Content from the Brookings-Tsinghua Public Policy Center is now archived. Since October 1, 2020, Brookings has maintained a limited partnership with Tsinghua University School of Public Policy and Management that is intended to facilitate jointly organized dialogues, meetings, and/or events.
China’s military leadership will likely undergo an unprecedentedly large-scale turnover at the 19th Party Congress this October, writes Cheng Li. This piece originally appeared in China-US Focus.
If many analysts prove correct in their forecasts, China’s military leadership will undergo an unprecedentedly large-scale turnover at the 19th Party Congress this October. Xi Jinping’s bold, years-long campaign against corruption has already reached high into the ranks of the military elite—purging “tigers” like Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, both former vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission (CMC)—which perhaps points to the sweeping scale of change that is underway. A number of high-ranking generals, who allegedly obtained their positions through bribery and patron-client relationships with Guo and Xu, will surely be replaced. Xi’s tenacious reform of the military structure (军改)—no less bold and consequential than his anti-corruption drive—has further set the stage for massive turnover. Waiting in the wings for promotion are a bevy of “young guards,” who are more professionally prepared for modern joint military operations than the existing senior leadership in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Even against this backdrop, analysts of Chinese elite politics were astonished by the recently released list of military delegates to the 19th Party Congress. Among the 303 names associated with the PLA and People’s Armed Police (PAP), as many as 90 percent are first-time delegates—an astoundingly high figure. Most or all of the military members on the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) new Central Committee will be selected from among these names. Among the small group of re-elected delegates, several are expected to step down during the 19th Party Congress due to age limits. Based on CCP political norms, leaders born before 1950 will not be eligible for membership on the 19th Central Committee. These soon to be retired military leaders include Vice Chairman of the CMC Fan Changlong (范长龙, born 1947); Minister of Defense Chang Wanquan (常万全, b. 1949); and three other members of the CMC, namely Zhao Keshi (赵克石, b. 1947), Wu Shengli (吴胜利, b. 1945), and Ma Xiaotian (马晓天, b. 1949).
Most significantly, it appears that only 17 percent (7 out of 41) of military leaders with full membership on the 18th Central Committee will retain their seats. In other words, about 83 percent of the military representatives who are full members of the 19th Central Committee will be new, assuming the military maintains the same quota of full members as it did for the 18th Central Committee. This would constitute the largest-ever turnover of military elite in the history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
During the decade of the Cultural Revolution, the PLA leadership experienced some wide-ranging changes. Both the purge of Liu Shaoqi in 1966 and the purge of Lin Biao in 1971 led to the replacements of their respective confidants in the PLA. Yet, in both cases, a significant number of veteran military leaders—the Long Marchers—remained in power. In 1973, Mao was vexed by the increasing influence of regional military heavyweights. At the recommendation of Deng Xiaoping, who had just reassumed his leadership position, CCP authorities reshuffled commanders and political commissars across the country. Even so, those officers maintained their memberships on the Central Committee. Thus, the upcoming military leadership change is truly unprecedented in scope. A closer look at this reshuffling not only gives insight into Xi’s political standing in the lead-up to his second term, but also reveals new developments in civilian-military relations in China and the trajectory of the country’s military modernization.
A noticeable absence in the military delegation to the 19th Party Congress
As has been widely reported on Chinese social media and in overseas newspapers, two CMC members—Fang Fenghui (房峰辉, b. 1952) and Zhang Yang (张阳, b. 1951)—will not be among the delegates to the 19th Party Congress. Both are believed to be under investigation for corruption and other transgressions. For the past five years, Fang served as chief of the CMC Joint Staff Department and Zhang as director of the CMC Political Department. Fang played a central role in China’s military operations, and Zhang supposedly led personnel promotions within the senior officer corps. Before his downfall, Fang was seen as a candidate for membership on the Politburo and a vice chairmanship on the CMC at the upcoming party congress.
Several of Fang’s and Zhang’s deputies also failed to serve as delegates, indicating that they are either approaching retirement or facing similar charges of wrongdoing. They include Deputy Chief of the Joint Staff Department Sun Jianguo (孙建国, b. 1952), who was a candidate for commander of the PLA Navy; Deputy Chief of the Joint Staff Department Wang Guanzhong (王冠中, b. 1953), who served as office director of the CMC and mishu (personal assistant) to former PRC president Yang Shangkun; Deputy Director of the Political Department Jia Ting’an (贾廷安, b. 1952), who was formerly office director of the CMC and mishu to former president Jiang Zemin; and Deputy Director of the Political Department Du Jincai (杜金才, b. 1952), who was, until recently, secretary of the Discipline Inspection Committee of the CMC.
