Chairman Xi Jinping continued to fine-tune the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) after the latest round of top-brass promotions on 12 December 2019. Of course, it is Xi’s prerogative as chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) to reshuffle personnel, but most observers would agree that political and personal loyalty is a key criterion for deciding who to promote.
State-run Xinhua presaged the news with a brief article that simply began, “Seven Chinese military officers have been promoted to the rank of general, the highest rank for officers in active service in China.” Each was presented with a certificate at a ceremony held in Beijing. The officers promoted to the rank of full general are: He Weidong, commander of the Eastern Theater Command; He Ping, political commissar of the Eastern Theater Command; Wang Jianwu, political commissar of the Southern Theater Command; Li Qiaoming, commander of the Northern Theater Command; Zhou Yaning, commander of the Rocket Force(PLARF); Li Fengbiao, commander of the Strategic Support Force; and Yang Xuejun, head of the Academy of Military Sciences.
These were the highest-profile promotions, but on the same day, more than 170 officers were elevated to new ranks. Notably, this was the largest promotion ever carried out by Xi. At present, more than 4,000 officers in the PLA hold the rank of major general or above.
This round of advancements occurred just four days after the CMC published a circular entitled “Notice on Adjusting the Policy Concerning the Promotion of Military Ranks of Officers at and above the Corps Level” on 8 December. Despite its dull name, this is a hugely important document as it announces new procedures and regulations regarding the promotion of personnel of major general rank and above in every service of the PLA.
The PLA Daily stated, “This is an important measure taken by the Chinese military to promote its professionalized reform of military officers and advance its military human resources system.” Indeed, the circular’s purpose is to correctly align ranks with the posts that senior PLA officers actually hold.
The notice lists specific rules on target groups for adjusting military ranks, the methods of adjustment and regulations on the earliest times when ranks can be attained. The military added, “It also clarifies stipulations on approval authority, handling procedures, ceremonies for military ranks promotion, etc.”
For a long time, there have been discrepancies between ranks and posts within the PLA, as two systems run side by side. For example, a colonel who is a corps commander might find himself outranking his division leader who is a major general. Militaries depend on hierarchal chains of command, and such anomalies in the PLA are an anachronism that have needed to be addressed for a long time.
Not only that, but the PLA has lacked firm guidelines about who can be promoted and when. The absence of such rules meant that political and military leaders could abuse the system and twist it to their advantage, promoting sycophantic or loyal subjects, for example. Or, alternatively, those with high aspirations can buy their way up the chain of command.
Such scandals have plagued the PLA, and General Fang Fenghui, a former Chief of Joint Staff and CMC member, was found guilty of this in February 2019 and sentenced to life imprisonment. His case alone ensnared more than 300 military personnel, including 70 in senior posts in mostly logistics or political commissar posts. Of these, 44 were from the Beijing Military Command where Fang served from 2007-12, these having offered bribes in exchange for promotions.
Since Xi assumed power in 2012, approximately 200 senior generals have been jailed or forced into retirement. In all, well over 13,000 military officers were found guilty of corruption and punished from 2012-17 alone.
The PLA has long operated a dual system between ranks and job posts, one that is riddled with loopholes and opportunities for corruption and which the Communist Party of China (CPC) has used to its advantage. Indeed, officers rising through the administrative ranks were often favoured for promotions simply because they had strong relational ties with senior party or military leaders.
This usually came at the expense of promotions for combat formation leaders posted far from the seat of Beijing power, and they often felt resentment at being passed over despite serving on the “frontlines”. With the PLA not having engaged in combat since its ill-conceived foray into Vietnam in 1979, combat unit leaders were at a distinct disadvantage when it came to career advancement.
Naturally, this dual system within the PLA acts as an incentive for personnel to avoid combat units during their careers, which defeats the whole purpose of having a military, and also leads to inexperienced managers reaching the highest rungs. Not only that, but such leaders have not earned the respect or trust of the rank and file who serve in frontline units.
Hence, the new regulations regarding promotions should have a positive effect on the morale of mid-rank officers given that in the future they may enjoy enhanced advancement prospects based on merit.
In this vein, the PLA Daily added: “Starting with the reform of the ranks promotion system for commanding officers at and above the corps level, the Chinese military will streamline the corresponding relationship between military ranks and positions at various levels, so as to set an example and provide practical support for the revision and implementation of the ‘Law on Officers in Active Service’.
