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Chapter Three

China's New High Command


David Shambaugh


The 16th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ushered in a new "high command" in the People's Liberation Army (PLA). A significant turnover of personnel occurred before, at, and after the Congress. This included retiring six and adding three new members of the CCP Central Military Commission (CMC); replacing the directors of the four general departments (General Staff, Logistics, Political, and Armaments), as well as many deputy directors in these departments; and appointing new commandants of the Academy of Military Sciences (AMS) and National Defense University (NDU). Over the year prior to the Congress, a wholesale rotation of commanders, deputy commanders, and political commissars of China's seven military regions also took place. While Jiang Zemin remained as chairman of the CMC at the Congress and Hu Jintao stayed on as vice chair, there was much more change than continuity in the military leadership as a result of the Congress. All other CMC members over the age of 70 retired.

Taken together, these personnel changes constitute the most thorough shakeup and turnover of leading PLA officers ever. Even in the aftermath of the purges of the Yang brothers (1992) or the Lin Biao clique (1971), such an extensive turnover did not occur. The fact that such a thorough vetting could occur absent a purge or crisis is testimony to how regularized and professional personnel procedures have become in the PLA. Unlike in the party, where the top posts were filled as a result of considerable nepotism and after lengthy political jockeying, high-level changes in the military were the result of standardized procedures, meritocratic criteria, a well-defined candidate pool, and relative transparency. To be sure, those who would occupy the top jobs were not publicly known until they were appointed--but the candidate pool from which they were drawn was well defined and well known. That is, the new CMC vice chairmen were chosen from the previous members under the age of 70, the new CMC members were drawn from the ranks of military region (MR) commanders (in two cases) and existing deputy directors of the general departments, and some interesting patterns of promotion occurred at the MR level. No dark horses, or "helicopters," were propelled from obscurity to the top ranks.

More importantly, as is described below, the prior career paths of the new military leadership reveal a number of commonalities that illustrate how regularized and institutionalized the tracks of upward mobility in the armed forces have become. Unlike the party, where one can reach the top through a variety of paths (although provincial service seems to be increasingly de rigueur), upward mobility in the military is progressively becoming more defined, predictable, and professional. This is not to say that personal ties and loyalties no longer operate at the top of the PLA--they do, as is evidenced by those promoted officers (Guo Boxiong, Liang Guanglie, and Liao Xilong) with ties to retiring generals Zhang Wannian and Fu Quanyou. But we should not assume that these officers were promoted because of their career ties to the retiring elders--rather, their career paths intersected with Generals Zhang and Fu, although they had established their own credentials for promotion.

Let us consider the collective backgrounds of the CMC members as a means to identify a typology of the new PLA high command. Some interesting patterns emerge that confirm the increasingly professional nature of the military leadership. Unfortunately, there is not yet enough biographical data available on the new crop of MR commanders or general department deputy directors to provide a sufficient profile of the new PLA leadership at these levels--although it is possible to track the channels of promotion.

Characteristics of the New High Command

The military leadership in China is comprised essentially of three levels: the CMC and associated organs; the four general departments; and the MR commands. Let us examine each in turn.

The New Central Military Commission

The new CMC is somewhat smaller than the outgoing CMC, with only eight total members.

None of the CMC members (other than Hu Jintao) attained a position on the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), although Guo Boxiong and Cao Gangchuan became members of the Politburo--replacing Zhang Wannian and Chi Haotian respectively. Interestingly, General Xu Caihou was appointed to the Central Committee Secretariat, although he is not a CMC vice chair (this puts Xu in a key position of interface between the civilian and military leadership). The failure to appoint a military man to the PBSC is not, in fact, unusual--nor does it really reveal any lack of PLA "influence" in high party councils. Historically, it has much more often been the case that leading PLA officers did not make the PBSC; in fact, over the past 20 years, only one uniformed officer (Liu Huaqing) was elected to the PBSC.

Table 3-1. The Central Military Commission)

More broadly, it is interesting to note that PLA representation on the CCP Central Committee has fallen to nearly an all-time low. At the 8th Congress in 1956, it was 35 percent, rose to 45 percent at the 9th Congress in 1969, fell to 26 percent at the 10th Congress in 1973, rose again to 30 percent at the 11th Congress in 1977, declined to 22 percent at the 12th Congress in 1982, fell further to an all-time low of 19 percent at the 13th Congress in 1987, rose again (in the aftermath of Tiananmen) to 26 percent at the 14th Congress in 1992, declined to 23 percent at the 15th Congress in 1997, and fell further to 21 percent of total Central Committee members (full and alternate combined) at the 16th Congress. Unless a new CMC member (who can remain until age 70), most officers near the age of 65 were not reelected to the Central Committee. Examples include Deputy Chief of General Staff Kui Fulin, Beijing MR Political Commissar Du Tiehuan, Second Artillery Commander Yang Guoliang, and NDU Commandant Xing Shizhong. Fully 60 percent of the PLA representatives on the Central Committee are new members, and the number from the Lanzhou and Nanjing MRs is increasing. Of those elected to the Central Committee, it appears to have been entirely a function of protocol rank. That is, the commanders and political commissars of all military regions, directors and "executive" (first-ranking) deputy directors of all general departments, commanders and political commissars of all services and the People's Armed Police, and the political commissars of the three PLA educational institutions (NDU, AMS, and the National Defense Science and Technology University [NDSTU]) were all elected to the Central Committee. Alternate members included other deputy directors of the General Staff Department and General Armaments Department (GAD), the commandant of NDSTU, the commanders of the Xinjiang Military District, North Sea Fleet, and Macao Garrison, the chief of staff of the Shenyang and Nanjing MRs, and the commander of the 63d Group Army.

