Commentary: Slew of military leadership changes clear the slate for Xi Jinping

Commentary: Slew of military leadership changes clear the slate for Xi Jinping

President Xi Jinping will also likely make three key changes to the Central Military Commission to strengthen his grip over the PLA at the 19th Party Congress, says political observer Bo Zhiyue.

BEIJING: Ahead of the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) scheduled to begin on Oct 18 in Beijing, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been undergoing major changes – not least a slew of leadership changes at the top of the hierarchy.

Since the start of 2017, at least six key military leaders have been replaced, two of whom are members of the Central Military Commission (CMC) who have been reportedly placed under investigation.

Looking ahead to the Party Congress, we should also expect President Xi Jinping to introduce changes to the highest levels of China’s military command structures.


Major leadership changes since the start of 2017 began with the PLA Navy.

On Jan 20, Commander of the South Sea Fleet Vice-Admiral Shen Jinlong replaced politically well-connected Admiral Wu Shengli as Commander of the PLA Navy. Wu, the son of Wu Xian, party secretary, mayor of Hangzhou and vice-governor of Zhejiang in the 1950s, had served as commander of the PLA Navy for more than 11 years.

From a professional military succession planning point of view, Wu’s succession by Shen was not entirely unexpected, since Shen’s trajectory in the PLA Navy had closely followed Wu’s.

Shen took over as President of the PLA Dalian Academy in 2010, and as commander of the South Sea Fleet in 2014, positions Wu occupied from 1994 to 1997, and 2002 to 2004 respectively.

Commander of the Chinese Navy, Admiral Wu Shengli points out the
Commander of the PLA Navy, Admiral Wu Shengli (right) has been replaced by Vice-Admiral Shen Jinlong after being in the position for 11 years. (File photo: AFP)

But Shen is the only commander of the PLA Navy in the history of the People’s Republic of China to be promoted directly from a commander of a fleet with a rank of deputy military region chief.

With his new appointment, Shen has leapfrogged two ranks and will replace Wu as a member of the CMC at the forthcoming 19th Party Congress.

The second major change took place in the military disciplinary apparatus. On Feb 28, Lieutenant-General Zhang Shengmin, political commissar of the Logistic Support Department under the CMC since October 2016, was appointed secretary of the Disciplinary Inspection Commission of the CMC. He takes over from General Du Jincai, who has held the post since October 2012. 

Du had close ties to Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, former CMC vice-chairmen implicated in an anti-corruption crackdown. While still a nominal deputy secretary of the Central Disciplinary Inspection Commission, Du’s name is now absent from the list of delegates attending the 19th Party Congress.

Du’s successor Zhang has a strong reformist track record.

Zhang had served in several PLA departments that have seen significant reform since 2012 under President Xi Jinping’s leadership.

Zhang developed his career in the Second Artillery Forces (since then upgraded to become the Rocket Force). He was also appointed political commissar of the newly established Training Management Department in February 2016, one of the 15 new bodies that replaced the PLA’s four general departments and now reports directly to the CMC.

Through Zhang, it seems Xi Jinping hopes to control the military disciplinary apparatus.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has presided over a much-publicised anti-graft campaign since coming to
Chinese President Xi Jinping has also presided over a much-publicised anti-graft campaign since coming to power in 2012, which some have compared to a political purge. (Photo: AFP/Wang Zhao)

The third major leadership change took place in the Joint Staff Department under the CMC. On Aug 26, General Li Zuocheng, commander of the PLA Ground Force since Jan 1, 2016, assumed the position of chief of the Joint Staff Department.

A native of Hunan, Li began his military career in 1970 at the age of 17 and has significant military and political credentials. A professional soldier with combat experience from the Sino-Vietnamese war, Li became a member of the Presidium of the 12th Party Congress in 1982, which oversees the Congress’ agenda and adoption of resolutions.

Li was also the inaugural commander of the PLA Ground Force, after it was reformed and placed on equal footing as other forces like the Rocket Force.

The fourth leadership change took place in the PLA Air Force. On Sep 1, commander of the PLA North Theatre Command Air Force Lieutenant-General Ding Laihang took over as commander of the PLA Air Force.

From a military succession planning standpoint, Ding seems like a good candidate, since he has relevant experience in key PLA Air Force commands.

A native of Zhejiang, Ding’s military career followed that of General Xu Qiliang, vice-chairman of the CMC who had been commander of the PLA Air Force from 2007 to 2012.

Chinese vice chairman of the Central Military Commission Xu Qiliang
Chinese vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission Xu Qiliang is widely seen as Xi Jinping's number two man in the CMC, where he has been vice-chairman since 2012. (Photo: AFP/Wang Zhao)

Ding had served as chief of staff of the PLA Air Force's Lanzhou Military Region and commander of the PLA Air Force's Shenyang Military Region - positions Xu held from 1999 to 2004.

