions on military issues such as the war between Russia and Ukraine or naval and air conflicts in the Indo-Pacific.

Dong Jun: China’s New Defense Minister

Dong Jun (董軍) was announced as the PRC’s new Minister of Defense on December 29 (China Daily, December 29, 2023). [1] Born in 1961 in Yantai, Shandong Province, Dong graduated from the Dalian Naval Academy. In 2013, Dong briefly assumed the position of deputy commander of the East Sea Fleet, before being transferred to the position of deputy chief of staff of the PLA Navy in December 2014. Two years later, in January 2017, he was promoted to the position of deputy commander of the Southern Theater Command. There he went on to rise to the rank of deputy theater command commander-grade vice admiral (副戰區中將). In March 2021, after serving out his theater command posts—which were not directly under the navy’s control—Dong returned to PLAN to become its deputy commander. Five months later, he took the helm of the navy (海軍司令員) and was promoted to the rank of theater command commander-grade admiral one month later (正戰區上將軍階) (Liberty Times, December 31, 2023).

Dong has previously had close interaction with the foreign militaries. In 2015, he served as the executive director of a joint naval exercise with the Russian navy (People’s Daily, August 25, 2015). The “Sea Guardians-2020” China-Pakistan joint naval exercise saw Dong in the role of chief director. This was the first joint naval drill under the “Sea Guardians” rubric, though the sixth such China-Pakistan joint naval drill (People’s Daily, January 7, 2020). He might even have participated in a theater-level command dialogue between China and the United States in 2021. [2] These past experiences illustrate his continued involvement in military diplomacy and his corresponding achievements.

Dong’s appointment therefore appears to fit the requirements of the current moment. There is an urgent need for the PLA to maintain its interactions with the Russian military. This is in part to draw lessons from the Russian forces’ operations in Ukraine. A deep understanding of Russia’s performance can serve as the basis for an examination of the PLA’s own combat strength following the 2016 military reform, the results of which can then be applied to its preparations for future warfare (China Brief, February 4, 2016; China Brief, June 21, 20216). These tasks may be on Dong’s priority list, alongside a push for further military exchanges with other countries going forward (The Diplomat, August 8, 2023).

New Rocket Force Officers And Lessons From Recent Exercises

Military exercises launched by the PLA in the Taiwan Strait in recent years offer a good opportunity for Taiwan and other observers to assess the strengths of its principal opponent. It can also provide indicators of the PLA’s logistics preparedness and gauge the potential impact of corruption. Eight years have passed since the PLA’s latest round of military reform, which included changes in its combat doctrine, equipment, organization, and training.

The PLARF has presented considerable opportunities for corruption since its inception. The force was separated and elevated from the former Second Artillery Corps as part of the 2016 military reforms and underwent a rapid expansion in the subsequent few years. The requirements for construction projects for military bases and launch sites, as well as for organization enlargement projects, generated substantial prospects for corrupt use of funds. These factors likely came to head as the direct cause of the purge as seen recently.

Corruption is one of the ways in which Russia’s forces can be analogized to the PLA. For instance, in nearly two years of Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, Russian forces have underperformed expectations. This has been attributed less to strategic and tactical errors than to rampant corruption in the Russian military. As a direct result of this corruption, front-line troops have been unable to receive arms supply and logistics support in the necessary timeframe (RUSI, May 19, 2023). These issues have sent a warning signal to Beijing. The faulty launch of Dongfeng-series missiles near Taiwan in 2022 may have prompted the Chinese leadership to make inquiries into the internal operations of the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF), as media reports have suggested. The service’s abrupt leadership reshuffle in July 2023 might be a direct result of such inquiries (BBC Chinese, August 1, 2023).

A number of the new appointees installed at the top of the PLARF come from beyond the Rocket Force itself. Newly-appointed Rocket Force Commander Admiral Wang Houbin (王厚斌) had served in positions including director of the General Research Office under the now-defunct General Staff Department as well as two concurrent posts—deputy chief of staff of the East Sea Fleet and deputy commander of the Zhoushan aircraft carrier base (People’s Daily, August 1, 2023). In 2018, Wang was promoted to the position of deputy chief of staff of PLAN, which is a corps commander-grade position. That same year, he was also appointed as deputy commander of PLAN, a deputy theater command commander-grade position. He later rose to the rank of vice admiral in December 2019. Judging by his service record, he has not only had the experience of serving in higher echelon units, but has also taken positions in the East and South Sea Fleets (Liberty Times, August 1, 2023). However, he lacks any experience commanding front-line combat units. Wang’s seagoing experience will have been accumulated during his time spent on surface vessels. This apparently means that he has never had any access to nuclear weapons or nuclear-powered submarines. This is unusual for a Rocket Force Commander and suggests that his promotion could have something to do with his performance as a member of the CPC. It also raises the possibility that discipline problems with PLARF were more serious than previously thought, especially among its leaders. President Xi Jinping thus had no choice but to go outside the force, selecting leaders from other services whom he can trust to bring PLARF back on track.

Another transfer from outside is former PLA Air Force General Xu Xisheng (徐西盛), who has been appointed as the new political commissar of PLARF. He may have been selected for the same reason as Wang Houbin—he is not tainted by the corruption scadals that seem to have brought down many of the senior levels of the PLARF, and is trusted by Chinese president Xi Jinping. Xu was previously in important positions at the Fuzhou Command Post, now renamed the Fuzhou Base. Former PLA Air Force Commander Ding Laihang (丁来杭), with whom Xu has worked, and former CMC Vice Chairman Xu Qiliang (许其亮) were also known for their service at this highly important unit. In the 1990s, Ding served as a regiment commander in the 24th Air Division while Xu Qiliang commanded the 8th Corps of the PLA Air Force, the predecessor of the Fuzhou Command Post. Their stints in Fuzhou overlapped with that of Xi Jinping, who was serving as the secretary of the Fuzhou municipal committee of the CCP and the first secretary of the Fuzhou military sub-region committee of the CCP at the time. Xu Xisheng is therefore believed to have been chosen to lead the Rocket Force in part because of these connections to Xi personally, which has enabled a degree of trust in and familiarity with him (Liberty Times, August 1, 2023).


The PLA has made considerable qualitative and quantitative improvements in recent years. A comprehensive look at the military exercises it has launched or participated in confirms this assessment. These improvements are advantages that the PLA can exploit to create more opportunities to prevail in future operations, such as any actions against Taiwan. However, the human element is still crucial in affecting the outcomes of war. In the PLA’s recent anti-corruption campaign, newly-appointed military leaders selected to replace those whose terms of office had not expired have little prior involvement in the affairs of the units they now head. This is redolent of the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979, during which the phenomena of “laymen leading experts” and “party loyalty over technical expertise” were prevalent (BBC Chinese, May 2, 2017). The seeming comeback of these old trends might be counterproductive for the PLA, which in recent years has become an increasingly specialized force.

The PLA has advanced a lot in military doctrine, technological development, and organizational structure, but this requires a correlative advance in technical expertise. However, too much emphasis on loyalty without corresponding regard for skilled personnel will lead to questions about whether the PLA can survive the trials of the battlefield. It remains to be seen whether Dong Jun, Wang Houbin, Xu Xisheng, and the other new appointees can provide satisfactory answers to those questions.


[1] Dong Jun is yet to replace Li Shangfu on the Ministry’s website. It is possible that this will only occur after the annual Two Sessions of the National People’s Congress in March.

[2] This suggestion has not been verified but comes from an anonymous source on a closed online forum.