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What Recent Promotions Tells Us About the ‘New Normal’ in China’s Military

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What Recent Promotions Tells Us About the ‘New Normal’ in China’s Military

After uncertainty caused by reform and anti-corruption, the PLA’s personnel management is returning to normal patterns.

What Recent Promotions Tells Us About the ‘New Normal’ in China’s Military
Credit: DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley

Every July, a list of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) general and flag officers (GFOs) promoted to higher ranks is made known to the public. There has always been a lot of speculation in the media about each service’s possible candidates in the lead-up to the formal announcement of the promotions. From the list of GFOs announced for promotion this time, we can see that the focus is still on replacing older GFOs with younger ones and that, more importantly, the path to promotion to GFO ranks in the PLA is getting more transparent after having been in a murky state for a couple of years.

The previous uncertainty about promotion was due to efforts to get rid of the remaining members of the factions formed by ex-Central Military Commission (CMC) Vice Chairmen Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong, who had fallen from power because of corruption. Many senior officers who were initially considered to be “future stars” either lost favor or were transferred to less important positions, where they stayed till retirement, while some younger GFOs climbed to top positions to the surprise of many people. These factors, plus the reorganization and restructuring mandated by the military reform initiated in 2016, made personnel reshuffles in the PLA highly unpredictable over the past few years. Many precedents had lost their reference value because of the military reform and anti-corruption campaign. However, by looking at the personnel changes in the PLA in the middle of 2019, we can see that new promotion norms are taking shape.

On July 31, 2019, the Bayi Building in Beijing held the promotion ceremony for 10 PLA and People’s Armed Police (PAP) GFOs who rose to the rank of general or admiral. The PLA and PAP GFOs rising to the rank of general or admiral this time included CMC Equipment Development Department Director Li Shangfu, Southern Theater Command Commander Yuan Yubai, Western Theater Command Political Commissar Wu Shezhou, Northern Theater Command Political Commissar Fan Xiaojun, Central Theater Command Political Commissar Zhu Shengling, PLA Navy (PLAN) Commander Shen Jinlong, PLAN Political Commissar Qin Shengxiang, PLA Air Force Commander Ding Laihang, National Defense University President Zheng He, and PAP Political Commissar An Zhaoqing.

2018 was the only year in the past decade that saw no GFOs promoted to the rank of general or admiral. The number suddenly rose to 10 this year, sparking much discussion among outside analysts. Possible reasons for the climb involve the distribution of military power and selection of succeeding leaders. It might also have something to do with the fact that the PLA has returned to traditional routines in the execution of personnel management regulations after the launch of the most recent military reform.

Relevant PLA rules formerly required that GFOs eligible for promotion to the rank of general or admiral have to serve at least two years in military region commander-grade positions and stay at the rank of lieutenant general or vice admiral for at least four years. Starting from 1993, the promotion ceremony for GFOs rising to the rank of general or admiral was held by the CMC every two years. From 2006 to 2017, there were GFOs promoted to the rank of general or admiral every year. Each year’s promotion ceremony took place around mid-July, prior to Army Day on August 1.

One exception to the above: If a lieutenant general or vice admiral becomes a member of the CMC, he will immediately be promoted the rank of general or admiral. Incumbent CMC Commission for Discipline Inspection Secretary Zhang Zhengmin, for example. He was promoted to the rank of general in November 2017 because he became a member of the CMC during the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. CMC membership ensures a general/admiral title.

The wave of promotions this year should be viewed from the angle of China’s military reform and anti-corruption efforts. Following the downfall of ex-CMC Vice Chairmen Xu and Guo, the factions formed by them have fallen apart but are not likely to be totally eliminated in a matter of a few years. In 2017, then-CMC member Zhang Yang committed suicide. Another CMC member, Fang Fenghui, was put under investigation for corruption charges in the same year. Quite a few GFOs who were initially considered to have a bright future in the military were either transferred to less important positions or forced to retire early (like Cai Yingting). The many examples show how influential the factions formed by Xu and Guo once were. Quite a few GFOs at and above the rank of lieutenant general or vice admiral bowed out because of the anti-corruption campaign.

Taking advantage of the favorable circumstances, many younger GFOs rose to higher positions and were thought highly of by top military leadership. The rapid promotion of these young officers is also useful for President Xi Jinping to secure his control of the military.

From the list of GFOs promoted to the ranks of lieutenant general or vice admiral and major general or rear admiral in the middle of 2019, we can see that promotions in the PLA have returned to traditional routines. Among those who rose to the rank of general or admiral, there was so-called “new blood,” a sign showing that the PLA is seeking a general replacement of its flag officers. Except for generals and admirals who are incumbent members of the CMC, those who were born before 1955 are mostly set to retire in the next few years. The recent promotions discussed here signified not only an effort to enable a smooth succession but also an attempt to help Xi secure his military power.

From the personnel changes in the PLA in recent years, we can find that the damage caused by the factions formed by Xu and Guo might have already been brought under control step by step. The most recent GFO reshuffles also revealed something about the PLA’s new personnel promotion system.

The release of China’s new 2019 Defense White Paper shows that the objectives of the most recent round of military reforms have been achieved step by and step. Although troop training and operational command have gradually gotten on track during the transition to post-reform practices, the personnel appointment system is just starting to become more regular. No matter how advanced weaponry and strategic thinking become, they still need to be operated and executed by military personnel. The personnel factor will be key to whether the PLA can bring its combat strength into full play. We need some time to find out the answer.

From the personnel arrangements this year, we can see that although past practices and rules prior to the military reform were not applicable during the past few years, they returned to use again this year. This shows that many indicators that were adopted in PLA studies prior to the military reform can still serve as valuable tools for analysis. The current rules, though changed because of the reform, are still partially kept as they were in the past. This is the “new norm” in the Chinese military. More examples will appear in PLA studies in the years to come.

Dr. Ying Yu Lin is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Strategic and International Affairs, National Chung Cheng University in Chiayi, Taiwan and a Research Fellow, Association of Strategic Foresight. He received his Ph.D from the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies, Tamkang University.