The PRC’s civilian-military relationship has always been a central concern among China watchers. Although the political leadership’s control over the military has not been challenged in the last two decades, several factors—a possibly ineffective civilian collective leadership, growing social tensions and public protests, and China’s great power aspirations amid a rapidly changing global environment—may all enhance the military’s influence and power in the years to come. The upcoming political succession in 2012 is expected to involve a large-scale turnover in both the civilian and military leadership. Based on in-depth analysis of the PRC’s 57 currently highest-ranking military officers, this essay aims to address the following important questions: Who are the most likely candidates to become the military’s top leadership at the 18th 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 new dynamics between civilian and military elites and the possible challenges that lie ahead?
No systematic analysis of the upcoming leadership transition in China is complete without an in-depth exploration of the current status and likely change of top military elites.1 Like authoritarian regimes elsewhere, China’s civilian leaders must have military support, in this case from the leadership of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), in order to reach the pinnacle of power. This, of course, does not necessarily mean that military elites in China are able to serve as “kingmakers.” Quite the contrary, in the absence of a military strongman in today’s China, no PLA leader is able to play such a role. In the post-Deng era a firm consensus has held among Chinese political elites that the military, on the whole, should preoccupy itself with the country’s national defense and leave domestic politics to civilians. The Chinese military, however, remains a very important interest group in the country. The PLA’s need to advance its own bureaucratic interests makes the Chinese military, collectively and on an individual basis, an influential powerbroker that may carry enormous weight in Chinese politics generally and especially in CCP leadership transitions.