PLA Succession: Trends and Surprises

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 24

CMC Chairman Xi Jinping Meets with the PLA

On November 26, Air Force General Xu Qiliang gave his first major speech as vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC). In front of a military audience, Xu urged the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to hasten the process of military modernization (Xinhua, November 27). Army General Zhang Yang, Director of the General Political Department and one of the eight regular CMC members, emphasized the importance of “further uniting behind a common purpose” and “strengthening” the PLA’s “sense of responsibility and duty to the mission.” The 18th Party Congress marked an important round of transitions for the PLA that also highlighted the difficulties of studying the military’s leadership transition process. In the Mao era, the PLA leadership had been tightly linked to the unpredictable factional politics surrounding the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but the increasing routinization of the succession process since the 1980s has led to a better understanding of leadership transitions within the PLA’s top echelons. Unexpected promotions during the recent Party Congress, however, challenge the reliability of some observed trends in PLA leadership succession. In particular, the continuing domination of the ground force component among the military services (e.g., Army, Navy and Air Force) works against succession routinization and hampers modernization efforts for the PLA going forward.

CMC Membership and Succession

Known as the “supreme command” of the military, the CMC currently has 11 members that include the General Secretary of the CCP, two uniformed military vice chairman, the Minister of Defense, and representatives from the four service and branch commands. The directors of the four general departments form the joint and de facto army command and sit on the CMC and, since 2004, the commanders from the PLA Navy (PLAN), PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and the Second Artillery also have been CMC members. The CMC “provides guidance for China’s national military strategy and overall war effort,” including force building, weapons purchases and development, senior personnel promotions, and the PLA’s overall organizational structure [1].

PLA succession is difficult to understand in the same way that broader CCP succession processes are opaque. First, the base of power is ostensibly broad but in reality flows downward from a narrow top. The CMC is theoretically elected by the approximately 200 members of the CCP’s Central Committee, but in practice the outgoing CMC as well as the GPD’s Cadre Department and possibly certain top party leaders likely control appointments to the CMC, making predictions a challenge. That said, however, the pool of top military leaders to fill the vice chairmen and CMC member billets is fairly predictable based on their current positions and grades (“Assessing the PLA’s Promotion Ladder to CMC Member Based on Grades vs. Ranks,” China Brief, July 22, 2010; August 5, 2010).

Second, for those officers who are eligible based on their grade and position, promotions depend as much on merit as they do on guanxi, factional pedigrees and officers’ skill at maintaining good relations within their units [2]. Most enlisted members and officers will serve in the same unit throughout their career, so harmony within the unit can have long-term implications for advancement.

Third, much of how Western PLA analysts frame their understanding of the military is based on patterns and norms that have developed in the reform era. For example, officers in high-level positions must retire once they reach a certain age (e.g., military region leader grade-officers must retire by the age of 65), officers can only be promoted one grade at a time and so on. When established norms run up against intractable personality and institutional conflicts, however, the structural elements of institutions have changed to accommodate nonconforming promotions. For example, Army General Fan Changlong’s recent promotion as the senior of the two CMC vice chairmen required him to skip a grade, which was unprecedented based on past high-level promotions. The Army, however, wanted a ground forces general in that position to balance Xu Qiliang as the first PLAAF member to hold the vice chairmanship. Though Fan’s promotion resolved the balance of power dilemma by keeping other non-ground forces from being promoted and breaking the grade promotion precedent, poking a hole in one of the guidelines generally used to understand the rules of the game.

Despite the difficulties in analyzing military succession, there have been noticeable changes in how PLA leaders become members of the CMC. Based on the CMC’s membership since 1949 (including organizations with different names and structures that have served the same purpose), five trends are apparent. First, the number of people on the CMC has varied greatly over time, both in terms of overall membership and the number of vice chairman. For example, by 1954, the “Central People’s Committee” (CPC) had 14 vice chairmen, but the committee established to replace this CPC was slimmed down to only 12 members total. In general, membership has hovered between about eight to 15 people and is currently on the lower end of that spectrum with 10 uniformed members; the number of vice chairmen also has fallen to either two or three in the past few decades. Two vice chairmen are generally PLA officers, including one political commissar, while the third, senior vice chairmanship is held by the CCP successor. For example, Xi Jinping was the senior CMC vice chairman from late 2010 until the recent 18th Party Congress.

