What China’s New Central Military Commission Tells Us About Xi’s Military Strategy
Leadership selection within China’s military has long been considered one of the more opaque dimensions of Chinese politics. That is why the leaders of the Central Military Commission (CMC) that Xi Jinping recently unveiled at the 20th Party Congress present a rare opportunity to analyze Xi’s priorities and leadership over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) over the next five years. This policy report will analyze the implications for Xi’s choice in military leadership and what it might mean for the direction of China’s military and security policy under Xi.
On October 22, 2022, on the closing day of the 20th Party Congress, the new lineup of CMC leaders was formally announced. They are, in rank order:
- Zhang Youxia (张又侠) (Vice Chairman)
- He Weidong (何卫东) (Vice Chairman)
- Li Shangfu (李尚福)
- Liu Zhenli (刘振立)
- Miao Hua (苗华)
- Zhang Shengmin (张升民)
This line up stands out for several reasons. First, Xi was prepared to break with longstanding norms to put in place the CMC team he wanted. For example, it is noteworthy that Xi broke retirement norms by keeping Zhang — a 72-year old Army veteran — to serve another term as Vice Chairman (VC). The typical age of retirement for the PLA is 68. The only other time someone older than Zhang served as VC was when Liu Huaqing was appointed VC at the 14th Party Congress in 1992, at the age of 76. In addition, the promotion of He Weidong to become CMC VC was unusual as he had not served on the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) previously and essentially jumped two grades from heading the Eastern Theater Command (ETC) to land the second CMC VC billet.
Second, Xi has shown loyalty and political reliability gained through personal and familial bonds remain important components for promotion. Zhang’s father, Zhang Zongxun, was a founding member of the Red Army and served alongside Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun in the 1940s, making him one of Xi’s most trusted officers in the PLA. General He Weidong and Admiral Miao Hua are also allies of Xi, having overlapped in Fujian province in the late 1990s and early 2000s when Xi was deputy party secretary and governor. Xi and He also reportedly overlapped when Xi was party secretary of Zhejiang province.
Third, Xi has also signaled that combat and operational experience matter. Zhang and Liu Zhenli are two of only a handful of generals who have served during the Sino-Vietnam war of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The surprise appointment of General He Weidong, who as noted above had been quickly promoted to the CMC VC position, appears to signal that his previous operational experience as ETC commander overseeing PLA forces opposite Taiwan matters a great deal to Xi.
Fourth, He’s recent post as commander of ETC and responsibility for Taiwan and East China Sea contingencies may suggest that Xi has prioritized military experience with Taiwan over other geographic areas. The appointment of He, coupled with retaining combat veteran Zhang, may in fact be a calculated move by Xi to focus the PLA even more on a possible Taiwan contingency.
Finally, the fact that Xi did not choose a civilian leader as a VC — a post that both Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin served before taking over as General Secretary of the CCP and Chairman of the CMC — signals that Xi has no immediate plans to groom a successor. In other words, Xi’s grip on power within the PLA and CMC has strengthened, with no successor in sight.
What is the CMC and Why is it Important?
The CMC is China’s highest military operational and decision-making body. Distinct from the PRC Ministry of National Defense — whose primary purpose is to interface with foreign militaries and publish news about the Chinese military — the CMC has operational oversight over China’s armed forces — the People’s Liberation Army — and oversees its strategy, doctrine, personnel, equipment, and funding and assets, among other duties.
Technically, there are two CMCs — a political organization within the CCP, and an administrative organ within the government of the PRC. For practical purposes, however, they are treated as one in the same in the PRC bureaucracy.
The CMC commands the main services — the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Force, as well as the Strategic Support Force (which oversees cyber and space) and the Joint Logistic Support Force. It also directs the five joint theater commands (map below), manages 15 functional departments, such as the Joint Staff Department, General Office, Logistics Support, Equipment Development, and Political Work Departments, and directs the various PLA research institutions and academies.
China’s Theater Commands
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Chairman of the CMC — Xi Jinping — serves concurrently as the General Secretary of the CCP and President of the PRC. Apart from the Chairman, there are two vice chairmen who are the military leaders of the CMC, as well as four other members in charge of specific CMC duties such as political work or discipline and inspection. Together, these six members and the Chairman form the nucleus of military operations and oversight in China.
The New CMC Lineup
The section provides a brief sketch of the biographies, backgrounds, and ties to Xi Jinping of the six new CMC members. Note that while the two vice chairman roles have been announced, the titles of the other four CMC members are unconfirmed. However, it is expected that they will fulfill these roles.
Zhang Youxia (张又侠) — Army — First Vice Chairman
Zhang is the elder veteran of the CMC and a close confidant of Xi Jinping. Xi’s choice of Zhang to take over the first VC of the CMC is not surprising, given Zhang’s experience within the CMC bureaucracy. He is also a decorated combat veteran of the Sino-Vietnam war, which makes him uniquely respected within the PLA and amongst the senior CCP leadership.
Born in Beijing in July 1950, Zhang joined the army in 1968. He was first assigned to the 14th Group Army in Kunming, Yunnan. As a company commander at 26, he served in the Sino-Vietnamese war border conflict in the 1980s, and fought in the “Two Mountains Border War of Laoshan” (两山战役) in 1984.
Zhang’s combat experience catapulted him up the ranks of the PLA. In August 2000, he was named commander of the 13th Group Army (GA). In December 2005, he became the vice commander of the Beijing Military Region (MR). He was promoted to commander of the Shenyang MR in September 2007. He attained the rank of major general in 1997, and lieutenant general in 2007. In July 2011, he was promoted to general at the age of 61. Xi tapped Zhang to replace Chang Wanquan as director of the PLA General Armaments Department (GAD) in 2012, and was re-selected as a member of the Central Committee of the CCP at that time. In 2016, he took over as Head of the Equipment Development Department of the CMC. In October 2017, Zhang was named second VC of the CMC.
