In late August, Generals Fang Fenghui and Zhang Yang mysteriously vanished. The plot thickened when both generals, whom many observers considered to have bright career prospects, were said to be under investigation for corruption and failed to make the list of military delegates to the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Meanwhile, the Central Military Commission (CMC) dispatched four special discipline inspection groups to key military units and institutions in mid-September to conduct a probe that would conclude just three days before the opening of the 19th Congress on Oct. 18.
Capping the series of unusual events was the unveiling of only seven CMC members — a chairman, two vice chairs, and four members — at the first plenary session of the 19th Central Committee on October 25. There were 11 CMC members during President Xi Jinping’s first term, as was the case with former leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.
At a glance, a smaller CMC seems counterintuitive to Xi’s efforts to consolidate control over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Xi spent the past three years shifting the CMC away from a “vice chairman responsibility system” where military power was concentrated in the hands of influential deputies like the purged Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou to a “chairman responsibility system” where he calls the shots. Diluting the power of the CMC took the form of reorganizing its four General Departments into 15 smaller departments, and the creation of two separate chains of command (operational chain and administration chain). It would appear that the next logical step for Xi to take would be to add new vice chairmen and members to the CMC to further diffuse power, create checks and balances, and prevent future challenges to his authority. In the lead up to the 19th Congress, PLA insiders predicted that Xi could add two or three vice chairmen to the CMC.
Yet Xi went with a leaner CMC on Oct. 25, a development which is likely influenced in part by the unusual incidents laid out at the start of this essay. I believe there are three reasons why Xi decided to downsize the CMC:
- The composition of the new CMC meets Xi’s objective of power consolidation.
- Xi is looking to avoid the internal backlash that would arise if he expands the CMC.
- Xi is buying time to reassess the loyalties of senior generals and groom a new leadership guard.
Mao Zedong’s remark that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” best encapsulates the symbiotic link between military and political power in the CCP. Party leaders who fail to control the military end up being held hostage to those who do have authority over the troops. A recent example is Hu Jintao’s experience in office from 2002 to 2012. His minimal influence over military affairs is best observed by his being unaware that a new Chinese stealth fighter was being tested when queried by former United States Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2011. Hu’s CMC vice chairs Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, two allies of Jiang Zemin, dominated the military, and hence foreign observers and Party insiders considered Hu to be a figurehead.
Having observed Hu’s fate, Xi moved to purge the military of Jiang’s remaining influence using the anti-corruption campaign, and bring the PLA more fully under his control. Guo and Xu were both arrested after Xi took office in 2012, and Guo was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2016 for taking massive bribes (Xu would undoubtedly have been prosecuted if he hadn’t died of bladder cancer in 2015). State media continually urge the need to “completely eliminate Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou’s pernicious residue influence.”
Xi’s sweeping military reforms and personnel reshuffles are also aimed at breaking up entrenched Jiang faction networks and preventing military leaders from building up sufficient power to challenge the Party general secretary. The PLA army group reforms in April is a case in point. The 18 army groups were reduced to 13, given new unit numbers, and assigned new army group commanders and political commissars. The newly appointed army group leadership personnel were given just 24 hours to take up their new posts. The personnel movement and reorganization of the army groups appears to be aimed at defamiliarizing the leadership from their troops and vice versa, as well as dislocating the top command from their previous power base, if they had any.
While the downsized CMC appears to run counter to Xi’s efforts to dilute the power of its members, Xi is probably willing to tolerate this option because he oversaw the promotions of the new CMC members and is confident that their allegiance lies with him.
Vice chair Xu Qiliang has supported and observed Xi’s policies over the past five years and hasn’t shown any signs of disloyalty.
Vice chair Zhang Youxia has combat experience from his participation in the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War. Also, Zhang’s father Zhang Zongxun served with Xi Zhongxun, the father of Xi Jinping, during the civil war in the 1940s. Then, Zhang Zongxun was vice commander of the Northwest Field Army, and Xi Zhongxun was deputy political commissar.
PLA Rocket Force commander Wei Fenghe received an exceptional promotion from Xi after Xi became General Secretary in November 2012.
Chief of Joint Staff Li Zuocheng was awarded merit of the first class for his valor with the 41st Army Group during the Sino-Vietnamese War, became a division commander in 1994, and was promoted to the rank of major general in 1997. But his career soon stagnated because he reportedly offended Jiang Zemin. After Xi came to office, he revived Li’s career with several promotions.
Political Work Department director Miao Hua received three exceptional promotions under Xi: A cross-service branch move from political commissar of Lanzhou Military Region to PLA Navy political commissar in December 2014, promotion to the rank of general in July 2015, and the appointment to his current post in August.
Zhang Shengmin, the CMC Commission for Discipline Inspection secretary, received four promotions in two years. Zhang and Wei Fenghe used to serve in the Second Artillery Corps, the predecessor to the PLA Rocket Force. Zhang’s inclusion into the CMC also reflects Xi’s anti-corruption priorities, and sends a message to those in the military who might be thinking of opposing Xi.