One well-known officer who was not elected to full membership on the Central Committee is the flamboyant and egotistical Deputy Chief of Staff General Xiong Guangkai. Xiong did eke out a position as an alternate but ranked 148 out of 158 alternate members. This is interesting not only because Xiong is the best-known PLA officer abroad (insofar as he is in charge of all PLA foreign exchanges and intelligence), but also because prior to the Congress he had audaciously bragged to a number of visiting foreign delegations that he would be promoted high up the hierarchy--possibly to become the Minister of Defense. Xiong's braggadocio resulted in a distinct rebuff at the "polls"--what one Hong Kong newspaper pointedly referred to as a case of "burning down the stove due to overheating."1

Also interesting is that the CMC was trimmed from 11 to 8 members. The net decline can be attributed to a couple of factors. First is the fact that, in recent years, the CMC has become increasingly an ex officio body--that is, with the directors of the four general departments represented along with two uniformed vice chairs (with a functional division of labor among them and one simultaneously serving as Minister of Defense). This is what can be considered a streamlined model for the CMC. The previous CMC included three individuals who did not have these portfolios (Wang Ruilin, Guo Boxiong, Xu Caihou). It is also interesting that the position of CMC secretary-general was not resurrected or filled. This slot has remained dormant and unfilled (although never formally abolished) since the purge of Yang Baibing in 1992. What this means in practice is that the director of the General Office of the CMC (currently Lieutenant General Tan Yuexin) administratively directs the CMC on a day-to-day basis, without a CMC member having this authority. Yang Baibing had used (and abused) this position to manipulate meetings, paper flow, and personnel assignments during his tenure.

The continuation of Jiang Zemin as CMC chairman, of course, is significant. There had been widespread speculation prior to the Congress (including by this observer) that he would step down from this post, but it was not to be. There was also speculation that Jiang would stay in the job until the March 2003 10th National People's Congress, when he would hand over the chairmanship of both the party and the state CMC to Hu Jintao.2 This also was not to be, as Jiang was elected to a new 5-year term as chairman of the state CMC.3 While Jiang's continuation in these twin posts brings continuity to command of the military and civil-military relations, it creates at the same time two procedural anomalies--with someone other than the CCP general secretary heading the party CMC and someone other than the state president heading the state CMC. Traditionally, the head of the party (either chairman or general secretary) has served as chairman of the party CMC, so as to illustrate the principle that the "party commands the gun." Also, according to National Defense Law of 1997, only the president of the PRC (along with the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress) can mobilize the nation for war or order the military forces into combat. Jiang's continuation as CMC chair while Hu Jintao has become state president violates these principles and law and obscures the chain of command. Indeed, Jiang's clinging to power has clouded an otherwise smooth succession. Many in China, including in the CCP, recognize this fact and grouse about it. Perhaps as a sign of this discontent, the vote of the National People's Congress to renew Jiang's position as chair of the state was not unanimous. Almost 10 percent of NPC deputies did not vote in favor of Jiang's reappointment (of the 2,951 delegates, there were 98 votes against him with 122 abstentions). Just as pointedly, the official Xinhua News Agency report that announced his reelection stated that the 16th CCP Central Committee "let Jiang stay on as Chairman of the CMC," while also noting that he had been "relieved of his official duty" as CCP general secretary but that he "relinquished willingly his state presidency."4

The reasons for Jiang's continuation as CMC chair, and the maneuvering he undertook to accomplish this continuation, have been the source of much speculation in and outside China.5 Maintaining the positions will certainly continue to provide an institutional platform for him domestically and internationally. It will also, of course, give him some influence over military affairs. To be sure, the military has been comfortable with Jiang as their leader, and he has been good to the PLA.6 In the run-up to the Congress, the PLA media engaged in a sycophantic propaganda campaign--presumably to bolster his position and to signal an institutional desire that he remain as chairman.7 This media blitz followed the apparent decision taken at the summer 2002 leadership retreat at Beidaihe to allow Jiang to stay on in the CMC posts.8

So Jiang steps down from all other official positions (although it is still unclear if he will relinquish his positions on the Foreign Affairs, Taiwan, and National Security Leading Small Groups) but retains his military portfolio. How long he will do so remains in doubt. There is no statutory term for the party post, but there is a 5-year mandate for state positions. Whether Jiang remains for the entirety of this tenure, when he would be 81 years old, or hands the positions over to Hu Jintao before then remains to be seen. Jiang seems to fancy himself as a paramount leader qua Deng Xiaoping, and he is clearly trying to establish himself in such a role as a semiretired elder. Recall that Deng also held on to the CMC chairmanship while giving up his party and state positions at the 13th-Party Congress in 1987. Jiang is cognizant of this precedent. While Jiang is no Deng, he does possess stature internationally, domestically within the party and nation, as well as within the military. Given the "far-reaching leadership transition that took place at the 16th Party Congress and 10th-National People's Congress, the military (and perhaps the party and government, too) are somewhat comforted by Jiang's continuation as the CMC chairs. But eventually, he will have to hand over to Hu Jintao (presuming Hu does not encounter difficulties as party and state leader).

