The New Line-Up in China’s Defense Forces
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Issue Vol. 32.4 Oct-Dec 2017 | Date : 07 Jan , 2018

Xi Jinping the Winner

At the end of the 19th Congress, Xi Jinping appears to emerge the winner on most fronts. First and foremost, the 19th Congress approved an amendment to the Party Constitution enshrining ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’.

Though the new Central Committee and Central Commission for Discipline Inspection are more or less along the expected lines, the Politburo and the Standing Committee brought some surprises. However, over the decades, the opacity of the Party proceedings has not changed.

A noticeable absence was Chen Miner, the Party Secretary of Chongqing, who in many quarters, was expected to be anointed ‘heir apparent’. Apparently Xi did not want a ‘successor’ as yet.

Party’s ‘absolute’ leadership over the Army

The Congress approved Xi Jinping’s military thinking, especially the Party’s ‘absolute’ leadership over the armed forces.

In his three and half hour speech, the Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) defined the objectives of the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA): “Building people’s forces that obey the Party’s command, can fight and win, and maintain excellent conduct is strategically important to achieving the two centenary goals1 and national rejuvenation. To realize the Party’s goal of building a powerful military in the new era, we must fully implement the fundamental principles and systems of Party leadership over the military, and see that Party strategy on strengthening military capabilities for the new era guides work to build national defense and the armed forces. We must continue to enhance the political loyalty of the armed forces, strengthen them through reform and technology, and run them in accordance with law. We must place greater focus on combat, encourage innovation, build systems, increase efficacy and efficiency, and further military-civilian integration.”

During the first tenure of Xi Jinping, political loyalty and combat preparedness have been regularly highlighted.

The theoretical foundation for the next five years was laid.

An entire section of Chairman Xi’ speech is devoted to defense.

Xi explained to the 2300 delegates to the 19th Congress: “Confronted with profound changes in our national security environment and responding to the demands of the day for a strong country with a strong military, we must fully implement the Party’s thinking on strengthening the military for the new era and the military strategy for new conditions, build a powerful and modernized army, navy, air force, rocket force, and strategic support force, develop strong and efficient joint operations commanding institutions for Theatre commands, and create a modern combat system with distinctive Chinese characteristics. Our armed forces must be up to shouldering the missions and tasks of the new era entrusted to them by the Party and the people.”

He set up target dates: “by the year 2020, mechanization is basically achieved, IT application has come a long way, and strategic capabilities have seen a big improvement. …we will modernize our military across the board in terms of theory, organizational structure, service personnel, and weaponry.”

He continued: “We will make it our mission to see that by 2035, the modernization of our national defense and our forces is basically completed; and that by the mid-21st century our people’s armed forces have been fully transformed into world-class forces.”

He concluded: “A military is built to fight. Our military must regard combat capability as the criterion to meet in all its work and focus on how to win when it is called on. …Comrades, our military is the people’s military, and our national defense is the responsibility of every one of us. …Let us work together to create a mighty force for realizing the Chinese Dream and the dream of building a powerful military.”

Some observers have read aggressiveness in the fact that the PLA is requested to ‘win wars’; but no military is trained to rest or lose wars. The point is that Xi wants the PLA to be ready for any eventuality, which it was not a few years ago; the main reason for this being the deep-seated corruption and lack of operational jointness between the different services.

The Great Purge: when Tigers fell

Chairman Xi often mentioned that in his fight against corruption, he would always go after the ‘tigers and the flies’. Generals Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, both former CMC’s vice chairmen were the bigger tigers to fall during his first tenure.

Cheng Li, an analyst working for the US think-tank Brookings Institution wrote: “A number of high-ranking Gens, 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 — 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 PLA.”

The turn-over was indeed massive; in the list of the new delegates to the 19th Congress, out of 303 delegates belonging to the PLA and the People’s Armed Police (PAP), some 90% were first-time nominations. The members of the all-powerful Central Committee were to be chosen out of the Congress delegates.

With leaders born before 1950 being uneligible for membership for the CMC, senior leaders like Gen Fan Changlong, CMC’s Senior Vice Chairman, Chang Wanquan, Defense Minister as well as Gen Zhao Keshi, Adm Wu Shengli and former Air Force Chief Ma Xiaotian were sent to a retired life.

Cheng Li wrote: “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).”

One of the reasons is corruption.

Two more tigers fell: early change of guard

Two tigers fell just before the Congress.

Gen Fang Fenghui, former head of the CMC’s Joint Staff Department, and Gen Zhang Yang, former director of the CMC’s Political Work Department, were not listed as delegates to the Congress.

Reuters reported that the 66-year-old Fang, who accompanied Xi to his first meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in April, was being questioned on suspicion of corruption.

Gen Zhang Yang’s fate seems to have been similar: “The personnel changes herald a clean sweep of the top-ranking Gens heading up the department. All three of Zhang’s deputies – Jia Tingan, Du Hengyan and Wu Changde – were also missing from the list of congress delegates,” noted Reuters.

In late August, the Ministry of National Defence revealed that Gen Li Zuocheng, a decorated veteran of the Sino-Vietnamese war, had replaced Fang as chief of the Joint Staff Department. Then, on September 8, the PLA Daily carried a report referring to Admiral Miao Hua, formerly the PLA Navy’s political commissar, as head of the Political Work Department from Gen Zhang Yang. A new generation was taking over.

Several other changes

A few weeks before the Congress, several other major changes were announced; relatively junior officers were promoted to vital posts.

In January already, Vice Adm Shen Jinlong had replaced Adm Wu Shengli as PLA Navy commander.

Surprisingly, Vice Admiral Yuan Yubai, the former commander of the North Sea Fleet, became the commanding officer of the Southern Theatre Command, responsible for the South China Sea. A Naval officer commanding a Theatre Command was a first.

In August, Gen Li Zuocheng who had been promoted full general by Xi in 2015, replaced Fang Fenghui as chief of the PLA’s Joint Staff Department (since then Gen Li has been promoted to the CMC); while Gen Ding Laihang took the seat of Gen Ma Xiaotian as commander of the PLA Air Force.

Lt Gen Ding Laihang graduated from the PLA’s Air Force Command College. He became president of the college in 2007 and a year later took over as air force chief of staff of the then Chengdu Military Command.

In September, Adm Miao Hua who had got his third star (full admiral) at the same time than Gen Li Zuocheng, took over from Gen Zhang Yang as head of the Political Work Department of the PLA (later Miao was promoted as a member of the CMC).

Radical changes were taking place in the defense staff, as the Congress was preparing to meet.

Another important appointment, Gen Han Weiguo who had been nominated commander of the PLA’s Central Theatre Command in February 2016 and commanded the military parade on July 30, 2017 at Zhurihe Training Base in the Inner Mongolia to mark the 90th anniversary of the PLA, was promoted Commander of the PLA Ground Force, replacing Gen Li Zuocheng, now responsible for the Joint Staff Department.

More promotions

Other senior PLA officers received a promotion ahead of the Congress. Gen Song Puxuan, the former commander of the Northern Theatre Command, was nominated as the new head of the CMC Logistical Support Department. However Gen Song, one of the rising stars in the PLA did not make it to the list of the Central Committee’s members. In 2014, Song had been promoted to the rank of full general, taking charge of the Northern Theatre Command, overseeing the defense of the capital and China’s border with North Korea. His failure to make it to the Central Committee is still unexplained. Why this discrepancy? No explanation is available.

In another significant change, an officer from China’s space program was promoted to head the country’s Military Equipment Development Department; Lt Gen Li Shangfu took over the role from Gen Zhang Youxia, himself promoted as Vice-Chairman of the CMC.

Many commentators noted that “the personnel change is part of Xi’s goal to surround himself with his own men.”

On September 22, another promotion worth noting, Lt Gen Li Qiaoming took over the Northern Theatre Command, one of the five Theatre Commands. It was reported that Gen Li Qiaoming visited troops stationed in Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning provinces – near the North Korean border. It is how one usually knows that a new officer has taken over in China.

He was accompanied by Gen Xu Qiliang, vice-chairman of CMC.

The Northern Theatre Command also covers the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and Shandong. The five areas are of strategic importance since they share borders with North Korea and Russia.

Li had just become a lieutenant general in July. Such a double promotion was rare till recently.

Lt Gen Yi Xiaoguang, an officer from PLA Air Force, was appointed to take over the Central Command. Yi is the second non-Ground Force officer to the take over a Theatre Command. Since July 2014, he had been serving as Deputy Chief of the Joint Staff; earlier he had commanded the Nanjing Military Region Air Force and served as President of the Air Force Command Academy.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam pointed out in China Brief of The Jamestown Foundation that the elevation of Han Weiguo as Commander of the Ground Forces, the appointment of Miao Hua as Director of the Political Work Department, and the promotion of Ding Laihang as Air Force Commander are signs of Xi’s complete control over the appointments: “All three had worked in Fujian, where Xi served in various positions, including provincial governor, from 1985 to 2002.”