By stacking the CMC with officials he trusts, Xi can sidestep the dangers of power being overly concentrated in a leaner CMC while further consolidating his authority over the military.
In the ideal scenario, Xi would see the CMC expanded to dilute the power of its members and bring the top military body more in line with the overall military restructuring. But he risks provoking fierce internal backlash given how things now stand concerning rank promotions.
According to PLA regulations, the CMC determines the elevation of officers up the general ranks, but no promotion criteria is listed. Going by precedent, however, lieutenant generals usually hold their rank for a minimum of four years and serve as leading commanders in a theater command or similar level position for at least two years before their promotion to full general. This promotion norm is waived for lt. generals who join the CMC but haven’t met the promotion requirements, since all CMC members must hold the rank of general. For instance, Zhang Shengmin was promoted to full general on November 2, barely a year and a half after his promotion to lt. general.
If Xi expanded the CMC by including all service branch commanders and department directors in it, an arrangement that adheres to the setup of the previous CMC, he would have to make multiple exceptional promotions or further elevate generals who had only recently received “rocket-style promotion.” For instance, Lt. Generals Li Shangfu, Shen Jinlong, Zhou Yaning were elevated after mid-2016, while Wei Fenghe, Miao Hua, Song Puxuan, and Han Weiguo were all fast-tracked to the rank of general.
Should Xi insist on an 11-member CMC or try for an expanded version, his runs the risk of being challenged by the various factions in the military and the Party for excessive norm breaking. The last-minute changes to the 19th Congress military delegates list and the month-long internal probe of key military units and institutions just before the Congress hints at dissent in the top ranks. And while Xi came out of the 19th Congress with increased political power, he still doesn’t have Mao-level authority or prestige to ignore all dissenting voices and force through his will. So trimming the CMC is, in fact, a conservative option for Xi because it allows him to avoid potentially destabilizing internal backlash.
Having a downsized CMC now is also a prudent option for Xi Jinping given that he is in the process of thinning the top military ranks of senior generals whose loyalties might lie elsewhere while grooming a new guard of generals that will be devoted to him.
Xi has a loyalty issue with the PLA’s current crop of senior generals because all officers at the rank of general and lt. general were promoted during Jiang Zemin’s era of dominance (1997-2012). And nearly all senior officers, including those of princeling background, had to buy their ranks when Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong were in charge. Guo Zhenggang, the son of Guo Boxiong, publicly said that half of the leading military personnel owed their promotions to his family while Xu promoted the other half. So after announcing his military reforms in 2015, Xi began replacing many full generals in leading positions with junior generals, or those whose promotions lagged during the Jiang era such as Li Zuocheng and People’s Armed Police deputy commander Qin Tian.
Xi appears to have still encountered serious resistance despite his caution in selecting top military personnel. The odd circumstances surrounding the vanishing of Generals Fang Fenghui and Zhang Yang in August suggests that they could have been involved in a coup attempt against Xi, or at least sought to challenge his authority. The dropping of Lt. Generals Wang Jianwei, Zhang Ruiqing, and Zhang Shuguo from the 19th Congress delegates list, as well as Logistic Support Department director Song Puxuan’s failure to make the CCP Central Committee as a full or alternate member also hints at trouble within the top military ranks. If Xi cannot be certain of the loyalties of generals like Fang Fenghui, who was part of Xi’s entourage during his meeting with President Donald Trump in April, or Song Puxuan, who was the commander for Xi’s grand military parade in 2015, then he would be taking a huge risk by adding them to the CMC even though they are eligible.
Xi’s senior military leadership problem might ease up at the three-year mark of his second term when new candidates become available. This is because the major generals whom Xi elevated in 2016 will be due for promotion in 2020. These major generals will likely be loyal to Xi and be more accepting of his policies than the current crop of senior generals, who were promoted during the Jiang era.
Until Xi feels more certain about the loyalty of his senior generals, having a small but more stable CMC is perhaps the most sensible choice. In the meantime, Xi will rely on the elevated CMC Commission for Discipline Inspection secretary to act as a deterrent to senior generals below the CMC level who might be thinking of stirring trouble.
The CMC personnel reshuffle ultimately has to enable Xi Jinping to consolidate control over the military more fully. So while the downsized CMC is not entirely in sync with the direction of the military reforms, it is Xi’s best option given the current personnel situation.
Xi has broken up existing factional networks inside the military after more or less accomplishing most of the PLA’s restructuring this year, but he is still wary of new challenges to his authority. The next five years will see Xi reevaluate the performance of the current crop of senior generals while he grooms the new leadership rank.
Don Tse is the CEO and co-founder of SinoInsider Consulting LLC, a consulting and research company based in New York City.