Ding also served in the same PLA Air Force's 8th unit that Xu did as chief of staff from 2001 to 2003 and as the inaugural commander of the same unit's reorganised successor, the PLA Air Force's Fuzhou Command, until 2007.

But what is notable are Ding’s political ties to Xi Jinping.

The 8th unit has operated out of Fuzhou since August 1985, the same city where Xi Jinping worked as party secretary and the same province of Fujian where Xi later served as deputy party secretary, acting governor and governor from 1990 to 2002.

Fifth, commander of the Central Theatre Command General Han Weiguo took over from General Li Zuocheng to assume the position of commander of the PLA Ground Force in August 2017.

A native of Hebei, Han went through his ranks in the 31st Army stationed in Xiamen in his early career. One of his commanders then was Wang Ning, now commander of the People’s Armed Police. Han was recently awarded the rank of full general by Xi Jinping on Jul 28.

China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) General Li Zuocheng (C) speaks
PLA Ground Force commander General Li Zuocheng (centre) meanwhile has been named chief of the Joint Staff Department under the CMC. (File photo: AFP/Mark Schiefelbein)

Finally, on Sep 7, political commissar of the PLA Navy Admiral Miao Hua took over as director of the Political Work Department under the CMC.

A Fujian native, Miao spent his early military career in his home province, where Xi Jinping served for 17 years. Miao also worked with Han in both the 31st Army and the 12th Army for many years.

The flurry of leadership changes in the PLA show Xi Jinping’s commitment to military reforms and reflects his desire to extend his influence over the PLA, ahead of the 19th Party Congress.

Many of the new appointees have close personal ties to Xi or strong professional connections with his reform agenda.


Ahead of the 19th Party Congress, two incumbent members of the CMC have been reportedly placed under investigation. These individuals, by virtue of their strong ties to other factions in the Chinese political system, may seem like a threat to Xi.

One is General Fang Fenghui, former chief of the Joint Staff Department under the CMC. A native of Shaanxi, Fang has been closely associated with former vice-chairman of the CMC Guo Boxiong who is now serving a life sentence for bribery.

Fang was promoted to commander of the 21st Army in 1999 when Guo, another Shaanxi native, was commander of the Lanzhou Military Region. When Guo became vice-chairman of the CMC in 1999, he, together with Xu Caihou, then executive deputy director of the General Political Department of the PLA, practically controlled the PLA for the next 13 years.

Both were subsequently expelled from the Party for corruption, under Xi Jinping’s watch.

During Guo and Xu’s time at the CMC, Fang helmed key appointments, such as commander of the Beijing Military Region and subsequently chief of the PLA General Staff Department.

Fang reached the pinnacle of his career when he became a member of the CMC at the 18th Party Congress in November 2012 – the Party Congress that established Xi Jinping’s leadership.

Guo Boxiong shakes hands with US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
Former Chinese Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission Guo Boxiong (right) had exerted strong influence in China's dealings with countries like the US for almost 13 years. (Photo: AFP) 

The other CMC member under investigation is former director of the Political Work Department General Zhang Yang. The Hebei native also began his military career in 1968, and along with Fang, entered the CMC at the 18th Party Congress.

There is no official confirmation that these two CMC members have indeed been placed under investigation, but the fact that neither of them is a delegate to the 19th National Party Congress is hardly a good sign for these powerful military leaders expected to have been on that list.

It is likely that they are being investigated more for political reasons because of their close links to Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou – both of whom had good standing under Hu Jintao’s leadership.


The military reshuffles and purges are the only the tip of an iceberg – more can be expected in the month leading up to the Party Congress.

Moreover, along with massive personnel changes, Xi is likely to restructure the CMC in his favour in three ways.

First, he is likely to further centralise decision-making power by emphasising his supremacy as the CMC Chairman.

Second, he may dilute the power of other CMC members by expanding the CMC’s membership – currently at eight, not counting Xi and his two vice chairmen – to include all 15 directly subordinate bodies created from the PLA’s four General Departments as well as the five military services of the Ground Force, Navy, Air Force, Rocket Force and Strategic Support Force.

Third, he is likely to establish a Standing Committee of the CMC with four or five vice chairmen as its members – to pull trusted allies into an inner circle that makes and implements key decisions.

It will be interesting to see to what extent this restructuring will occur and who will become members of the next CMC and its possible Standing Committee.

Ultimately, one may wonder to what extent this reform makes the PLA more combat-ready in a real war scenario. 

Dr Bo Zhiyue, a leading authority on China’s politics, is founder and president of the Bo Zhiyue China Institute, a consulting firm providing services on China to heads of governments and CEOs of multinational corporations.

Read other commentaries in Channel NewsAsia's series on the Chinese Communist Party 19th Party Congress on:

1. The expected reforms Xi Jinping may make.

2. The crackdown on Chinese businesses.

3. The role Wang Qishan plays.

4. The new leaders in Beijing.

5. Reforms in the PLA over recent years.