As the PLA transforms into a capable military capable of joint operations, it is more important than ever that its future leaders have a thorough understanding of modern warfare. If its leaders enjoyed a coddled pathway through a string of purchased administrative posts, this is certainly not conducive to gaining a good practical understanding of warfighting.
Furthermore, a military is always far more than the sum of its hardware, as the quality of its leaders, its command-and-control, its network-centricity and its morale are critical effectors. There is no doubt the PLA has been inducting unbelievable amounts of equipment such as stealth fighters, high-tech missiles, hypersonic glide vehicles, unmanned systems, aircraft carriers and ships. What has fallen behind is streamlining of the institutional “glue” that binds all this equipment together into an effective force.
It is rumoured that Xi had been attempting to realign the PLA’s promotion system and regulations for a considerable length of time. However, as with other reforms he has implemented, he has met resistance at high levels. Xi is seeking a new brand of officer who is tough, innovative, displays integrity, is experienced in modern joint warfare and whose political loyalty is unquestioned.
This 8 December circular from the CMC and the latest round of promotions are just steps along the journey towards having a more unified promotion system. Naturally, it will take the PLA years to blot out past abuses and the inconsistencies that mar the military’s allocation of military ranks and job grades. Once it begins to sort out these problems, it will certainly improve command and control, as well as morale, within China’s armed forces.
Nonetheless, regardless of improvements in regulations, the PLA is at its core a political beast. It exists solely to keep the CPC and its chairman in power. For this reason, it will continue to be raked by political intrigue and factional politics. As one leader replaces another and roots out past loyalties, the PLA will find itself enduring illogical promotion decisions. As Chairman Mao Zedong aptly said, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
It is not only the PLA that has been undergoing a shakeup of its top leadership, for the paramilitary arm known as the People’s Armed Police (PAP) has been receiving the same treatment. As the PAP is responsible for internal security, counterterrorism, subduing public unrest and thus protection of the ruling party apparatus, political loyalty is of paramount importance in this force too.
In 2017 the PAP moved directly under CMC control, a move that reflected anxiety in Xi and his cohorts about the party’s ability to control the force. The PAP has reputedly reduced from 800,000 personnel to just 400,000, with ancillary functions such as firefighting, border security and gold surveying moved out from under its purview. At the same time, it took on responsibility for the China Coast Guard (CCG), which is now also under the CMC chain of command.
The PAP is critical to the party. Thus, with all the civil unrest in Hong Kong, the CMC chose to wield the threat of a PAP response to try and keep protesters in line. Official media duly portrayed images of mass PAP anti-riot exercises just north of the Hong Kong border when the protests were at their height.
The top ranks of the PAP have been reshuffled too, and that process seems to be approaching a close. On 9 December a third round of PAP promotions occurred, which saw 36 major generals and a single lieutenant general promoted. The latter is Gao Wei, director of the PAP’s Political Work Department. Gao was formerly a member of the PLA before transferring to the PAP.
As for the new major generals, they are predominantly provincial chiefs within the PAP and CCG. It can be assumed that these are all considered politically reliable, a key concern for Xi. The current commander of the PAP is General Wang Ning, assisted by political commissar General An Zhaoqing.
The previous promotion exercise saw three lieutenant generals lifted to become the PAP Vice-Commander, Secretary of the Discipline Inspection Commission and the Chief of Staff. Earlier than that, in late 2018, a total of 22 major generals were promoted as PAP provincial and department heads.
As with the PLA, large numbers of senior PAP personnel have been arrested for corruption since 2015. For example, in 2016 some 19 generals were arrested. One of the most high-profile casualties of Xi’s anti-graft campaign, which also doubles as an opponent-cleansing pogrom, were the former PAP commander Wang Jianping and political commissar Xu Yaoyuan.
The restructuring of the PLA has seen a number of firsts in terms of promotions. For example, General Yi Xiaoguang was the first PLA Air Force (PLAAF) general to command a theatre when he was promoted to head the Central Theater Command in August 2017.
For all its history to date, the PLA upper rungs were dominated by ground force personnel, but under the restructuring instituted by Xi, the PLAAF, navy (PLAN) and PLARF have been rising to greater prominence. Admiral Yuan Yubai of the PLAN was the first to shatter the glass ceiling when he was named the chief of the Southern Theater Command in January 2017.