Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 5

By Nan Li

Unless an acute CCP leadership crisis occurs in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), on the scale of the Cultural Revolution or the 1989 Tiananmen Square Incident, it is not very likely that the leadership of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will play a strong role in CCP leadership politics in the near future.

The 1999 CCP Politburo decision to divest the PLA of its business activities blocked another policy venue. As a result, analysis of the PLA leadership policy preferences should focus on two new dimensions.

–First, nationalist agendas, based on irredentist claims and driven by geostrategic concerns, that emphasize regional issues such as Taiwan, the South China Sea, the Korean peninsula, ethnic tension in Western China and Sino-Indian border disputes.

–Second, a new emphasis on technology-driven force modernization to resolve these issues.

These become more clear in comparing the backgrounds of the early PLA leaders and those who now dominate China’s highest military policy council, the Central Military Commission (CMC).


The first and second generations were largely revolutionaries who spent their formative years waging civil wars through highly mobile and fluid guerrilla warfare. They also fought the anti-Japanese war. But this war was fought not as much for enhancing Chinese national identity and security, as for gaining relative advantage in the ensuing civil war (1946-1949) between the communist and nationalist forces.

In contrast, the third generation–those who were born in the early 1930s and joined the PLA in the final days of the civil war–was largely associated with the founding of the PRC in 1949 and with the introduction of the more settled military region (MR) system, designed for the dual purpose of territorial consolidation and national defense against foreign threats.

Since the early 1950s, Guangzhou and Nanjing have been the forward MRs with the primary objective of resolving the Taiwan issue. The Guangzhou MR, on China’s southeast coast, has jurisdiction over major PLA forces in Guangdong, Guangxi, Hunan and Hubei provinces. It has also been responsible for handling threats from South East Asia, including the South China Sea. The Nanjing MR, on China’s eastern coast, merged with the Fuzhou MR in 1985 and manages PLA forces in Fujian, Jiangxi, Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Anhui provinces and Shanghai municipality.

Three of the current nine uniformed CMC members can trace their institutional origins to the forces under these two MRs.

1. Zhang Wannian, one of the two uniformed CMC vice chairs, began his career and served for about twenty years in the 41st Army (from the late 1940s to 1967). The 41st Army is the only major unit from Lin Biao’s 4th Field Army that did not participate in the Korean War, largely because it has been deployed in eastern Guangdong since the early 1950s, for the sole purpose of “liberating” Taiwan.

2. Yu Yongbo, a CMC member and director of the PLA General Political Department (GPD), spent almost thirty-five years of his career (from late 1940s to 1985) in another major unit of the Guangzhou MR, the 42nd Army. Yu also served for four years as the political department director of the Nanjing MR (1985-89).

3. Fu Quanyou, another CMC member and the PLA chief of staff, served for about thirty-five years in the 1st Army of the Nanjing MR (from the late 1940s to 1985). The 1st Army is the only category A/light formation of the Nanjing MR and would serve as the initiating force in a Taiwan conquest scenario.

During the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis, Zhang and Fu both served in the PLA forward command and directed various PLA war games to intimidate Taiwan, as chief and deputy chief, respectively. Zhang also participated in the 1979 war against Vietnam as the commander of the 127th Division (which was transferred to the 54th Army as its parents 43rd Army and Wuhan MR were eliminated in the 1985 downsizing). Fu did as well, directing his units, as the commander of the 1st Army, in the renowned battle to take Mount Laoshan in 1984 during the protracted post-1979 Sino-Vietnamese border skirmishes.

The primary mission of the Shenyang MR is to handle threats from Russia and the Korean peninsula. The Shenyang MR, which lies to China’s northeast and borders Korea, supervises PLA forces in Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces. With the improvement of Sino-Russian relations, the Korean peninsula has become the dominant concern. Again, evidence of the Korean connection in the formative experience of the current PLA leadership is abundant.

Among the nine uniformed CMC members, four–vice chair Chi Haotian, Fu Quanyou, Yu Yongbo and PLA General Logistics Department director Wang Ke–served as company- or battalion-level commanding officers in the Korean War. Although Wang did not begin his career in the Shenyang MR, he did serve as its commander during 1992-95, where he headed a PLA delegation to visit North Korea in June 1994, and was received by Kim Il Song. Shenyang MR has also been conducting major military exercises based on a Korean crisis scenario, which have included a 1987 exercise to “repel a local foreign invasion” and an amphibious landing exercise directed by Wang in late 1994 following the death of Kim.