Would the military be comfortable with Hu Jintao as their commander-in-chief? Yes and no. Although Hu has been a vice chair of the CMC since 1999, and the military has had 3 years to get used to him (and, more importantly, vice versa), he has no previous military credentials of his own and has not been engaged in military affairs. The only active role Hu has shown concerning the military in recent years was his high-profile involvement in the December 1998 order that required PLA units to divest themselves of their financial assets and to transfer them to the State Council. Hu's other involvement came when he was (briefly) party secretary in Tibet in the late 1980s, and particularly during the crackdown in March 1989. According to a recent Hong Kong press report, Hu was intimately involved in the military planning at the time--particularly with General Liao Xilong, then deputy commander of the Chengdu MR.9 Liao was promoted to the CMC and position of director of the General Logistics Department at the Congress, and he is the only senior officer who evinces ties to Hu Jintao.

Until Hu proves his mettle to the military, he is likely to be viewed only with respect for his position as party and state leader--which does confer and convey authority to him--although he has not established a track record on military affairs. What he needs to do is exactly what Jiang did in the 1990-1991 period, after he was catapulted to the CMC chair in November 1989. Jiang very assiduously and carefully visited every military region, all of the general departments, and a large number of units. These visits, his speeches, and personal meetings with key PLA officers all addressed the various institutional and subinstitutional needs of the PLA--thus astutely building an inner-PLA bureaucratic coalition of support.10 Within a short period of time (by 1993), Jiang's influence with the military had grown, and he had won the support of various PLA constituencies. Many of the regional commanders whom he had met on his tours were transferred to Beijing. Hu Jintao needs to take a leaf out of Jiang Zemin's book in order to cultivate and build his own independent base of support in the military. Jiang's continuation as CMC chair could work both ways: it could help or hinder Hu's ability to build this base.

As a group, the PLA officers of the new CMC display several notable characteristics:

  • Their average age is 61. Only Cao Gangchuan is 67. This means that all the others will be members for the remainder of this decade.
  • Their career paths are collectively diverse, but each has worked an entire career in different functional systems in the PLA. This provides a kind of division of labor among them. Three have commanded military regions (Guo Boxiong, Liang Guanglie, Liao Xilong), two come from GPD backgrounds (Xu Caihou and Li Jinai), and one (Cao Gangchuan) is a veteran of the military-industrial establishment. None have "helicoptered" to the top, and all have meticulously climbed the career ladder in their respective service or department.
  • Several have commanded particularly important military regions and have overseen particularly sensitive operations, during which they have proved their political loyalty to their military superiors and the party: Guo Boxiong was commander of the 47th Group Army during the antiseparatist operations in Xinjiang between 1990 and 1992; Liao Xilong commanded the forces that quelled the rebellion in Lhasa, Tibet, in 1989; Liang Guanglie reportedly commanded the 54th Group Army to suppress the uprising in Beijing in 1989; and all three (particularly Liang Guanglie) have served as commander or deputy commander of military exercises directed against Taiwan.11
  • CMC membership continues to be dominated by the ground forces, although arguably the air, naval, and missile forces are now more important in PLA orientation and potential missions. Li Jinai does have a background in the strategic and tactical missile forces (Second Artillery) but as a political commissar rather than as a technician or base commander.
  • These are professional military men, with proven careers and a clear sense of mission. In addition to lengthy experience at the command level, they have all had some advanced professional military education.

Let us now briefly consider the backgrounds of each uniformed member of the new CMC.12

Guo Boxiong. General Guo was first appointed to the CMC in September 1999. It was clear at the time that he and Xu Caihou were to form the core of the "fourth-generation" officers on the post-Congress CMC; the only questions were whether Guo would become chief of logistics or chief of staff and whether he would rise to become a vice chairman or simply remain a member of the CMC. The answers became clear with his elevation to one of the three vice-chair positions. He inherits Zhang Wannian's portfolio, becoming the leading PLA officer with principal authority over doctrine, force structure, and training issues. Although General Guo has been rumored to be suffering some serious health problems since 2000 (reportedly stomach cancer), he is clearly the most important uniformed officer in the PLA today.

General Guo, a native of Shaanxi, has spent the majority of his military career in his home province. He joined the PLA in 1961 and did a 2-year course at the Military Academy in Nanjing (the forerunner to the National Defense University) during 1981-1983. Guo rose through the ranks of the Lanzhou MR, serving successively as a squad leader, platoon leader, regimental propaganda cadre, headquarters staff officer, and eventually MR Deputy Chief of Staff. He spent a total of 24 years (1961-1985) in these positions with a single unit: the 55th Division of the 19th Army Corps. From 1985 to 1990, he served as deputy chief of staff of the Lanzhou MR. From 1990 to 1993, he was commander of the 47th Group Army, directly under Fu Quanyou's command authority. In 1993, he was transferred to the Beijing MR and served as deputy MR commander until 1997, when he was transferred back to take over the Lanzhou MR command--capping his career in the region. He served in this capacity until 1999, when he was tapped for promotion to the CMC and returned to Beijing. Guo is considered a specialist in ground force operations and training; he was one of the first to experiment with large-scale force-on-force mechanized infantry exercises.

Cao Gangchuan. General Cao is now the second-highest-ranking officer in the PLA, with a portfolio covering both equipment and foreign military relations. He was appointed minister of defense at the National People's Congress in March 2003, succeeding Chi Haotian. Cao is a native of Henan and joined the PLA in 1954.

Two characteristics distinguish Cao Gangchuan's career path: expertise in conventional land armaments and ties to Russia. He began studying artillery in the PLA new Third Artillery Ordnance Technical School in Zhengzhou and graduated 2 years later. He was then sent to Dalian for a year of Russian language training before being sent to the Soviet Union for 6 years of study at the Artillery Engineering Academy of the Artillery Corps of the Soviet Armed Forces. He stayed through the Sino-Soviet split and returned to China in 1963. Cao's subsequent career track was entirely concerned with ordnance and military equipment in the General Logistics Department (1963-1982). There are unconfirmed reports that he was sent to the frontlines on the Vietnamese border in 1979 to coordinate artillery fire. In 1982, he was assigned to the General Staff Department Headquarters, where he worked in the Military Equipment Department until 1989. He then began a 2-year stint as director of the Military Affairs of the General Staff. Following his appointment as director of the Military Trade Office of the CMC in 1990, Cao subsequently became the PLA point man for negotiating weapons purchases and military cooperation with Russia. In this capacity, he has played a key and instrumental role in the modernization of PLA weaponry and equipment. This lasted for 2 years, until he was promoted to be a deputy chief of General Staff from 1992 to 1996 (in charge of weaponry and equipment). In 1996, Cao succeeded Ding Henggao as director of the Commission on Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense (COSTIND), and then presided over its reorganization and move under the administrative control of the State Council in a 1998 shakeup of the military-industrial complex. He had been known to express great frustration with COSTIND and its many failings to produce high-quality weaponry. General Cao was therefore the logical choice to be appointed as the inaugural GAD director when it was created in 1998. He became a CMC member at the same time.

With his promotion to become a CMC vice chair at the 16th Party Congress, Cao will be even more instrumental in guiding the modernization of PLA weaponry. As the new defense minister, however, his time will be increasingly shared with foreign travel and diplomatic duties. But given the importance of Russia to PLA modernization, there probably was not a better choice for minister of defense than Cao Gangchuan.

Xu Caihou. General Xu has had a career in PLA political and personnel work. Geographically, he has spent most of his career in Jilin Military District of the Shenyang MR--although at the time of his promotion to the CMC in 1999, he worked in the Jinan MR. In Jilin, Xu held a succession of propaganda and General Political Department (GPD) jobs. In November 1992, he was transferred to Beijing where he became assistant to GPD chief Yu Yongbo, but he also worked closely with Wang Ruilin. With this backing, Xu was destined to head the GPD following their retirements. In mid-1993, Xu also assumed co-editorship of the Liberation Army Daily. This was a sensitive time following the purge of Yang Baibing, when control needed to be garnered over the GPD apparatus. Xu performed well and was promoted to deputy director of the GPD in July 1994. From 1996 to 1999, he served as political commissar of the Jinan MR.

Xu is a native of Liaoning and joined the army in 1963. He obtained undergraduate and graduate degrees in electronic engineering from the Harbin Institute of Military Engineering in 1968 and was immediately sent to the countryside for manual labor, where he spent 2 years. He joined the party under the worker-peasant-soldier affirmative action program in 1971. From 1971 to 1992, he worked in various personnel management and political work positions in the GPD of the Jilin Military District of the Shenyang MR.

Xu will play a critical role in all personnel decisions in the PLA, including all senior-level promotions. In this regard, he will be an indispensable asset to Hu Jintao, if Hu decides to build his own network of loyal officers across military regions. Xu also has the distinction of being the only PLA officer serving on the Central Committee Secretariat--the body charged with running the day-to-day affairs of the party. This places Xu as a key interface with civilian party leaders, as well as the key individual for managing party-army relations and party influence in the military. This responsibility is buttressed not only by Xu's directorship of the GPD, but also the fact that he is the secretary of the CCP Discipline Inspection Commission in the PLA. If the party is to continue to command the gun, Xu Caihou will play an important role.

Liang Guanglie. A new CMC member and the new chief of General Staff is General Liang Guanglie. General Liang's 3 years of service as commander of the Nanjing MR has prompted a great deal of speculation in foreign media that the PLA will cast a more aggressive stance toward Taiwan.13 It is true that Liang had an instrumental role in planning and executing the exercises that simulated scenarios for attacking Taiwan and that these exercises have increased in scope, pace, and intensity during his tenure, but he did not initiate this trend (it started post-1996), and it is very likely to continue well into the future.

A native of Sichuan, after joining the PLA in 1958 most of General Liang's early career was in the former Wuhan MR (which was divided between the Guangdong and Chengdu MRs in 1985). From 1958 to 1970, he served in a variety of engineering and infantry units (including a 14-month stint in an infantry academy) and then served in the Operations Department of the Wuhan MR from 1970 to 1979. From 1979 to 1990, he served in a succession of positions in the 20th Army Corps, based in Kaifeng, Henan, rising to become the commander from 1985 to 1990. During this time, Liang was twice sent for midcareer training: for a year (March 1982-January 1983) at the Military Academy in Nanjing, and for 4 months (August 1987-December 1987) at the National Defense University in Beijing. He also completed a continuing education correspondence degree in political theory from Henan University from 1984 to 1986. He became commander of the 20th Corps in 1985 and, according to his official biography, served in this position until 1990, when he was appointed commander of the 54th Group Army based in Xinxiang, Henan, where he served until 1993. However, a Hong Kong source indicates that Liang took command in September 1988 and that the 54th Group Army "enforced martial law in Beijing during June 1989."14 It is unclear if this unit participated in the June massacre or entered the city later in the month; nor is it clear when the unit returned to base in Xinxiang.