Several high-profile generals on the 18th Central Committee who belong to the families of former senior officials—and are therefore known as “princelings”—also recently ended their military careers. They include Liu Yuan (刘源, b. 1951), son of former PRC president Liu Shaoqi; Liu Yazhou (刘亚洲, b. 1952), son-in-law of former PRC president Li Xiannian; Liu Xiaojiang (刘晓江, b. 1949), son-in-law of former CCP general secretary Hu Yaobang; and Zhang Haiyang (张海阳, b. 1949), son of former CMC vice chairman Zhang Zhen. Interestingly, these individuals share similar family backgrounds and formative experiences with Xi Jinping.
A notably ambitious politician himself, Liu Yuan played arguably the most critical role of anyone in the PLA in helping Xi Jinping to oust Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, then the “most powerful tigers” in the Chinese military. But Liu has long been a controversial figure in the Chinese army. The PLA establishment has never held much respect for him, largely because of his thin résumé as a professional soldier. Liu joined the PAP in 1992 at the age of 41, and was transferred to the PLA as deputy political commissar of the General Logistics Department in 2003, 11 years later. Liu’s pivotal role in the anti-corruption campaign earned him numerous enemies in the PLA leadership, making him a major liability for Xi. In retrospect, it was perhaps a wise decision for Xi to let Liu take an early retirement in 2016. At the time, it appeared as though Xi’s effort to promote Liu had failed due to strong opposition in the military establishment. But one could also argue that Xi simply lacked any incentive to promote Liu.
Not all of Xi’s protégés in the military have obtained positions as delegates. Pan Liangshi (潘良时, b. 1956), an alternate member of the 18th Central Committee, had been considered a rising star in the PLA. He was appointed by Xi in 2013 to serve as commander of the Beijing Garrison, and then promoted to deputy commander of the Army in 2016. But Pan is not among the delegates. Wang Jian (王健, b. 1954), an alternate member of the 18th Central Committee, is a former deputy political commissar of the Beijing Military District. He advanced his career as political commissar of the 31st Group Army, which some Chinese analysts refer to as Xi’s “royal army” (近卫军). Wang also served as deputy commander of the military parade celebrating the seventieth anniversary of victory in the War of Resistance Against Japan. He retired from the military in 2016. It is not entirely clear why these two protégés retired early. Perhaps Xi intended to show his adherence to certain rules and regulations when it comes to personnel appointments in the PLA.
Probably the most intriguing case of marginalization relates to Cai Yingting (蔡英挺, b. 1954). Cai’s close association with Xi began in Fujian, where both worked early in their careers. According to some analysts, Cai was the first military officer that Xi promoted after becoming chairman of the CMC in 2012. Prior to the structural reform of the military, Cai, a full member of the 18th Central Committee, was considered a leading candidate for chief of the Joint Staff Department and member or even vice chairman of the next CMC. But in December 2015, Cai was suddenly transferred from his position as commander of the Nanjing Military Region to a less-important role as president of the PLA Academy of Military Science. In January 2017, he stepped down from that position. A rumor circulating in the military establishment is that Cai’s daughter married an American and, thus, CCP regulations prohibited him from being considered for a top military post.
The new military leadership line-up
What will the new top military leadership formed at the 19th Party Congress look like? And what characteristics do those 83 percent of new delegates to the 19th Central Committee have in common?
The seven military leaders that are likely to return as full members on the Central Committee are CMC Vice Chairman Xu Qiliang (许其亮, b. 1950), CMC Member and Director of the CMC Armament Department Zhang Youxia (张又侠, b. 1950), CMC Member and Commander of the Rocket Force Wei Fenghe (魏凤和, b. 1954), Commander of the Eastern Theater Command Liu Yuejun (刘粤军, b. 1954), Political Commissar of the Eastern Theater Command Zheng Weiping (郑卫平, b. 1955), Commander of the Western Theater Command Zhao Zongqi (赵宗岐, b. 1955), and Political Commissar of the Southern Theater Command Wei Liang (魏亮, b. 1953). Xu Qiliang is also expected to remain a CMC vice chairman and Politburo member. Xi and Xu formed a close working relationship in Fujian in 1991, when Xi was party secretary of Fuzhou city and Xu served as commander (军长) of the Air Force stationed in that province. Xi and Zhang Youxia have strong family ties: their fathers, Xu Zhongxun and Zhang Zongxun, were both natives of Shaanxi and were “bloody fighting comrades” during the Communist Revolution. Xi Jinping and Zhang Youxia inherited their fathers’ friendship. They both were born in Beijing and grew up around the officers’ “big yards” (干部大院). Zhang Youxia is a leading candidate for a CMC vice chairmanship and another Politburo seat representing the PLA.
