“Security” was the operative word in General Secretary Xi Jinping’s opening report to the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) this October. Xi stressed that the Party has stood firm against “external attempts to blackmail, contain, blockade and exert maximum pressure” on China promising not to yield to external, “coercive power” and to safeguard the nation’s “dignity and core interests” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China [FMPRC], October 25). Furthermore, in upholding the ‘Party’s goal of “building a strong military in the new era,” Xi declared that China’s armed forces have “become a much more modern and capable fighting force, and the Chinese path to building a strong military is growing ever broader” (FMPRC, October 25). In this light, Xi’s report to the 20th Party Congress offers insights into the aims and objectives for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) under the 20th Central Committee over the next five years, foremost of which are two key imperatives. First, the PLA must abide by complete “loyalty” to the Party and second, it must never cease striving to become a “strong military.”
These directives will shape the efforts of the newly appointed 20th Central Military Commission (CMC) during Xi’s third term as Party Chief and CMC Chairman as well as the Commander-in-Chief of the CMC’s Joint Operations Center since 2016. After the conclusion of the 20th Party Congress, Xi and the other six CMC members inspected the Joint Operations Center on November 8. In his remarks, Xi set the ground rules for the PLA by stating that “the entire military should devote all its energy to and carry out all its work for combat readiness, enhance its capability to fight and win, and effectively fulfill its missions and tasks in the new era” (Xinhuanet, November 8). Xi also demanded that the armed forces implement “the Party’s thinking on strengthening the military for the new era, follow the military strategy for the new era and adhere to combat effectiveness as the sole criterion” (Global Times, November 9).
Some Old, Some New PLA Leadership
Apart from changes to the political leadership, the Party Congress is also pivotal in reorganizing the Chinese military leadership—the CMC. In China, the CMC, the highest military operational and decision-making body at the PLA’s helm, controls China’s domestic security forces and the People’s Armed Police (PAP). This critical aspect makes the composition of the CMC significant.
On October 23, the new CMC lineup was formally announced at the first plenary session of the 20th CCP Central Committee (FMPRC, October 23). The CMC continues to be comprised of seven members: Xi Jinping as Chairman; Zhang Youxia and He Weidong as Vice Chairmen; and Li Shangfu, Liu Zhenli, Miao Hua, and Zhang Shengmin as members (Xinhuanet, October 24).
Table 1: 20th CMC Members
(Order of Rank)
|Service||Members of the 19th CMC|
|Zhang Youxia||Vice Chairman||PLA Army||Yes|
|He Weidong||Vice Chairman||PLA Army||No|
Title: Head of Equipment Development Department of the CMC;
to be the next Minister of National Defense
|PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF)||No|
Title: Chief of the Joint Staff Department of the CMC
Title: Director of Political Work of the CMC
|PLA Navy (PLAN)||Yes|
Title: Head of Discipline and Inspection of the CMC
|PLA Rocket Force (PLARF)||Yes|
A number of aspects of the new CMC lineup are notable. The PLA Army enjoys renewed dominance in its representation on the supreme military body with Army General and Eastern Theater Commander General He Weidong replacing retiring PLA Air Force (PLAAF) General Xu Qiliang as a vice chairman (VC) (Xinhua, October 23). As a result, the PLAAF is no longer represented on the CMC. In addition, the military personnel who were promoted possess experience in military equipment and defense science and technology. Both Zhang Youxia and Li Shangfu have served as directors of the Equipment Development Department (Xinhuanet, March 18, 2018; China Daily, September 19, 2017). Finally, despite neither being from the Army, Miao Hua and Zhang Shengmin rose through the ranks as political commissars, demonstrating the importance that Xi places on ensuring the PLA maintains internal discipline and remains on the correct ideological course (Xuexi Juntuan, January 22; PLA Daily, January 20).
Having close personal ties and displaying loyalty to Xi appears to have been another important qualification for promotion or retention on the 20th CMC. For Xi, this was clearly a prime motivator in keeping General Zhang Youxia on as a CMC VC at age 72 in contravention of the Party’s unofficial retirement age of 68 for Politburo members. Of the six members, Xi retained three members from the 19th Party Congress. Striking a balance in the 3:3 ratio, Xi has drawn on a mix of “old” and “new” loyalists (China Brief, November 3). For instance, unlike VC Zhang Youxia, who is an old hand, He Weidong, prior to being appointed as VC, had no experience on either the CMC or the CCP Central Committee.
