by Helena Legarda
The 20th Party Congress in October cemented Xi Jinping’s position at the center of political power in China. He has stacked the Politburo and its Standing Committee with loyalists, outlined a policy program that revolves around his priorities, and amended the party constitution to formalize his position as the core of the party. As one of the key instruments of CCP power, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has not escaped this process towards greater concentration of power.
The party congress has reaffirmed many of the changes to the PLA put forward during the previous party congress and implemented in the years since. The main goal is still to turn the PLA into a world-class force by mid-century. Strengthening the party’s leadership over the military is seen as a precondition for building a powerful PLA.
Beyond this statement of priorities, however, the party congress was also the platform for Xi to unveil China’s new Central Military Commission (CMC). The CMC is China’s top military decision-making body, chaired by Xi and reporting directly to the CCP Central Committee. There are no clearly outlined procedures on the selection of CMC members in either the national or the party constitution: the choice is solely at the discretion of the party center. It is therefore important to scrutinize the new lineup for indications of how the PLA and China’s defense policy may develop over the next five years.
Xi has continued his drive to concentrate control over the PLA in his own hands. He has kept the CMC small, following his decision to shrink it in 2017 from 11 members to the current seven. Besides Xi himself, it has two vice-chairmen and four regular members – the directors of the Joint Staff Department and the Political Work Department, possibly the Minister of Defense, and the head of the CMC’s Discipline Inspection Commission. The CMC’s small size makes it easier for Xi to fill it with loyalists and disrupt other factions or patronage networks.
Xi once again appointed two military officers as vice-chairmen. This is a signal that a successor to Xi has not been selected yet and decision-making power remains in his hands. Although it has been the pattern since Xi came to power in 2012, it still represents a break with tradition. While there is no written rule to this effect, previously, the person tapped to succeed the sitting party leader would be named vice-chairman of the CMC a few years before taking over as chairman and party general secretary. Hu Jintao was CMC vice-chairman from 1999-2004, and Xi from 2010-2012.
Growing centralization of power in the PLA was also visible in the renewed emphasis on the Chairman Responsibility System and the “two safeguards” (两个维护). These two concepts complement each other. The “two safeguards” call for maintaining Xi’s position as the core of the party and the centrality of Xi Jinping Thought, while the Chairman Responsibility System establishes that all significant issues of national defense must be planned and decided by the CMC chairman. The Chairman Responsibility System is not Xi’s invention – it has been in the PRC Constitution since 1982 – but it has only truly been implemented since 2017. In the Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin eras, state media sometimes even spoke of a Vice-Chairman Responsibility System, implying that Hu and Jiang were figureheads while their uniformed CMC vice-chairmen ran the PLA. This is clearly not the case today.
Xi has also made use of his control over the CMC selection process to fill the body with politically reliable generals. Several have personal connections to Xi and owe their career progression to him – likely guaranteeing their loyalty going forward.
As with other party bodies, the CMC’s longstanding – but largely unwritten – norms on promotions have been swept aside for this purpose. Among the CMC members who have retained their seats is Zhang Youxia, now the senior of the CMC’s two vice-chairmen. Zhang is already 72 and should have retired; the usual retirement age for Politburo members is 68. However, he is an old friend of Xi’s as their fathers served in the Civil War together.
By contrast, the new second-ranked vice-chairman, He Weidong, was helicoptered into the position. His appointment defies the normal standards, which require that CMC vice-chairmen first serve as CMC members and are picked from members of the CCP Central Committee. He fulfilled none of these requirements. Personal connections seem to have played a role here as well. He and Xi overlapped in Fujian in the late 1990s and some reports suggest Xi made repeated visits to He’s base in Huzhou while he was governor. Another one of the holdovers from the last CMC, Director of the Political Work Department Miao Hua, also has a personal connection to Xi dating back to Fujian in the 1990s.
The composition of China’s new CMC also points to some of Xi’s operational and force development priorities. Officially, improving the PLA’s ‘jointness’ (or integration between the different services) and combat readiness remain among the key goals of China’s defense policy. The need to improve the PLA’s combat capabilities has only intensified as the party’s perception of the international environment has worsened. Xi was very clear on this point when he visited the CMC’s joint operations command center on November 8. There, he demanded the armed forces “adhere to combat effectiveness as the sole criterion”.
Despite the language in the work report, however, the composition of the new CMC may hinder progress in the development of joint operational capabilities. The last CMC was unusual as it diverged from the PLA Army’s historical domination within China’s military leadership. Members represented almost all the PLA’s services in a move designed to improve the military’s ‘jointness’. The new leadership lineup has reversed this change, returning to a ‘green CMC’ that is dominated by the khaki-clad ground force. It should be noted that most of the 20th CMC’s members have held joint positions in the past – either roles at the top of theater commands or PLA general departments that involve all services. Some, like Miao Hua or Liu Zhenli, have even served in two services.
What is clear is that being able to “fight and win wars” is a top priority for Xi and he is therefore signaling that combat experience matters for ambitious PLA leaders hoping to reach the CMC. The promotion of Liu Zhenli, head of the Joint Staff Department, means that Xi now has two generals with operational experience on the CMC. Both Liu and Zhang Youxia served during the war with Vietnam in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This is remarkable considering that Zhang and Liu are two of barely a handful of PLA generals who have seen combat – a fact that highlights the dearth of operational experience in the Chinese military.
Xi’s military leadership choices reflect growing tensions with Washington, Beijing’s view of the United States as the key adversary intent on containing China, and the increasing fear of conflict, either over Taiwan or elsewhere in the region.
He Weidong’s elevation to the role of second vice-chairman may well be linked to the military’s likely greater focus on Taiwan in the next five years. He has led the Eastern Theater Command – whose brief covers Taiwan – for three years. He was the general in charge of the large-scale exercises launched by the PLA to protest Nancy Pelosi’s August 2022 visit, and the PLA Air Force’s almost daily intrusions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) since 2020. His promotion does not signal a major policy shift, but it does reflect the new reality in the Taiwan Strait.
The promotion of Li Shangfu, currently director of the PLA Equipment Development Department (EDD), was a surprising move. Li becomes the second EDD director or former EDD director to sit on the CMC at the same time, following in the footsteps of the current vice-chairman Zhang Youxia. While this does not make the EDD into a CMC springboard just yet, it reflects the importance placed on modernizing China’s military equipment and on informatizing of the PLA. Li Shangfu has more than 30 years of experience at the PLA-run Xichang Satellite Launch Center. He has also served with the Strategic Support Force, which is in charge of space, cyber and electronic warfare capabilities.
Li and the EDD were sanctioned by the US under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) – the only CMC member to be sanctioned. The US imposed the sanctions in 2018 after purchases of Russian Su-35 combat aircraft and S-400 surface-to-air missile systems. Li is therefore banned from visiting the United States or using the US financial system. This could prove challenging if Li becomes the new defense minister next March at the National People's Congress – as is expected. Although it is possible for sanctions to be waived by the US administration, Li’s ascent to the post would send a strong signal that Beijing expects the US to lift the restrictions and that it would be willing to sacrifice military-to-military exchanges at the highest level if it does not. If Li is indeed confirmed as Wei Fenghe’s replacement next spring, we should expect greater tensions between the two militaries.