On January 17, 2017, 71-year old Admiral Wu Shengli retired from a 41-year career culminating in nearly 11 years as commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), making him the second-longest-serving Chinese naval head in history. The longest-serving was Xiao Jinguang, who led the PLAN, albeit with some political interruption, during a particularly difficult three decades from 1950-79.
The events of the previous month offered a fitting capstone to Wu’s career. On December 8, Wu attended a high-profile ceremony commemorating the “70th Anniversary of China’s Recovery of the Xisha (Paracel) and Nansha (Spratly) Islands” in the South China Sea, having previously inspected some of China’s increasingly fortified installations there. On December 29, Wu participated in a video-teleconference commemorating the eighth anniversary of the PLAN’s anti-piracy escort mission in the Gulf of Aden. Most dramatically, on December 23, in a widely-reported display of naval and national prestige, Wu guided flight and formation training including “air refueling and air confrontation” from aboard China’s first aircraft carrier. Liaoning’s circumnavigation of Taiwan and passage through the Taiwan Strait on January 11, 2017 must have been a sweet swan song for him just days before he stepped down.
History tends to remember major personalities who lead the achievement of dramatic progress. Here Wu has made a name for himself that will be remembered and ultimately rediscovered by all who follow Chinese naval developments, in his case as a leading career-long naval officer who took his service far out to sea. Wu will also be linked to an even more powerful leader who is leaving an even greater mark on history – Chinese President and Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping. Wu’s retention in October 2012, when all other service-grade military leaders of his age were forced to retire, suggested both the Chinese leadership’s prioritization of naval modernization and its particular confidence in him. Wu’s position was greatly facilitated by support from Xi, who when he assumed all three offices of Chinese executive leadership in 2012 was not only determined to further China’s maritime interests and capabilities but also unusually well-placed to do so. Wu’s father’s status as a former vice governor of Zhejiang province, made the admiral, like Xi, one of China’s “princelings.” Also like Xi, however, Wu made his own achievements and would ultimately surpass his father in prominence.