Liang continued as commander of the 54th Group Army until 1993, although in 1991 he was once again selected for a 4-month specialized course at NDU in Beijing. After 8 years as a group army commander, Liang was tapped for promotion and assignment to the Beijing MR--where he served as chief of staff (1993-1995) and deputy MR commander (1995-1997). He was then assigned as commander of the Shenyang MR (1997-1999) and was shifted to command the Nanjing MR from 1999 to 2002. Thus, General Liang brings many years of experience commanding ground force units, including serving at the pinnacle of command in three different military regions. He is a logical and qualified choice to replace Fu Quanyou as PLA chief of staff.

Liao Xilong. General Liao is another example of an officer who has risen methodically through the ranks. Born into a poor farming family in a mountain village in poverty-stricken Guizhou Province, Liao joined the army at age 19. He has spent his entire career in the southwestern Kunming and (after 1987) Chengdu MR. He held command at the platoon, regiment, division, group army, and MR levels.

During the border war with Vietnam in 1979, Liao commanded a regiment that captured the border village of Phong To--for which he received a commendation from the CMC.15 As a result, he was also promoted to division commander (31st) and again engaged Vietnamese forces at Lao Shan and Zheying Shan in 1984. The overall commander of PLA forces in this engagement was none other than Fu Quanyou. For his actions, Liao is said to have been personally decorated by Deng Xiaoping and was promoted to deputy army corps commander. Six months later, at the age of 44, Liao became the youngest group army commander in the PLA. Six months after that he was tapped to become deputy MR commander under Fu Quanyou (again the youngest in the country). He served in this position for 10 years, although General Fu was transferred to command the Lanzhou MR and eventually was promoted to the CMC. After Fu left, Liao continued to serve as deputy MR commander to Generals Zhang Taiheng, Liu Jiulong, and Kui Fulin. As noted above, he played an instrumental role in coordinating the 1989 crackdown in Tibet. Thereafter, he befriended Hu Jintao, who came to Chengdu due to his altitude sickness in Lhasa. In 1995, Liao was finally rewarded with the appointment as Chendu MR commander--a position that he served in for 7 years until he was brought to Beijing in 2002 and appointed director of the General Logistics Department and a CMC member. General Liao has very strong military credentials, but he also possesses important ties to a variety of other senior PLA officers with whom he has served. Being decorated by Deng Xiaoping and being close to Hu Jintao further burnishes his standing. At 62, Liao Xilong and Liang Guanglie will have the predominant impact on shaping PLA force modernization.

Li Jinai. The final member and new appointment to the CMC is General Li Jinai, who succeeds Cao Gangchuan as director of the General Armament Department. Unlike the other newcomers, Li moves up within the same organization--as he has served as GAD political commissar since 1998.

Li's prior career track has been a mixture of working at a series of missile bases and in the defense industrial and science and technology establishment--but, in both cases, it has been entirely on the political side. Although he has a degree in mechanical engineering from Harbin Institute of Military Engineering, he is not a "techie." His entire career since 1970 has been spent in PLA political and propaganda work. After joining the military in 1967, he did serve in an engineering corps construction regiment and as a regimental deputy platoon leader of the 807th Launch Brigade at Base No. 51 of the Second Artillery (1969-1970). From 1970 to 1971, he worked in the GPD propaganda section at Base No. 52 at Huangshan (Tunxi), Anhui Province. From 1971 to 1977, he held a similar position in the 811th Launch Brigade at Qimen, Jiangxi (part of the No. 52 base complex). From 1977 to 1983, Li was transferred to Beijing to head the youth section of the Second Artillery's Organization Department. From 1983 to 1985, he was transferred to the Luoyang strategic nuclear weapons base in Henan Province (Base No. 54), where he was deputy political commissar. In 1985, Li was tapped to return to Beijing as director of the GPD Cadres Department (one of seven departments), where he stayed until 1990. He was then promoted to be one of several GPD deputy directors for 2 years. In 1992, he was transferred to be deputy political commissar of COSTIND, where he served until 1998 when he was appointed as the political commissar of the newly created GAD. In this capacity, he worked closely with Cao Gangchuan, and he succeeded General Cao after the 16th Party Congress when Cao was promoted to be CMC vice chairman.

Thus, while General Li now heads up the key organ responsible for coordinating all defense industrial production and research and development, his career background is not, in fact, on the technical side. His background in the strategic rocket forces is an interesting fact, but it is not clear how much technical knowledge he gained during those assignments. His career has rather been on the political side, and he could be in line to succeed Xu Caihou as GPD director should Xu move up.

The Second Echelon

While we do not possess extensive biographical data on those officers beneath the CMC, it is also important to note that a number of changes in leading PLA personnel took place in the military regions, general departments, and services in the year prior to the Congress. While some of these personnel changes were precipitated by the promotion of other military officers or illness (Air Force Commander Liu Shunyao), leaving vacancies, others were the result of regular rotations. In these appointments, a relatively consistent pattern of promotion emerges, whereby officers are elevated progressively to the next level of command--from Group Army commander to MR deputy chief of staff to MR chief of staff to MR deputy commander to MR commander. In a few cases, officers leapfrogged two positions up the hierarchy,16 but for the most part the promotion pattern was incremental. This was evident in the following appointments:

  • Li Wenhua moved from Beijing Garrison Command political commissar to become Beijing MR deputy political commissar.