Is Xi all-powerful?

Contrary to what many have written, Xi might not be all-powerful; he still has to deal with party norms and traditions: “He is careful not to break the age rule and to follow the order of seniority. These political norms are critical for the 89-million member Communist Party to have consensus at the top and maintain stability,” wrote The South China Morning Post which also noted: “Xi is also not blindly following the established path.”

A sign that Xi may not have full control, is the reduced size of the CMC which has only 7 members (apart from the two Vice Chairmen: Xu Qiliang, Zhang Youxia, others are Wei Fenghe, Li Zuocheng, Miao Hua, Zhang Shengmin) compared to 11 during the previous Congress.

Two members of the CMC made it to the Politburo: Air Force Gen Xu Qiliang, presently CMC Vice-Chairman and Gen Zhang Youxia.

Both Xi Jinping and Zhang are from the northwestern province of Shaanxi and are children of former senior officials who fought together in the 1950s, the fathers of Xi and Zhang – Xi Zhongxun and Zhang Zongxun – were close friends. According to Reuters: “The two fathers fought together in the civil war that ended in 1949 with the Communist victory and proclamation of the People’s Republic of China. Both men rose to senior positions in the government and military. “

Another view is that it is easier to agree with 7 members than 11.

Xi calls on the new PLA leadership

The day after the announcement of the new CMC, Xi met the PLA delegation and urged them to “follow the road maps set for it at the Congress.”

Strangely, there was no photo with the new CMC.

Xi urged the new PLA leadership “to improve its capabilities and strive to become one of the world’s greatest armies by 2050.”

Xi urged them to address interim goals such as building a modernised army by 2035. The more pressing tasks for the PLA, he noted were “a major upgrade of capabilities, information technology and achieving the goal of military mechanisation by 2020.”

The process has started.

Promotion of Gen Zhang Shengmin

Nearly two weeks after the end of the Congress, Gen Zhang Shengmin, the new CMC member was promoted to the rank of full general.

This explains why no official photo of the newly appointed CMC appeared earlier; The China Daily reported: “This made Zhang the last uniformed member in the CMC, to become a [full] general.”

The early career of Zhang, the new boss of the CMC Discipline Inspection Commission (CDI) has remained undisclosed. He would have spent more than 10 years in the PLA Rocket Force. At the end of 2016, Zhang was nominated political commissar of the CMC Logistic Support Department before being head of the CMC Discipline Inspection Commission around this February. His nomination as a member of the CMC however shows the importance for Xi to fight against corruption will continue unabated.

Visit to the CMC Joint Command Headquarters

The next day, dressed in combat fatigues, Xi Jinping and his six collages, visited the Joint Command Headquarters in Beijing. He urged the PLA to “concentrate all of its attention on honing combat capabilities to make sure it can win wars.” He said that “China is at a crucial stage in its path toward being a world power and is facing a bright future as well as many challenges. Military capabilities are of strategic importance in safeguarding national security.” Xi added: “My visit this time is to show the Central Military Commission’s distinct orientation of combat readiness. …The troops must strengthen the sense of crisis and war, and spare no efforts to improve combat readiness.”

He also addressed troops stationed in Djibouti facility; he asked them to “promote peace and stability” and help establishing “a good image for China’s military and promote international and regional peace and stability”, a ministry release said.

The soldiers responded that they would not let Xi and China down.

The South China Morning Post remarked: “Djibouti’s position on the northwestern edge of the Indian Ocean has fuelled worry in India that it would become another of China’s ‘string of pearls’ military alliances and assets ringing India, including Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.”

This is an issue for India to watch.

What does it mean for India

All this means that China’s defense forces will be far more professional in the years to come and far better prepared in case of a conflict.

The PLA will be a trimmer, younger and more dynamic force, more difficult to deal with. It may take between five to ten years.

In the meantime, India needs to undertake radical reforms, particularly in the fields of jointness and new types of warfare.


1. The two centenary goals are to finish building a moderately prosperous society in all respects by the time the Communist Party of China marks its centenary and to build China into a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, and harmonious.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Claude Arpi

Writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. He is the author of 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga, Tibet: The Lost Frontier and Dharamshala and Beijing: the negotiations that never were.

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