Gen. Li Shangfu, with deep ties to China’s military space enterprises, is widely expected to become China’s next minister of defense. What do we know about him?
As part of the leadership reshuffle that began with the 20th Party Congress in October 2022, China’s minister-level postings are turning over as well. General Li Shangfu is widely expected to be tapped as China’s next defense minister when the government postings are made official next week. What does that tell us about China’s military direction?
The U.S. Department of Defense’s 2022 China Military Report described Li Shangfu as the general officer who offers “technical expertise on military modernization and space issues” to Xi Jinping’s newly selected seven-person Central Military Commission (CMC), the highest military decision-making authority of the Chinese party-state. The selection of CMC members is always a balancing act (juggling age, service, and career track, among other factors), and this current group of senior military leaders is custom-made to support Xi’s third term as China’s paramount leader.
Indeed, Li’s aerospace engineering background serves as a counterweight to other senior People’s Liberation Army (PLA) members on the commission, such as Admiral Miao Hua and General Zhang Shengmin, both of whom rose through the military’s political work system.
Li’s rise reflects the unprecedented development of China’s space enterprise since Xi Jinping took power in 2012. It also signals to the world that, against the backdrop of increasingly intensified China-U.S. technological competition, China will continue to prioritize aerospace in its defense modernization agenda during Xi’s third term and beyond.
Moreover, Li was the inaugural deputy commander and chief of staff of the PLA’s Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), an innovative organization created on December 31, 2015 – at the start of Xi’s signature military reform – to facilitate organizational changes the PLA needed to become a modern fighting force. In that capacity, Li likely played a key role in realigning China’s space and missile research, development, and acquisition (RD&A) processes and standards.
Li the Red and Professional
General Li Shangfu embodies the CCP’s sought-after qualities of an ideal cadre: to be both red and professional. In PLA parlance, this means that one must demonstrate unwavering loyalty to the Communist cause while possessing technical expertise. In the Xi Jinping era, the PLA has promoted new campaigns, such as the implementation of Xi’s “two experts” directive, to reinforce this standard. The PLA urges its political officers to sharpen their military and technical skills to help the force better adapt to the modern combat environment. Li fits both calls.
First of all, Li has “red blood” and the Chinese media has been keen to highlight his family background. Born in 1958, Li is the son of high-ranking PLA Army railway force commander, Li Shaozhu (1911-1995). Li the senior joined the Red Army in 1932, survived the Long March, and later fought in the Korean War. Chinese media’s hype of Li Shangfu’s family ties possibly signals the importance of Li’s “red blood” as an important factor in his rise. As is widely known, Xi Jinping himself is a child of a CCP elder, Xi Zhongxun. Furthermore, like Xi, Li grew up in the tumultuous Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
Second, Li’s aerospace engineering background is another focus of his public persona. Li is dubbed a “real professional” who knows his trade. Chinese media sources show that Li graduated from the PLA’s National University of Defense Technology (NUDT) in 1982. This suggests that he was among the first Chinese youths who were allowed to take the college entrance exams – possibly thanks to his family’s political ties – and received formal college education after China reopened its higher education system at the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1978. Li reportedly received his graduate degree from Chongqing University’s College of Automation, a civilian university known for its engineering curriculum. It is another rare credential to have among PLA senior leaders of his generation.
Finally, Li is unique in his experience in both space operations and acquisition. He served for almost 31 years at the PLA’s Xichang Satellite Launch Center from 1982-2013 – including serving as its commander from 2003-2013. Li was directly involved in China’s successful launch of its first anti-satellite missile test in 2007 and presided over the successful launch of China’s first lunar probe in the same year. Since 2014, Li brought his operational expertise to the PLA’s RD&A enterprise – first as a deputy director at the former General Armament Department, followed by serving as a deputy commander and chief of staff of the PLASSF (2015-2017), before taking the helm of the CMC Equipment Development Department (EDD) in 2017.
As of today, Li’s name remains on the U.S. State Department’s List of Specified Persons (LSP) associated with the Trump administration’s sanctions on EDD for military purchases from Russia. It is likely Li will be delisted from the LSP once he becomes China’s defense minister. But discussions about his status on the United States’ “sanction list” as the logic behind his rise probably is misguided.
An Aerospace Advocate from Within?
Should Li Shangfu be sworn in as China’s next minister of national defense at the first session of the 14th National People’s Congress (scheduled to open on March 5, 2023), he will replace General Wei Fenghe, a career missileer, to become the new face of China’s international military diplomacy. But what is equally, if not more, important is his domestic-facing role within the Chinese government bureaucracy in shaping China’s defense modernization agenda in the coming years. Individual military or civilian leaders within the Chinese system operate in accordance with pre-existing bureaucratic norms, not necessarily personal preferences. As such, Li’s “aerospace expert” background provides him leverage in dealing with the complex party and government organizational structure.
As the defense minister, Li will become the sole uniformed member of the State Council – a position Wei currently holds. The State Council, according to China’s Constitution, is the “central people’s government” and the “supreme executive body of state power and state administration.” From the perspective of bureaucratic processes, Li will represent the military’s interest in the “administration” of China’s domestic affairs. In other words, by design, he will be “competing” against other ministers representing different bureaucratic interests, such as economic, trade, or diplomatic affairs, to ensure the military continues to take priority in resource allocation, which likely will become more important as China’s economy faces major headwinds.
Li’s “aerospace expert” credential gives him the clout to promote the military’s technological modernization agenda – a defining feature of Xi Jinping’s “strong military thought.” Li’s extensive military RD&A leadership experiences also suggest better, perhaps more efficient, coordination between the military and civilian entities involved in key national defense programs, consistent with China’s defense finance reform that promotes extensive utilization of provincial government and social capital in the name of military-civil fusion.
Li’s ascent also greatly boosts the “aerospace clique” of the Xi Jinping era. Technocrats in Chinese political culture are generally regarded as more pragmatic and capable than CCP ideologues. Having someone with Li’s credentials as the new public face of the PLA will enhance the military’s image in the eyes of the Chinese public. Unlike the U.S. military, which enjoys high social standing, the PLA continues to struggle to define its own identity in an ever-modernizing Chinese society despite numerous measures the CCP has taken in recent years to change that narrative. Social stigma and rampant corruption within the PLA have significantly tarnished the PLA’s image, with scandal such as the fall of Lt. General Rao Kaixun, a key member of PLASSF’s first leadership team in 2017.
General Li Shangfu’s appointment represents more consistency in the PLA senior leadership than change. Like Wei Fenghe, who also rose within the PLA under Xi’s tenure, Li will continue to be a steward of China’s defense modernization programs, which have received sustained and continuous support of Chinese leaders from Jiang Zemin to Xi Jinping. Moreover, as the highest-ranking state councilor and a CMC member, Li will enjoy direct access to Xi and serve as his key military advisor.
Li’s connections to the PLASSF, the military space operations, as well as the defense RD&A communities, make him intimately aware of the most cutting-edge military technologies the PLA currently possesses. He undoubtedly will be an asset for the PLA in its pursuit to accelerate the transfer of technology to enable Chinese warfighters to create technological surprises for its near-peer adversaries. His appointment signals the PLA’s desire to transform itself into a capable, modern fighting force that not merely survives, but thrives in long-term strategic competition with high-end adversaries.
The author thanks Dennis Blasko and Thomas Burns for their constructive feedback on previous drafts.