  • Li Zhenwu went from deputy commander to commander of the Guangzhou MR.
  • Song Wenhan went from Guangzhou MR chief of staff to MR deputy commander.
  • Ye Aiqun went from commanding the 42d Group Army to replace Song Wenhan as Guangzhou MR chief of staff.
  • Wu Shengli went from deputy commander of PLA Navy South Sea Fleet to become commander of the East Sea Fleet.
  • Gui Quanzhi went from Chengdu MR chief of staff to become MR deputy commander.
  • Liu Yahong went from commander of the 14th Group Army to replace Gui Quanzhi as Chengdu MR chief of staff.
  • Qu Fanghuan went from Lanzhou MR chief of staff to MR deputy commander.
  • Chang Wanhan went from commander of the 47th Group Army to replace Qu Fanghuan as Lanzhou MR chief of staff.
  • Zhong Shengqin moved from Jinan MR chief of staff to deputy MR commander.

Thus, in the Beijing, Chengdu, Lanzhou, Guangzhou, and Jinan MRs there was a very clear pattern of officers moving directly up into the next billet (or two in the case of Zhu Qi).17 It is also clear that, more than ever before, commands of divisions and group armies are a prerequisite for higher military region assignments. A similar pattern of incremental promotion is seen in the services and general departments (particularly the GAD).

The second echelon military leadership is indicated in tables 3-2 through 3-5. We see similar incremental promotion patterns in these institutions, although in PLA academies and universities some interesting precedents were set. The new NDU president, Lieutenant General Pei Hualiang, was transferred from his post as deputy commander of the Jinan MR. Given the importance of NDU in training group army commanders, it is appropriate that someone of Pei's service background head up NDU. Another precedent was set with the appointment of Vice Admiral Zhang Dingfa as president of the Academy of Military Sciences (the top PLA research organ). This is the first time that someone of a naval background (or nonground force) has served in this AMS capacity, or any leading PLA institution for that matter, as the ground forces have had a stranglehold over senior appointments to date. This still remains the case, despite Admiral Zhang's appointment. Prior to the 16th Congress, there had been some rumors that the three other service chiefs (air force, navy, missile forces) would earn seats on the Central Military Commission, but it was not to be.

Table 3-2. Military Regions

Implications for Civil-Military Relations

Taken together, the personnel changes in the PLA high command have been sweeping. The Congress triggered some of the changes, but most were mandated by new standards and regulations that have been promulgated in recent years. This cohort represents not only the fourth generation of PLA leaders but also the fifth. It is from this pool of officers that the senior military leadership will be drawn in the years ahead.

Table 3-3. The General Departments

Table 3-4. CMC Affiliated Educational Institutions

Table 3-5. Service Commands

They are individuals who continue to come predominantly from the ground forces, have had substantial field command experience at the group army level and below, possess university-level educations and have attended at least one military educational academy, and have methodically climbed the career ladder. However, they are not as well traveled abroad, cannot be considered as cosmopolitan, nor have they had actual combat experience (other than limited action along the Vietnam border). While the failure to promote naval or air force officers to senior levels outside of their own services follows traditional patterns, it is also odd considering the increased importance attached to these services for potential peripheral conflicts and "limited wars under high technology conditions."

Collectively, their policy proclivities can be expected to push ahead fully with the comprehensive modernization of the PLA--hardware, software, command and control, force structure, finance, logistics, science and technology, military education, reconnaissance and intelligence, among others.18 Above all, they are professional soldiers who are steadily professionalizing the PLA with every passing day. They are not likely to intervene in high-level politics, nor do they wish to be pulled into performing internal security functions (which are to be left to the People's Armed Police). They have a singular, focused mission of comprehensive military modernization, and the PLA is being given the necessary resources to fulfill that mission. A quarter century from now, when the fourth- and fifth-generation officers again change the guard and retire, the PLA will be a far more modern and capable force for their efforts.

In terms of the evolving nature of civil-military relations, the turnover in the military leadership described above reflects several trends that have been noticeable in recent years.

First and most important, we are witnessing the further institutional bifurcation of party and army. This can be seen in a number of ways. The military played no apparent role in the civilian leadership succession before or at the 16th Congress and vice versa--that is, the civilian party leaders played no apparent role in the selection of the new military leadership (and that includes, in my view, Jiang Zemin). There was no praetorian impulse to intervene in politics, and the military was left to make its own succession choices. Furthermore, not a single senior party leader has one day of military experience--while none of the new military leaders have any experience in high-level politics. This is a trend that was noticeable for the past decade during the third generation of leaders but is a marked departure from the former "interlocking directorate" that symbiotically fused together the civilian and military leaderships. The continuing decline of military representation in the CCP Central Committee is yet further evidence of the bifurcation.

Second, this tendency toward bifurcation reinforces the ongoing trend toward corporatism and professionalism in the PLA. This is to say that the PLA as an institution is now exclusively, and more than ever before, concerned with purely military affairs. It is not involved in domestic politics, has withdrawn from its former internal security functions in favor of an exclusively externally oriented mission, has largely divested itself of its commercial assets and role in the civilian economy, and does not play a role or have much of a voice in foreign policy, and even its influence on Taiwan policy has become very circumscribed. To put it simply, the military in China today is concerned with military affairs. Just as importantly, the PLA is being permitted to look after its own affairs by the party--and it is being given the resources to pursue its program of comprehensive modernization.19

Third, and related to the above trends, we see few signs of politicization in the military. Except for the "Three Represents" campaign (which in the military is really more about increasing Jiang Zemin's stature than educating the military about recruiting entrepreneurs into the party), we see few indications of political indoctrination in the ranks of the PLA. The General Political Department today is far more concerned with improving the living standards of officers and their dependents than in indoctrinating the rank and file with ideological dogma. This is yet another signal of increased military professionalization. Along with the divestiture of commercial assets and involvement, the military is now exclusively focused on training and other professional activities.

