Dr. Ying Yu Lin is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Strategic and International Affairs, National Chung Cheng University.
The list of new members of the Central Military Commission (CMC) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was made public after the 19th National Congress of the CCP last Fall. As expected, General Secretary Xi Jinxing (習近平) won a second term as CMC Chairman. While Xu Qiliang (許其亮) kept his same position, Zhang Youxia (張又俠) was appointed vice-chairman in replacement of Fang Changlong (范長龍), who retired as expected. Other new members of the CMC include former People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force Commander Wei Fenghe (魏鳳和), CMC Joint Staff Department (JSD) Chief Li Zhocheng(李作成), CMC Political Work Department Chief Miao Hua (苗華), and CMC Commission for Discipline Inspection Secretary Zhang Shengmin (張升民). While a lot has already been written about the 19th CCP Politburo during Xi’s second-term, what insights might we gain from the new CMC membership for the Xi administration?
The total number of CMC members was reduced from 11 to seven. Prior speculation about an increase of CMC vice chairmen from two to four did not take place. A possible reason why the number of chairman was not increased to four, could be that with four chairmen then the CMC would just resemble the way it was before its reorganization. In the significant military reform that began in 2016, the four general departments were re-organized into 15 agencies. As a leader bent on reforming the military and on promoting the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, Xi is not likely to backtrack on his stated effort which aims at completing military modernization by 2035, and establishing a world-class military by 2050.
It was not surprising to see that Xu remained one of the two vice chairmen, while the other position was occupied by Zhang (this latter is also called “crown prince”—a term specifically referred to descendants of the founding members of CCP). CMC member Wei, who had commanded the PLA Rocket Force (previously known as the Second Artillery) since 2012, may become the next defense minister at the upcoming conclave for the National People’s Congress in March. In the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), grade is more important than rank. Wei and Li are three-star generals, while Miao is a three-star admiral. They are all on a grade commensurate with their positions in the CMC. Which is also why Commission for Discipline Inspection Secretary Zhang, a three-star general, was picked for the position as the graft buster in the military, as a signal of Xi’s determination to continue tackling corruption within the military. Indeed, the recent reshuffle of the PLA leadership may be characterized as breaking away from past conventions. It also appears to be an attempt to uproot medium-and high-ranked officers promoted one way or another by the two-downfallen former CMC vice chairmen, Xu Caihou (徐才厚) and Guo Boxiong (郭伯雄).
The composition of the CMC membership covers all the services: Li and Zhang are from the army; Xu and Wei come from the air force and rocket force respectively; and Miao had been the political commissar of the navy. From the perspective of balance of power between the services, the CMC membership arrangement meets the requirement. The decrease of CMC members to seven also represents a concentration of power, an issue that emerges in the wake of the military reform and accompanying restructuring of the military. During the military restructuring, there had been much speculation about newly formed units and their grades. Now that the new CMC leadership has taken shape, and candidates for service and theater command leadership positions have been finalized following the 19th CCP National Congress, there will be no unfounded speculation about the PLA restructuring. It also shows that Xi lays much emphasis on putting the military under his control.
The former General Staff Department (GSD), currently the CMC Joint Staff Department (JSD),was often referred to as the No. 1 agency because it was in charge of military operations, intelligence, electronic reconnaissance and countermeasures, informatization affairs, and it was also in direct control of the seven military regions. Following the military reform which began in 2016, some of the GSD’s functions and responsibilities have been partially shifted to other units, including newly-established combat ones, according to the guiding principle: “the CMC takes command, the theater commands take responsibility for operations, and each service focuses its efforts on building combat strength.” However, by giving operations’ guidance and enabling cooperation of operations, the JSD is still quite influential in working in sync with the joint operations command center of the CMC.. Against the backdrop that the PLA keeps emphasizing the need to break the “army-centric” tradition, Li was able to be appointed as chief of the JSD mainly because the army still plays a vital role in protecting government leadership and executing land defense missions.
Xi’s selection of military leaders marks a departure from past rules. Navy commander Shen Jinlong, Air Force Commander Ding Laihang, Army Commander Han Weiguo, and Rocket Force Commander Zhou Yaning have one thing in common: they all did not have previous work experience in the JSD. In the past, a service commander required to have work experience as a deputy chief of general staff, mainly because he needed to familiarize with joint operations and senior staff work. However, since now theater and service commands have been assigned different roles, service commanders will naturally deal with missions and tasks that are different from those in the past, hence, they don’t need to have the same qualifications as their predecessors. The trend that is emerging points towards having service commanders receive sufficient training as theater commanders first, before taking control of their respective services.
Another feature that generals promoted by Xi have in common is that they have remarkable educational backgrounds. For instance, PLA Navy (PLAN) Commander Shen Jinlong (沈金龍) was President of the PLA Dalian Naval Academy. PLAAF Commander Ding Laihang (丁來杭) was the President of the PLAAF Command Academy. Song Puxuan (宋普選), newly-appointed head of the Logistic Support Department of the CMC, was previously the President of National Defense University. PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) Commander Gao Jin (高津) was the President of the Academy of Military Sciences. During their tours of duty at the academic institutions, these generals pursued in-depth research into joint operations. For instance, recently-appointed PLA Army (PLAA) Commander Han Weiguo (韓衛國), during his studies at National Defense University in 1956, focused his attention on the subject of joint campaign command. As an army group commander, Wu pushed for the establishment of a command-level joint duty system as a starting point for the theater command joint staff system. With a clear emphasis on jointness, the above-mentioned generals appear to be the kind of senior officers with the expertise that Xi thinks is needed for the future development of the PLA.
Perhaps most relevant in the Taiwan context is the rise of a new generation of generals born between 1955 and 1960. Many of these generals, that Xi has promoted, have served in the 31st Army Group. They include CMC Training Management Department director Major General Li Huofei (黎火輝), Admiral Miao Hua, newly-appointed 82nd Army Group Commander Major General Lin Xiangyang (林向陽), 80th Army Group Commander Major General Wang Xiubin (王秀斌), National Defense University President Zheng He (鄭和), and People’s Armed Police Commander General Wang Ning (王寧). Service experience within the 31st Army Group is now a shortcut to higher positions within the military, partly because Xi had served for many years in Fujian and the army group has been a major force to be used against Taiwan. It remains to be seen whether Xi’s promotion of these generals with experience in preparing for a Taiwan contingency reveals an underlying intention toward Taiwan. Yet, it is clear that the PLA is in the process of replacing generals from an older generation, with younger generals. If the older generation generals could be called a “Vietnam War group” because of their war experience in Vietnam, the rising younger generation of generals may be described as a “Taiwan Strait group” because of their involvement in the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis. This newer generation of military leaders are likely to become the PLA’s future stars.
The main point: PLA personnel changes following the 19th CCP Congress highlight the rise of a new generation of generals who have served in the 31st Army Group. The young generals could be described as the “Taiwan Strait group” because of their involvement in the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis.
 “Opinions of CMC on Deepening the Reform of the National Defense and the Armed Forces”(中央軍委關於深化國防和軍隊改革的意見) ,XinHua net, January.1,2016.