The Leadership of the PLAAF after 2012

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 10

PLAAF Commander Xu Qiliang

The major change in leadership at the 18th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress in 2012 will be Vice-President Xi Jinping replacing President Hu Jintao as the Party secretary-general, and eventually as chairman of the all powerful Central Military Commission (CMC) [1]. This transition period will also be highlighted by a significant turnover in the composition of the CMC leadership. The majority of the ten-member CMC panel will retire—except for General Chang Wanquan, director of the General Armament Department (GAD), Admiral Wu Shengli, commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAAN), and General Xu Qiliang, commander of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). From this group, two members will be promoted to the positions of CMC vice-chair [2]. If General Xu is selected, his ascendance will represent the first time in the PLA’s history that an air force general serves as a CMC vice-chair. This will also lead to changes in the PLAAF’s leadership. When and if this happens, it will be a milestone in the PLAAF’s evolving influence within the PLA and in national policymaking.

A “Fifth Generation” Military Leader

Since its creation in 1949, the PLAAF has had ten commanders. Major General Ma Ning (1973-1977) was the first pilot commander with more than 1,000 flying hours in the Tu-2 bomber before 1985 [3]. Since then, all PLAAF commanders have been pilots, Xu is the first aviator who was born and grew up under the flag of the PRC (born after October 1949). As a “fifth generation” cadre, Xu is Xi Jinping’s contemporary. Born in 1950, Xu is the youngest member of the CMC, and also the first air force leader with a pilot background to serve as a deputy chief of the PLA General Staff Headquarters (2004-2007) with joint experience. After three years at the General Staff, Xu became one of four deputy chiefs at the General Staff in charge of military training and education of the entire PLA [4]. His joint experience culminated in the command of the PLA joint force in “Peace Mission 2007” (Chelyabinsk, Russia) exercise with various member countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Xu became the PLAAF commander shortly after he returned from Russia, and could continue to serve as commander until at least the 19th Party Congress in 2017.

General Xu as a New CMC Vice-chair?

The age of senior members has been an observable and nonnegotiable criterion for whether members will continue to stay in or retire from the CMC and the commander positions of each service. The mandatory retirement age for a CMC member is 70 [5]. Those who are able to retain their membership at the new Party Congress will be subject to the age-based principle whether they are at the age of 67 or younger. During the change of the CMC leadership in 2002, General Xu Caihou was first selected as a member of the CMC in charge of the GPD and rose to vice-chair of the CMC in 2004 when General Cao Gangchuan reached the retirement age [6]. Even though there is a possibility that General Xu will not become vice-chair of the CMC in 2012, he could gain that position in 2015 when Admiral Wu reaches the age of 70.

New PLAAF Leadership

In addition to General Xu’s possible promotion, the current political commissar of the PLAAF, General Deng Changyou, will have to retire at age 65 in 2012. The question then becomes: who will make up the new leadership of the PLAAF? Since 2004, all service chiefs (including the second artillery) have gained a seat in the powerful CMC, concurrently with an air force general and a navy admiral appointed as a deputy chief of the General Staff. This arrangement reflects increasing joint-ness in the make-up of the PLA’s leadership at the national level than what it was in the past. Also, generals with blue (PLAAF) and white (PLAN) uniforms serving as a deputy chief of the General Staff would possibly be designated as the future chief of the air force and navy.

Currently, Air Force General Ma Xiaotian serves as the deputy chief of the General Staff. He joined the PLAAF in 1965 at age 16 as a pilot cadet, and then moved up his officer career from a flight leader in 1972 to vice commander of the PLAAF in 2003. In 2006, he became the first air force officer appointed as commandant of the PLA National Defense University (NDU), and a year later replaced General Xu as the deputy chief of the General Staff in charge of the PLA’s intelligence and foreign affairs [7]. If he becomes the commander of the PLAAF and a member of the CMC in 2012, Ma could continue to serve in that position until 2017 and possible beyond.