Accordingly, for these reasons, it is now more analytically appropriate to consider civil-military rather than party-army relations in the PRC. The driving catalyst for all of these changes has been the professionalization of the armed forces.20 To be sure, as is argued below, this evolution is ongoing and incomplete. The former model has not (and is not likely to) replaced the latter model completely. Yet along a number of criteria, it does seem clear that the PLA is moving away from its traditional communist institutional ethos into a new stage of limited autonomy from the ruling party.

Theoretically, in terms of the comparative study of civil-military systems, this new stage may also be viewed as the intermediate stage in a transition from a party-army to a national army. China and the PLA are clearly not there yet, and it is questionable whether a national army can exist within the context of a political system dominated by a single, ruling communist party. Yet there have been, and continue to be, subterranean discussions in China and the PLA about greater state control of the military, a military that serves the nation and not just the ruling party, and a military controlled by civilian rule and governed by legislative oversight. As if to put a fine point on the sensitivity of such considerations, there have been a series of ongoing condemnations of such "bourgeois" concepts in the party and military media from time to time. It is clearly a sensitive issue that cuts right to the core of PLA identity and CCP legitimacy, if not the efficacy of the PRC itself.

Is it feasible to have a national army in a Leninist system? Or can such a military only exist in a democratic system? Given the evidence of economic and educational reforms in China, to take but two issue areas, it is not inconceivable that a hybrid relationship of a professional national military could coexist with a ruling communist party, but within a framework of state and legislative control. Yet, on the other hand, many of the elements necessary to proclaim the PLA a national army seem anathema to the CCP and its rule. For example, it would require at least the following:

  • a real Ministry of National Defense (not the hollow shell of the current ministry)
  • a civilian minister of defense
  • presidential chairmanship of the Central Military Commission
  • thorough control of the military by the state president, National People's Congress, and State Council
  • a series of established laws and procedures governing the use of force and mobilization of the military
  • strong legislative oversight of the armed forces
  • complete budgetary control over the military by the legislature and no extrabudgetary revenue
  • no political content in professional military education.

By these criteria it is clear that the PLA remains a long way from becoming a national army--yet there are discussions and tendencies in this direction taking place in China and the PLA today.

While it must still be considered a party-army, as long as the CCP rules China and the institutional mechanisms of party penetration of the armed forces exist,21 the PLA as an institution is clearly carving out its own corporate domain and is redefining its professional identity. At the same time, the government (the State Council and National People's Congress) has also attempted, in recent years, to gain greater authority over the military. This has been particularly evident in the fiscal and legal realms. Former Premier Zhu Rongji instituted a variety of important fiscal reforms that have deeply affected the military, including:

  • divestiture of commercial assets
  • an increased role for the Ministry of Finance in determining the annual military budget
  • increased and strengthened auditing of PLA accounts
  • zero-based budgeting (where unexpended funds cannot be rolled over to the next fiscal year and must be returned to the State Council).

In legal terms, the National People's Congress has enacted a range of laws--but particularly the 1997 National Defense Law--that stipulates greater authority and responsibilities for the state (as distinct from the party) over the military.

Changes in the interrelationship of party, army, and state in contemporary China must also be viewed in the context of emerging patterns of civil-military relations across Asia. With few exceptions (for example, North Korea and Vietnam), civil-military relations in East, Southeast, and South Asia have been fundamentally redefined in recent years in the process of democratization. In a number of countries that have known harsh authoritarian and military rule (South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh, and Pakistan), the armed forces have been removed from political power and influence, made accountable to sovereign legislatures, and returned to the barracks. Militaries in mufti have been replaced by democratically elected civilians. In all of these countries, the emasculation of political power and praetorian tendencies of militaries has been a crucial element in establishing democratic institutions and rule. The trend in Asia follows that of Latin America and Africa.

The experiences of these countries, particularly Taiwan, are suggestive for future civil-military relations in China. So far, the emerging literature on the process of democratic transition in Asia has paid relatively little attention to the civil-military dimension,22 although it is viewed as an important variable in the comparative literature.23 More comparative research needs to be done on Asian militaries and civil-military relations.24 Scholars of the PLA and Chinese politics need to place the recent changes in civil-military relations in the PRC outlined above in this broader regional context, while comparativists need to look more closely at the Chinese case. The current state of politics in the PRC certainly does not suggest that a creeping transition to democracy is silently taking place,25 as the CCP retains its grip on power. But, at the same time, we must not mistake the potential significance of the legislative efforts to subordinate the PLA to state control.

The Chinese case must also be placed in the comparative context of former socialist states led by communist parties. Broadly speaking, the experiences of the former Soviet and East European militaries suggest that professionalization and party control are by no means mutually exclusive, but in not a single case were these militaries consciously placed under state control via legislative means. Indeed, in some cases, they fought (unsuccessfully) to save their ruling communist parties.26 The problem for the Chinese military has never been to subordinate itself to civilian authority (as it has done so to the CCP) but rather to state control.

The PLA is moving--or rather is being moved--into an entirely new era of civil-military relations and corporate professionalism. As such, we would surmise that the PLA will not shirk from the task of defending national security against external enemies--but will it do so again against internal enemies who may threaten the rule of the Communist Party? This will be the ultimate test of the redefined relationship of the army to the party and state in China.