Xu Caihou, one of the newer fourth-generation CMC members (those who were born in early and middle 1940s and joined the PLA in the late 1950s and early 1960s), began his career in the Jilin Provincial Military District (MD) and the 16th Army. Both are under the jurisdiction of the Shenyang MR. Xu, who holds the position of the deputy General Political Department director, and is a possible future GPD director, spent twenty years in the Jilin MD (1968-88) and afterwards became political department director and commissar of the 16th Army (1988-92).

Due to its central location, the Ji’nan MR, which supervises forces in Shandong and Henan Provinces, serves as the PLA’s strategic reserve. Its central mission is to provide reinforcement or relief: (1) to Beijing MR in the event of a Russian crisis in the northwest, (2) to Shenyang MR in a Korean crisis in the northeast and (3) to Nanjing MR in a Taiwan crisis in the southwest. With the collapse of the Soviet threat, Ji’nan MR has shifted its attention to Taiwan and Korea. The most notable Ji’nan MR connection in the CMC is Zhang Wannian’s thirteen-year service as the commander of the 127th Division (1968-81). This division constitutes the backbone of the 54th Army, the only Category A/heavy force of Ji’nan. Zhang also served as the commander of the Ji’nan MR from 1990 to 1992. Similarly, both Chi Haotian and Xu Caihou served briefly as commissar of the Ji’nan MR.

With the decline of the Soviet threat from the Northwest, the far northwestern Lanzhou MR–which supervises PLA forces in Shannxi, Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai and Xinjiang provinces–has shifted its mission. That is now to consolidate China’s western frontier by fighting the “splitism” associated with the Islamic fundamentalism and the radical Turkish ethnic minorities.

Wang Ke can probably identify with the Lanzhou MR better than other current CMC members. He began his career and served in the 21st Army, the only Category A force of the Lanzhou MR, from 1947 to 1958. From 1962 to 1992, he again served in various major units there, including as commander of the 47th Army (1983-86) and of the Xinjiang MD (1986-90), and as deputy commander of the Lanzhou MR itself. Fu Quanyou served briefly as the Lanzhou MR commander (1990-92). Finally, Guo Boxiong, a fourth-generation CMC member and currently the executive deputy PLA chief of staff, served as the deputy chief staff in that MR from 1988 to 1992, and as commander of the 47th Army from 1992 to 1994. Given his current position and qualifications, Guo could be a future PLA chief of staff.


Technology is another major generational difference in the formative experience of the PLA leadership. Even though the PLA likes to claim that it has always been an inferior force fighting a superior one, the enemies of the first and second generations of the PLA leadership, such as the Kuomingtang Army and the Japanese Imperial Army, were basically low-technology forces. In contrast, the third generation of PLA leadership, serving as frontline lower-level officers in the Korean War, had first-hand experience and was keenly aware of the overwhelming U.S. firepower associated with superior U.S. technology. Furthermore, many had vivid and fond memories of acquiring large number of modern Soviet MiG fighters, tanks and heavy artillery pieces at the later stages of the war. These weapons formed the technological basis of the post-Korean War PLA. Memoirs of the Korean War contain many accounts of the impact of U.S. and Soviet technology.

Technology was central to the formation of the leadership after the Korean experience as well. As grassroots unit commanding officers, for example, most current CMC members were the direct participants in the Soviet-style defense modernization of the 1950s. While PLA manpower was reduced from 6.11 million at the end of the Korean War to 2.35 million by 1956, the assimilation of Soviet technology, organizational style and military strategy took on added importance.

Chi Haotian, Zhang Wannian, Fu Quanyou and Yu Yongbo all attended advanced command schools such as the Nanjing Military College, the Beijing Advanced Military College and the PLA Political College in the late 1950s, when Soviet influence dominated the curriculum. Furthermore, some current CMC members are trained as technical experts. Xu Caihou, for example, attended and graduated from the prestigious Harbin Military Engineering Institute from 1963 to 1968. Chao Gangchuan, another CMC member and the director of the General Armament Department, attended the PLA Third Artillery Technical School from 1954 to 1956. It is particularly worthy to note that Chao spent another six years studying at the Moscow Artillery Engineering Institute in the Soviet Union (1957-1963).

While other major factors may contribute to the new PLA emphasis on nationalist agendas and technology-based force modernization, the formative experience of the rising PLA leadership is a clear guide to their thinking and their policies.

Dr. Nan Li is a professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati.