General Fan Chonglong, who since November 2012 has served as the first vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, is very likely to retire in two years. Born in May 1947, he will turn 70 in May 2017 and, according to custom, will exit the CMC at the 19th National Party Congress in the fall of that year. The question is, who will be his successor?
The first and most obvious candidate is General Xu Qiliang, the second vice chairman of the CMC. Though three years younger than Fan, Xu in fact has even more substantial political and military credentials. Xu joined the People’s Liberation Army in 1966, three years earlier than Fan; became a CCP member in 1967, two years earlier than Fan; and was admitted to the Central Committee of the CCP in 1992, a whole decade earlier than Fan.
Throughout almost his entire military career, Xu was promoted in the PLA Air Force much earlier than Fan reached equivalent positions in the PLA Army. Xu was appointed as a division commander in 1983 at the age of 33, seven years earlier than Fan, who was made a division commander in 1990 at the age of 43. Xu was promoted to army commander in 1990 at the age of 40, five years earlier than Fan, who was made an army commander in 1995 at the age of 48. Xu was promoted to chief of staff of the PLA Air Force (a position with a rank of deputy regional chief) in 1994, six years earlier than Fan, who was made chief of staff of the Shenyang Military Region in 2000.
In military ranks, Xu was awarded the rank of major general in 1991, six years earlier than Fan; Xu was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general in 1996, six years than Fan; and Xu was promoted to the rank of general in 2007, one year earlier than Fan.
However, Fan caught up with Xu in 2004 when both were promoted to the rank of military regional chief: Fan became commander of the Shenyang Military Region and Xu deputy chief of staff of the PLA. Xu entered the CMC as a member in October 2007 in his capacity as commander of the PLA Air Force, but Fan skipped over him in November 2012 to become the first vice chairman of the CMC without any prior experience as a CMC member.
It seems that with Fan’s forthcoming retirement, Xu will be a very strong candidate to replace him as the number one vice chairman of the CMC. However, his background in the Air Force means he might encounter strong resistance in the PLA, which has a strong army tradition.
The second candidate is General Zhang Youxia, director of the General Armament Department. Four months younger than Xu, Zhang’s military credentials as an army officer are impeccable.
Zhang joined the PLA in 1968 and rose through the ranks in the army system. He was appointed commander of the 13th Army Corps in 2000, promoted to deputy commander of the Beijing Military Region in 2005, and became commander of the Shenyang Military Region in 2007. Zhang was appointed director of the General Armament Department in October 2012 and entered the CMC in that capacity one month later.
When it comes to the selection of a new CMC vice chairman in 2017, in addition to being an army officer with the highest rank in the PLA, Zhang also has three factors in his favor. First, he would be the only PLA officer left in the CMC who has real combat experience. He participated in wars with Vietnam twice, in 1979 and 1984. Second, he is a red princeling with close ties with Xi Jinping. His father, General Zhang Zongxun (1908-1998), worked very closely with Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun (1913-2002), in the 1940s. Third, Zhang Youxia and Xi Jinping are both natives of Shaanxi born in Beijing.