According to unverified sources, the CMC formed at the 19th Party Congress may have four vice chairmen instead of its current two, and it may forego positions at the “member” level. Current CMC member Wei Fenghe will be a strong candidate for a vice chairmanship. The other two candidates are Li Zuocheng (李作成, b. 1953) and Miao Hua (苗华, b. 1955), who replaced Fang Fenghui and Zhang Yang as chief of the Joint Staff Department and director of the Political Department, respectively. Li has long been a highly respected officer. In 1979, he served in the Chinese-Vietnamese War, and the CMC dubbed him a war hero. At the 12th Party Congress in 1982, he served on the presidium (主席团). Only 29 years old at the time, Li was the presidium’s youngest PLA representative and was considered a rising star in the officer corps. However, Li’s career stagnated throughout most of the 1990s, after he offended then-chairman of the CMC Jiang Zemin. It was Xi who appointed Li to serve as commander of the PLA Army in 2015 and chief of the CMC Joint Staff Department in 2017. Xi has also fast-tracked the promotion of Miao Hua, who served as director of the Political Department of the 31st Group Army in the early 1990s. In just the past three years, Miao has received three promotions: from political commissar of the Lanzhou Military Region, to political commissar of the Navy, and now director of the CMC Political Department.
In addition to promoting Li Zuocheng and Miao Hua to these two critically important leadership posts in the CMC, in 2017, Xi also appointed Han Weiguo (韩卫国, b. 1956), Shen Jinlong (沈金龙, b. 1956) and Ding Laihang (丁来杭, b. 1957) to be commanders of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, respectively. None of these five newly promoted military leaders currently serve as full or alternate members of the 18th Central Committee. Thus, they are known in Chinese as 双非将军 (“double-not generals”). All of them received two-step “jump promotions” to reach their current positions. Shen and Ding still hold the military rank of vice admiral/lieutenant general rather than admiral/general, as would usually be the case. These high-ranking officers who were born in the late 1950s—Han, Shen, Ding, along with Commander of the Strategic Support Force Gao Jin (高津, b. 1959) and Commander of the PAP Wang Ning (王宁, b. 1955), both of whom serve as alternate members of the 18th Central Committee—now form the PLA’s key officer corps, second only to the CMC vice chairs. They are Xi’s most trusted “young guards” in the military.
In addition to their strong personal ties with—and political loyalty to—CMC Chairman Xi Jinping, these newly promoted military leaders share three distinct characteristics. First, most joined the PLA at a very young age: Miao Hua and Han Weiguo at the age of 14, Wang Ning at the age of 15, Xu Qiliang at the age of 16, and Li Zuocheng at the age of 17. Second, while they received fast-track promotions in recent years under Xi Jinping, most spent the early portion of their military careers advancing step by step through the military hierarchy. Zhang Youxia and Li Zuocheng gained experience in combat, and Xu Qiliang and Ding Laihang were trained as pilots. Third, most of them are well acquainted with new trends in modern warfare and the movement toward joint operations. Several served as presidents of military academies. For example, Sun Jinlong served as president of both the Dalian Naval Academy and the PLA Naval Command College. Ding Laihang served as president of the Air Force Command College. Gao Jin was once the youngest-ever president of the PLA Academy of Military Science.
These shared characteristics of the PLA’s top officer corps seem to align with Xi’s pronounced goal of transforming China’s military operations from a Soviet-style, army-centric system toward what analysts call a “Western-style joint command.” As CMC chairman, Xi appears to be firmly in control of the PLA, reflecting the successful reassertion of civilian command over the military under his leadership. Not only have the structure and staffing of China’s military changed in dramatic ways throughout Xi’s first term, but significant strides have also been made in promoting professionalism. These trends are poised to continue through and beyond the 19th Party Congress this fall.
China has a strategic dilemma. They’re frustrated by the status quo, and they’re probing for ways to change it. But taking big, bold actions would come at an extraordinary cost to them. You can’t eliminate the possibility that they would be willing to pay that cost, and so we have to be prepared for it. But if you accept the proposition that war is inevitable, and we must do everything we possibly can to prepare for it now, then you risk precipitating the very outcome that your strategy is designed to prevent.
Both leaders held their ground on key issues without offering concessions in either direction. Even so, Biden and Xi clearly set a tone for their respective governments that tensions must be managed and that neither side seeks unbridled confrontation with the other.