General Deng Changyou’s replacement as political commissar will most likely be Lt General Liu Yazhou, who is currently political commissar of the PLA NDU [8]. He was one of the PLAAF deputy political commissars from 2003 until he was appointed to the current position in 2009. As one of the few PLA generals who have had Western experience, Liu spent one and half years at Stanford University as a visiting scholar in 1986 and 1987. He has written extensively about PLAAF strategy, having been recognized by many Chinese analysts as the “Douhet of China” because of “his reputation as a daring forward thinker of air power theory” against the PLAAF’s traditional mindset [9].

The prospect of General Ma and Lt General Liu becoming the new air force leadership, concurrently with General Xu as a CMC vice-chair, will have a significant influence on the PLAAF’s role in the PLA, especially its bargaining position in negotiating budgetary allocations, force restructuring, senior personnel appointment, and weapon acquisition.

The PLA has traditionally been dominated by the “land army” and, to a large extent, it still is. The four general departments—the GSD, GPD, GLD, and GAD—serve concurrently as the PLA’s joint staff and as the headquarters for all services: ground force, navy, air force and second artillery force, which are still staffed primarily by army officers. Since there are no general headquarters for ground forces, the GSD is essentially assigned to perform the functions of ground force headquarters. The structural bias in favor of the army has been inevitable in all military aspects from force size, structure, and command and control to logistics, equipment, R&D and procurement [10].

Remaining an Army-centric Military

Since 2000, an increasing number of personnel from other services have steadily been assigned to “joint” positions at headquarters department levels as well as at military region headquarters levels [11]. This change enables the expertise and knowledge of other services to be brought to high operational apparatuses. While wearing the uniform of their own services, they are no longer in the personnel system of their own services. This separation keeps their representation of parochial interests in these headquarters departments at a minimal level.

Beginning in 2002, researchers from the PLAAF Command College in Beijing published several articles in the February issue of the Air Force Military Journal, arguing that the army dominance in the PLA has been the obstacle for its joint-ness [12]. Currently, the PLAAF enjoys the benefits of a favorable military spending policy. Yet, Air Force officers often complain that as long as the GLD continues to control military finance, an unsatisfactory funding for the air force is expected [13].

Striving for an Independent Air Force

As early as 2000, Lt General Liu Yazhou proposed that Chinese military authorities consider reorganizing the PLAAF into functional air commands by separating the air force from the PLA military region (MR) system to become a true independent service. Ostensibly to make the PLAAF a more offensively oriented air force, he further recommended the use of the U.S. Air Force’s “expeditionary force” model to organize air force units into air strike groups with a mix of fighters, bombers, and early warning aircraft [14]. His advocacy for eliminating the ground force dominated military system, however, has received little support from the PLA military establishment.

This situation could change under a new PLAAF leadership in the CMC. During his ten years (1987-1997) as vice-chair of the CMC, Navy Admiral Liu Huaqing never stopped pushing forward what he had advocated for the PLA Navy to be a force capable of operating in near seas when he served as its commander (1982-1987) [15]. The PLAAF did not adopt a service-specific aerospace strategy known as “integrated air and space operations, being prepared for simultaneous offensive and defensive operations” until 2004. It remains in a disadvantageous position to achieve this strategic objective. Unlike the U.S. Air Force, the PLAAF does not control space assets, which are controlled by the GSD and GAD. The PLAAF has been contending that it should be in control of space operations, based on the assertion that air and space are a single integrated medium [16]. It has not been successful in winning the argument. The outcome of this bureaucratic infighting is difficult to predict, but the promotion of an air force general to vice-chair of the CMC and the adding of another PLAAF’s memberships in the CMC will create a favorable environment for the air force.


