China’s New Military Elite

Introduction: Beginning of a New Era

Analyses of the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have largely focused on the policy and personnel changes taken at the leadership conference.1 Much less has been said about the implications of the massive turnover among the military representatives who sit on the Party’s 17th Central Committee (CC), including its powerful Central Military Commission (CMC). While generational turnover is leading to a new Chinese political leadership that is less technocratic and more broadly trained in economic and legal fields, the Chinese military elites on the Party’s top bodies are becoming ever more functionally-specialized in their areas of military expertise. Meanwhile, various forms of patron-client ties and political networks have played crucial roles in the rapid rise of young and technocratic officers.

These new, and sometimes contrasting, developments are important as one seeks to assess the future of civil-military relations in China and the challenges that the CCP will face in managing its military modernization efforts. What factors contributed to the large turnover among the military leadership at the Party Congress? What are the group characteristics of these rising stars in the Chinese military? What can an analysis of the professional backgrounds and political networks of China’s top officers reveal about the dynamics between civilian and military elites? What does an analysis of who’s up and who’s down tell us about where China’s military modernization efforts are heading? At this time, only preliminary answers to these questions can be sketched out by examining the characteristics of the 65 full and alternate members of the 17th CC who represent the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The Chinese military is in the midst of a major transformation in order to prepare for what the top leaders call the “new era of information warfare.” The most remarkable reflection of this transformation, which will very likely accelerate under the new civilian and military leadership in the coming years, is the trend towards ever-greater technocratic leadership among the PLA. China’s military elites in the post-17th Party Congress environment are among the besteducated and most well-trained specialists ever to lead Chinese forces. A careful analysis of the profiles of the new Chinese military leadership can give insight into how China envisions transforming the forces of today to prevent, or if necessary ,fight the wars of tomorrow and what advantages and shortcomings China’s top officers may embody.

The study of Chinese military elites represents an essential starting point for any assessment of civil-military relations in China. As today’s Chinese civilian leadership has increasingly focused its attention on issues of economic development and socio-political stability, little headway has been made in the task of building up civilian competency in military affairs. In theory, the CMC reports to the Politburo and its Standing Committee. Since 1992, only Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao have served on the CMC, and they have held the posts of chairman and first vice-chairman of the body largely to symbolize the Party’s control over the gun. Paradoxically, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin both sought to avoid turning over the CMC chairmanship to a relatively untested successor by holding on to the seat even after they had stepped down from their political posts. As a result of the transition strategies adopted by previous Chinese top leaders, the CMC itself has grown in importance, though without any increase in participation from civilian leaders other than the top Party leader. Sometime in the future, this could conceivably lead to practical challenges in exerting civilian control over the military, a long-standing goal of the CCP. This would especially be the case if the next generation of Chinese political elites come to be perceived as too ignorant about modern warfare to effectively manage the PLA.