Second, the composition of the CMC has moved away from party elders with military experience to career PLA officers and the top CCP leader (and, at intervals, his successor as a vice chairman). The top leader’s accession to the CMC chairmanship also appears to be occurring at more regular intervals. Though Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin remained the CMC chair after stepping down as the CCP general secretary, Hu Jintao did not follow this trend, so Xi Jinping became the party general secretary and CMC chairman at roughly the same time.

Third, the CMC has changed names and added or removed the smaller Affairs and Working committees, which at certain points have held more power than the CMC as a whole. For example, in the Mao era, restructuring was particularly frequent, especially during the Cultural Revolution. Structural changes were sometimes used as a vehicle to enable Mao’s current favorite to gain power by undercutting others’ authority, such as when Lin Biao was made the head of a new Affairs Group in 1968. Since 1982, however, the CMC has basically remained in its current form, indicating that the focus has shifted away from altering the CMC’s power vis-à-vis other organizations and toward how to ensure certain candidates gain positions on the CMC.

Fourth, until Liang Guanglie became the Minister of Defense in 2008, the minister position was held concurrently by a CMC vice chairman, who in turn have been concurrent Politburo members. Since 2008, however, the minister of defense has been only a senior CMC member but not a vice chairman. Of note, while General Liang Guanglie will remain the Defense Minister until the National People’s Congress in early 2013, he is no longer a member of the CMC. General Chang Wanquan now holds that spot on the CMC and presumably will replace Liang as Minister of Defense in 2013.

Lastly, the CMC has seen increasing “diversity” of representation by the PLAN, PLAAF and Second Artillery since the reform era. Admiral Liu Huaqing was the first PLAN commander to gain the vice chairmanship in 1989 and stayed there until he retired in 1996, even if he was required to wear an Army uniform while he held that position. In 2012, the 18th CMC features two PLAAF, one PLAN and one Second Artillery representative besides the six Army generals, suggesting, at the very highest level, non-ground force members are becoming more prominent.

Keeping the early caveats of trend-watching in mind, some scholars believe that these trends hint that the CMC is falling into a more normalized path with a fixed size, standard ratio of vice chairmen to regular members and more representation of the non-Army leaders. Last month, Oriana Skylar Mastro, Michael S. Chase, and Benjamin S. Purser III argued “the fact that two Air Force officers have secured a place on China’s highest military body along with the rising fortunes of the PLAN and Second Artillery probably foreshadows the loosening of the ground force’s sixty-year-long grip on the levers of military power” (“New CMC Vice Chairmen Strong Advocates for Joint, Modern Chinese Military,” China Brief, November 16). This greater diversity among the services, however, has not trickled down below these top positions. Table 1 compares the new CMC membership (the members of which are director grade or above) with deputy director and similarly graded officials. Overall, the top leadership is still dominated by the ground forces (PLAA). 

Table 1. Personnel Appointments in PLA Institutions (by Service and Branch)





Second Artillery

CMC (10 + Xi Jinping)





General Staff Department Deputies (varies between 4-6)





General Political Department Deputies (usually 4; currently 3)



General Logistics Department Deputies (3)


General Armament Department Deputies (5)


Minister of Defense


Academy of Military Sciences Commandant and Political Commissar (2)



National Defense University Commandant and Political Commissar (2)



Military Region Commanders (7)


* The General Staff Department had a PLAAF deputy director from 2004 until the 18th Party Congress who was not replaced by a PLAAF officer; it also had a Second Artillery deputy director until he became the Second Artillery commander at the 18th Party Congress and was not replaced by another Second Artillery officer.


** The General Political Department had a PLAN deputy director from 2009 until the 18th Party Congress, but he retired and was not replaced.