The PRC adopted a three-step strategy for the PLA’s modernization in China’s 2008 defense white paper, laying the foundation for the development of the PLA into a more high-tech, network-centric, balanced and joint force by 2010, allowing it to accomplish mechanization and make major progress in informatization by 2020 [17]. The current and forthcoming leadership of the PLAAF has played and will continue to play a key role in guaranteeing the success of this three-step strategy to make the PLAAF a strategic air force with long-range capabilities and the active involvement of "integrated air and space operations" (kongtian yiti) with “fire and information systems” (xinxi huoli yiti). The increasing of PLAAF’s membership in the CMC would ensure its influence over policymaking, funding priorities, and procurement of weapon systems and equipment in the years ahead.


1.    It is not for certain yet if Hu will give up his seat as chairman of the CMC at 2012.
2.    In 2002, the 16th CCP Congress retired all members over the age of 70 with retention of three officers—General Cao Gangchuan (67), Guo Boxiong (59), and Xu Caihou (59), of whom Cao and Guo rose to CMC Vice-Chair. James C. Mulvenon, “Party-Army Relations since the 16th Party Congress the Battle of the ‘Two Centers’?” in Civil-Military change in china: Elites, Institutes, and Ideas after the 16th Party Congress,” edited by Andrew Scobell and Larry Wortzel, (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, 2004), 17
3.    Western literature generally claims that Wang Hai was the first pilot to serve as the commander of the PLAAF in 1985. See Kenneth W. Allen, “The PLA Air Force: 1949-2002 Overview and Lessons Learned,” in The Lessons of History: The Chinese People’s Liberation Army at 75, edited by Laurie Burkitt, Andrew Scobell, and Larry M. Wortzel, (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, 2003), 92. For Ma Ning’s biography, see
4.    Since 2004, the Deputy Chiefs of the General Staff have been divided in charge of operations, administration, training, and intelligence.
5.    While whether mandatory retirement ages for CMC members and heads of four general departments remain debatable, since the 16th Party Congress in 2002 CMC members appear required to retire at age 70. At the time, if the member has not reached 70, the rule will be that he will continue to be the member at age 67, but must retire at age 68 and older. See “Predicting PLA Leader Promotions,” in Civil-Military change in china: Elites, Institutes, and Ideas after the 16th Party Congress,” edited by Andrew Scobell and Larry Wortzel, 261.
6.    C. Mulvenon, “Party-Army Relations since the 16th Party Congress,” 17.
7.    “Brief Biography of Ma Xiaotian,”
8.    Another speculation is that Liu will become one of deputy directors of the General Political Department. Fang Jianguo, political commissar of the Langzhou Military Region Air Force, will rise to commissar of the PLAAF.
9.    Guocheng Jiang, “Building an Offensive and Decisive PLAAF A Critical Review of Lt Gen Liu Yazhou’s The Centenary of the Air Force,” Air & Space Power Journal, Vol. 24, No.2 (Summer 2010), 85.
10.    For example, the air force and navy have long experienced the technological generation gap, but it is not the case for the army, which has been close to the top level of the world except for army aviation.
11.    Kevin M. Lanzit and Kenneth Allen, “Right-Sizing the PLA Air Force: New Operational Concepts Define a Smaller, More Capable Force,” in Right Sizing the People’s Liberation Army: Exploring the Contours of China’s Military, edited by Roy Kamphausen and Andrew Scobell, (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2007), 461.
12.    Dong Wenxian, Xiandai kongjun lun (xupian)[On the Modern Air Force (continuation)] (Beijing: Lantian Press, 2005), 260-83.
13.    Ren Lijun, Wang Deshun, and Wang Yehong, “Identify the Major Strategic Direction, Strengthen Air Force Finance Development,” Junshi jinji yanjiu [Military Economic Study], No. 7 (2008): 52–53.
14.    Liu Yazhou, “Essences for an Offensive and Defensive Chinese Air Force,” in Liu Yazhou zhanlue wenji [A Collection of Liu Yzhou’s Papers on Strategy] (n. p.: n. p., n. d.), 394-97.
15.     See Liu Huaqing, Liu Huaqing Memoirs, (Beijing: PLA Press, 2004).
16.     Dong Wenxian, Xiandai kongjun lun, 327-28, 373, 389.
17.    “China’s National Defense Paper in 2008,”