China’s 19th Party Congress: streamlined top military tier to push Xi’s reforms further

The new line-up of officials in China’s Central Military Commission reflects President Xi Jinping’s priority for increasing combat readiness.

Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects troops

By Meia Nouwens, Research Fellow for Chinese Defence Policy and Military Modernisation

It was hardly a surprise that China’s recent 19th Party Congress should consolidate President Xi Jinping’s dominance over the military establishment. By unveiling a streamlined Chinese Communist Party Central Military Commission (CMC), it also provided important pointers underscoring the Chinese leader’s continuing priorities of promoting greater ‘jointness’ between military services, increasing combat readiness and sustaining an anti-corruption agenda.

Five years ago, at the 18th Party Congress, the CMC went through a major leadership shake-up. Not only were eight out of ten top uniformed members replaced, but CMC Chairman Hu Jintao was also replaced by then-CMC secretary-general Xi Jinping, thereby centralising the chain of command. Throughout Xi’s first five years, he has continued to change the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) top echelon, by replacing top military leaders implicated in his anti-graft campaign with his own allies.

This time, the size of the CMC has shrunk from eleven to seven total members, and Xi did not, as some thought might happen, add to the usual two vice-chairmen positions. This perhaps betrayed a reluctance to overstep the bounds of traditional Party leadership. In addition, he similarly stuck to the unspoken retirement-age rule, which saw close allies, such as former anti-graft tsar Wang Qishan, retire from the Standing Committee.

But the two individuals filling the vice-chairmen posts point to a few priorities. The first-ranked Vice-Chairman General Xu Qiliang (aged 67) worked under Xi in Fuzhou in the 1990s as commander of the PLA Air Force’s Eighth Army. Xu’s CMC post has traditionally been one held by land-force officers. He is the first air-force general to be appointed. The nomination clearly makes sense in an era of PLA doctrine where joint operability, and naval and air power projection, are being prioritised.

The second-ranked vice-chairman, General Zhang Youxia (67), is one of the few senior military officers in the PLA with combat experience – a potentially significant factor in terms of the chances of successfully modernising a force that has not encountered combat on a major scale in decades. Previously the director of the CMC’s Equipment Development Department, Zhang is also considered one of Xi’s closest allies due to family ties – he and Xi are Shaanxi natives and children of revolutionaries (or ‘second generation reds’; 红二代 in Mandarin Chinese).

The rest of CMC has been halved in number from eight to four regular members, and the line-up has altered significantly. The heads of the ground forces, navy and air force have all departed, as have the directors of the CMC Logistic Support and Equipment Development departments.

The only individual to keep his position on the CMC among this group is General Wei Fenghe (62 or 63), the commander of the PLA Rocket Force. He remains Xi’s close ally. New to the CMC are Chief of the Joint Staff Department Li Zuocheng (63), another veteran with combat experience of the China–Vietnam war; Director of the Political Work Department Admiral Miao Hua, who previously headed the PLA Navy as political commissar and will undoubtedly aid the PLA in its blue-water naval force projection; and, lastly, Lieutenant-General Zhang Shengmin (59), who joins the CMC in his post as secretary of the CMC Discipline Inspection Committee. His nomination is significant because he holds a strong reformist track record and took over as secretary from General Du Jincai, who held close ties to disgraced former CMC vice-chairmen Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, both of whom were implicated in Xi’s anti-corruption crackdown in early 2017. All together, these changes point to Xi’s increasingly centralised decision-making power over the PLA through the CMC, and – again – a further drive towards greater jointness and breaking down the barriers between the services.

In the CMC’s first post-congress statement, issued on 31 October 2017, the new top Chinese military officials reaffirmed their commitment to ‘follow the command of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, the Central Military Commission and its Chairman (Xi Jinping)’. Following the conclusion of the 19th Party Congress, the CMC vice-chairmen have vowed to ‘study the spirit of the Congress and arm the PLA with Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, and ensure its absolute loyalty, purity and reliability’.

This analysis originally featured on the Military Balance+, the new IISS online database that enables users in government, the armed forces and the private sector, as well as academia and the media, to make faster and better-informed decisions. The Military Balance+ allows users to customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.

Back to content list