Operational experience and battlefield readiness have also been key to Xi’s calculus in determining the personnel composition of the CMC, in particular the selection of the two VC positions. General Zhang, who moves up from the second to the first ranked VC role, is one of the few PLA officers with direct combat experience, having served in both the China-Vietnam 1979 war and the subsequent border clashes between China and Vietnam in the 1980s, including participation in the Battle of Laoshan in 1984 (The Paper, March 3, 2016). In addition, General Liu Zhenli, who was recently selected to head the Joint Staff Department, following a stint as Commander of the Army, also gained combat experience in the China-Vietnam border conflicts of the 1980s (South China Morning Post, October 13). In addition, the appointment of General He Weidong as a VC is significant as he served as the former commander of the Eastern Theatre Command (ETC) that oversees Taiwan and the East China Sea; and he is also reported to have planned the military exercises around Taiwan in response to U.S. House Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August. In addition, He Weidong also served as Deputy Commander of the Western Theatre Command (WTC) and was Commander of the WTC Army. The WTC oversees operational jurisdiction over China’s borders with Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Myanmar. Therefore, the military experience with Taiwan and India was pivotal in Xi’s selection of General He.
A ‘To-Do’ List for China’s Armed Forces
On October 24, in his first military meeting since the conclusion of the 20th Party Congress, Xi Jinping categorically outlined the “immediate tasks” for the PLA by stating that: “members of the armed forces must uphold the main theme of the congress, carefully read the report to the 20th CPC National Congress and the new Party Constitution, research the thoughts, perspectives, strategies, and measures included in those documents, and align their minds and deeds with the Party” (China Military Online, October 25). These imperatives highlight that, unlike other countries, Chinese armed forces are ultimately a Party force and therefore, the “gun” must always be controlled by the Party.”
The 20th Party Congress seeks to set the PLA on its path to establish three key milestones. The first is meeting the centenary benchmark of ensuring the PLA is on track with its military modernization program in 2027; achieving the basic realization of PLA modernization by 2035, and completing the development of a world-class military by mid-century (PLA Daily, November 5). These goals have become the strategic prerequisites for making China a modernized and socialist nation. In his first military meeting after the conclusion of the Party Congress, Xi posited that the central mission for the PLA lies in achieving these goals in the “coming five years” and that it “must spare no effort to meet these goals by 2027” (China Military Online, October 25). In order to achieve this objective, the PLA must: apply the thinking on strengthening the military for the new era; implement the military strategy for the new era; and maintain the “Party’s absolute leadership over the people’s armed forces” (FMPRC, October 25).
It is noteworthy that, in the guidelines for the PLA set forth by Xi in the 20th Party Congress report, allegiance towards the Party precedes troop training and combat preparedness. On the ideological front, the report calls for the PLA to enhance building political loyalty towards the Party, ensure allegiance to the Party’s command, adopt the current CCP theory as espoused by Xi and strengthen Party organizations within the military. In terms of operational aspects, the guidelines emphasize the need for the PLA to develop its combat readiness, strategic deterrence, and joint operation capabilities, among others. This prioritization proves that being “red” over “expert” is more important in today’s PLA. Following up on the 20th Party Congress, the CMC issued a guideline on the “study, publicity, and implementation of the guiding principles” of the 20th National Congress of the CCP in the military (People’s Daily Online, November 7). This is now regarded as the primary political task of the Party, the country, and the armed forces for the present and for some time to come (China Brief, November 18).
Now that Xi has a new CMC in place and has instructed the PLA with strict guidelines, he will accelerate efforts in his third term to build a strong military. For Xi, this entails a force that is both loyal to himself and the party, as well as prepared for warfighting. Therefore, it is worth watching if the new CMC, on matters where China’s “core interests,” such as Taiwan or the border dispute with India, are concerned, will continue with an approach premised primarily on coercion or whether it will instead show an increased proclivity for the direct use of military force.
Amrita Jash is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), India. She was a Pavate Fellow at the Department of POLIS, University of Cambridge. Dr. Jash is the author of The Concept of Active Defence in China’s Military Strategy (2021).