 1N.A., "Military Representatives to the CCP Central Committee are 60% New Faces--Cao Gangchuan, Guo Boxiong, and Xu Caihou Step Up to the Plate," Ming Bao (Hong Kong), November 15, 2002, in Foreign Broadcast Information Service-China (henceforth FBIS-China), November 15, 2002. [BACK]

 2See, for example, Andrew Nathan and Bruce Gilley, China's New Rulers (New York: New York Review of Books, 2002). [BACK]

 3"Profile of Central Military Commission Chairman Jiang Zemin," Xinhua News Agency, March 15, 2003, in FBIS-China, March 15, 2003. [BACK]

 4Ibid. [BACK]

 5For one Hong Kong media account of how Jiang maneuvered and managed to keep the CMC portfolio, see Lo Ping, "Jiang Zemin Maneuvers to Hold on as Central Military Commission Chairman," Zhengming (Hong Kong), December 1, 2002, in FBIS-China, December 31, 2002. [BACK]

 6For studies of how Jiang has interacted with the PLA, see You Ji, "Jiang Zemin's Command of the Military," The China Journal, no. 45 (January 2001), 131-138; Tai Ming Cheung, "Jiang Zemin at the Helm: His Quest for Power and Paramount Leader Status," China Strategic Review 3, no. 1 (Spring 1996), 167-191; and David Shambaugh, "China's Commander-in-Chief: Jiang Zemin and the PLA," in Chinese Military Modernization, ed. C. Dennison Lane et al. (London: Kegan Paul International and AEI Press, 1996). [BACK]

 7For an excellent and careful analysis of this propaganda campaign, see James C. Mulvenon, "The PLA and the 'Three Represents': Jiang's Bodyguards or Party-Army?" China Leadership Monitor, no. 4 (Fall 2002), accessed at <www.chinaleadershipmonitor.org>. [BACK]

 8N.A., "Jiang Zemin to Stay on as Chairman of Central Military Commission for Another Five Years," Kaifang (Hong Kong), February 1, 2003, in FBIS-China, February 5, 2003. [BACK]

 9See Lin Jie, "Liao Xilong's Accession to the Central Military Commission Will Help Hu Assume the Reins of Military Power," Xin Bao (Hong Kong), November 21, 2002, in FBIS-China, November 21, 2002. [BACK]

10This process is detailed in Shambaugh, "China's Commander-in-Chief." [BACK]

11The author is indebted to James C. Mulvenon on this point. See Mulvenon, "The PLA and the 16th Party Congress: Jiang Controls the Gun?" China Leadership Monitor, no. 5 (Winter 2003), accessed at <www.chinaleadershipmonitor.org>. [BACK]

12The biographical data used below are drawn from four principal sources: the official New China News Agency biographies issued on November 15, 2002; Zong Hairen, Di Si Dai (Hong Kong: Mirror Books, 2002); Ling Haijian, Zhonggong Jundui Xin Zhangxing (Hong Kong: Mirror Books, 1999); Zonghe, "Zhonggong Zhongyang Junwei de Xin Fangxiang," Xin Bao (December 2002), 28-30. [BACK]

13See, for example, "Promotion of Liang Guanglie Indicates Military Pressure on Taiwan," Ming Bao (Hong Kong), November 16, 2002, in FBIS-China, November 18, 2002. [BACK]

14Ling Haijin, Zhonggong Jundui Xin Zhangxing, 211. [BACK]

15Lin Jie, "Liao Xilong's Accession." Liao's regiment was the 91st Regiment of the 31st Division of the 11th Army Corps. [BACK]

16Zhu Qi moved up from Beijing MR Chief of Staff to Beijing MR Commander; and Zhu Wenquan did the same in the Nanjing MR. [BACK]

17See "PRC Makes Pre-CCP Congress' Military Region Personnel Changes," Ming Bao (Hong Kong), February 9, 2002, in FBIS-China, February 9, 2002. [BACK]

18These and other aspects are all discussed in David Shambaugh, Modernizing China's Military (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002). [BACK]

19The one (important) qualification to this trend is the increased role by the government (State Council) in monitoring and auditing PLA financial affairs. [BACK]

20This is also recognized by You Ji in his "China: From Revolutionary Tool to Professional Military," in Military Professionalism in Asia: Conceptual and Empirical Perspectives, ed. Muthiah Alagappa (Honolulu: East-West Center, 2001), 111-136. [BACK]

21These include the General Political Department, the CCP Discipline Inspection Commission, Party committees and branches down to the company level within the military, and the fact that all PLA officers above the rank of colonel are party members. [BACK]

22See Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner, eds., Democracy in East Asia (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998); and Larry Diamond, Marc F. Plattner, Yun-han Chu, and Hung-mao Tien, eds., Consolidating the Third Wave Democracies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997). [BACK]

23See Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner, eds., Civil-Military Relations and Democracy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). [BACK]

24For a significant effort in this direction, see Muthiah Alagappa, ed., Coercion and Governance: The Declining Role of the Military in Asia (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001). [BACK]

25For one view to the contrary, see Minxin Pei, "'Creeping Democratization' in China," in Consolidating the Third Wave Democracies, 213-227. [BACK]

26See Gerald Segal and John Phipps, "Why Communist Armies Defend Their Parties," in China's Military: The PLA in 1990/91, ed. Richard H. Yang (Kaohsiung: National Sun Yat-sen University, 1991), 133-144. [BACK]

*A similar version of this paper was presented at the Stanford University conference "New Leadership, New China" in January 2003. It will appear in a volume on the post-16th Party Congress edited by Ramon Myers, Chu Yun-han, and Lo Chi-cheng.

Table of Contents  I  Chapter Four

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