 Although the CMC appears to be moving toward more diversity at the top by selecting a PLAAF vice chairman, only one of the current 18 deputy directors is not from the ground forces, and the General Armament Department has never had any non-ground force deputy directors. Even more firmly in the Army’s control, China’s seven Military Regions (MRs) have only ever had Army commanders, even, as Mastro, Chase and Purser noted, “in the Nanjing and Guangzhou MRs that focus on conflict scenarios involving possible sea and air fights over Taiwan and in the East and South China Seas” (“New CMC Vice Chairmen Strong Advocates for Joint, Modern Chinese Military,” China Brief, November 16). Based on the current picture of personnel appointments, diversity will be slow to filter down to the lower grade levels or result in a significant change to the balance of institutional power.

Conclusion: The 18th Party Congress in Context and Future Prospects

The recent 18th Party Congress saw signs of increased routinization of succession processes within the CMC but also departures from previously established norms. Overall, with the exception of no civilian vice chairman, the announcement of the new CMC in terms of membership remained consistent with CMC membership since 2004. Also, the membership of the new PBSC continues the trend of no uniformed military representation.

Hu Jintao’s exit from the CMC along with his stepping down as CCP general secretary all but guarantees that he will have left all three top positions (head of party, military and state) within six months. Although Hu’s “naked retreat” (luo tui) breaks tradition from the Jiang-Hu transition, the simultaneous transition of Party and military authority actually speaks to increasing routinization of power transfer at the highest levels of the CCP (Apple Daily [Hong Kong], November 16). The Jiang-Hu transition—in which Hu Jintao became the head of the CCP in late 2002 but Jiang Zemin retained the CMC chairmanship until mid-2004—reportedly had PLA officers concerned about potentially facing multiple chains of command during a crisis (Xinhua, September 20, 2004; Asia Times, March 12, 2003; PLA Daily, March 11, 2003). The “naked retreat” ensures that one leader has clear operational authority during China’s extensive leadership transition period.

Selecting Xu Qiliang and particularly Fan Changlong as CMC vice chairmen marked significant departures from established norms. Xu is the first non-Army vice chairman to wear his branch’s uniform on the CMC, and his selection to the CMC does indicate some victories for pro-“diversity” and pro-modernization leaders among the PLA. Fan’s promotion reveals that the Army, however, is resisting the shift of power to other branches and is willing to go to great lengths to retain dominance. Another change is that the new CMC vice chairmen and members assumed their positions during the last session of the 17th Party Congress in October rather than during the first session of the 18th Party Congress in November.

Looking to future successions and the broader path of the PLA, there are a few key trends worth watching to assess whether the competition for resources and power among the three services and the Second Artillery will result in more joint cooperation or lead to stagnation. One key marker is the “diversity” of billets for officers promoted to corps and above grades, where each grade has two assigned flag officer ranks (one to three stars). The most obvious sign of change would be a significant restructuring of the PLA’s four general departments to become truly joint organizations and the creation of the Army as a separate service with its own headquarters. If the four general departments (currently the army’s de facto headquarters) were restructured to serve—and be directed and staffed by—PLAA, PLAN, PLAAF and Second Artillery officers, proponents of force modernization and integration will have achieved a major victory. Xu Qiliang’s past and recent speeches have indicated his support for reform (“Parsing the Selection of China’s New High Command,” China Brief, November 16). The obstacles he and his supporters encounter as they advocate for change, including restructuring the 15-grade structure, reflect the complexity of internal military as well as party-military relations and will remain key areas for outsiders to parse and uncover.


  1. Kenneth W. Allen, “Introduction to the PLA’s Administrative and Operational Structure,” The People’s Liberation Army as Organization (RAND: 2002), p. 5.
  2. Kenneth W. Allen and John F. Corbett, Jr., “Predicting PLA Leader Promotions,” in Civil-Military Change in China: Elites, Institutes, and Ideas After the 16th Party Congress, Dr. Andrew Scobell and Dr. Larry Wortzel, eds., Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2004.