Zhang is one of only two “father-son” pairs of generals in the PLA, his father being Zhang Zongxun, a founding general of the PLA who participated in the Autumn Harvest Uprising (秋收起义) in 1927 alongside Mao. In 1947, the elder Zhang commanded the PLA’s Northeast Army Corps, when Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was its political commissar. Xi and Zhang both have ties to Weinan, Shaanxi. Given their close hometown ties and status as second-generation Red Army princelings, Zhang is arguably one of Xi’s closest military allies.
He Weidong (何卫东) — Army — Second Vice Chairman
He Weidong is the surprise pick as second VC of the CMC. General He has been a career Army officer and has been on an accelerated promotion track since Xi came to power. While he has deep operational experience, he has never served on the CMC or in the Central Committee of the CCP. Thus, his rise through the ranks and into the second VC seat is rather remarkable. He is one of three new CMC members.
Born in May 1957, General He is from Dongtai, Jiangsu and joined the PLA Army in December 1972. After graduating from PLA Nanjing Army Command College in 1981, He spent most of his early career serving in what was the 31st (now the 73rd) GA in Xiamen, Fujian, in what was the Nanjing MR (now the Eastern Theater Command (ETC). In 2001 he studied at the National University of Defense Technology.
In June 2007, He was appointed Chief of Staff of the 31st GA and promoted to Major General in 2008. As noted above, it is believed that during the late 1990s and early 2000s, He and Xi became close allies and friends. He and Xi overlapped in Fujian province in the late 1990s when He was stationed in at the 31st GA in Xiamen and Xi was deputy party secretary and governor of Fujian. It is also believed that when Xi was party secretary of Zhejiang, He was stationed in Huzhou, and Xi reportedly visited He and his army corps more than a dozen times. Thus, while not well known, He and Xi are actually close allies going back to Xi’s early days in provincial government.
In 2013, he became the military commander of Jiangsu Military District before moving to Shanghai in 2014 to become commander of the Shanghai Garrison. In May 2016, he was promoted to commander of the ground forces of the Western Theater Command (WTC), opposite the disputed border with India.
In 2017, he became a lieutenant general and was then promoted to full general in 2019 when he became commander of the ETC until January 2022. As ETC commander, he was in charge of the PLA’s contingency planning for the spectrum of conflict with Taiwan, as well as with Japan and the U.S. for military contingencies in the East China Sea. While no longer commander in August 2022, one media report indicated that he may have played a role in planning the PLA’s unprecedented military drills and missile launches near Taiwan following U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit.
Sometime in 2022, He joined the CMC’s Joint Operations Command Centre (JOCC) — the top command and control center of the PLA and CMC.
Li Shangfu (李尚福) — Strategic Support Force (SSF) — Minister of National Defense
It is expected that General Li will be the next Minister of National Defense as a new member of the CMC. Li is a “technocrat” General who spent most of his career as an aerospace engineer, working 31 years at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, one of China’s largest space launch and research centers. He is one of three new CMC members and follows in the career path of Zhang Youxia, serving most recently as the Director of the CMC Equipment Development Department (EDD) (previously called the General Armaments Department.)
Born February 1958 in Chengdu, Sichuan, Li is a second-generation military man, whose father, Li Shaozhu (李绍珠), was a Red Army veteran and former high-ranking officer of the PLA Railway Force.
Li joined the PLA in 1978 when he entered the National University of Defense Technology. After graduating in 1982, he began working at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center as a technician. In December 2003, he was promoted to director of the center at the age of 45. In 2006, he was promoted to major general. In his ten years as director of the Xichang center, Li oversaw several rocket launches, including the launch of the Chang’e 2 lunar probe in October 2010. He also likely oversaw the anti-satellite missile test against a PRC weather satellite in 2007.
After 31 years working in Xichang, Li moved to the GAD, first as Chief of Staff in 2013, then Deputy Director in 2014.
In 2016, Li was appointed Deputy Commander of the newly established PLA Strategic Support Force, which is responsible for cyberspace, space, and other high-tech warfare, and promoted to lieutenant general. In September 2017, Li was appointed director of the reorganized GAD, the Equipment Development Department (EDD) of the CMC, replacing Zhang Youxia.
In October 2017, Li was elected a member of the 19th Central Committee of the CCP. In July 2019, he was promoted to general.
General Li has the unique challenge of being under U.S. Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) sanctions since 2018. The US imposed sanctions on Li and the EDD for buying fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles from Russia. As a result, Li is banned from using the U.S. financial system, overseas exchanges, and from holding a US visa. If Li were to be appointed the next Minister of National Defense, which is widely expected, he will be in the awkward position of being unable to travel to the U.S. for military exchanges with the U.S., unless he is taken off the CAATSA sanction list or some other exception is made.
Liu Zhenli (刘振立) — Army — Chief of the Joint Staff Department
General Liu Zhenli takes over for Li Zuocheng as the new chief of the Joint Staff Department of the CMC. At 58, he is the youngest member of the CMC. He is a career army officer, having most recently served as the service chief and commander of the PLA Army. Like Zhang, he is a veteran and served on the front lines of Sino-Vietnam border clashes in 1986. Liu joined the
PLA Army in September 1983 and graduated from the PLA National Defense University.
In 1986, as a company commander in the 12th Reconnaissance Brigade of the Lanzhou Military Region, he participated in the “Two Mountains Border War of Laoshan” (两山战役) with Vietnam. Chinese sources indicate Liu and his men successfully defended the line against repeated the People’s Army of Vietnam assaults. Although it is unknown if Liu fought alongside Zhang Youxia, the two likely share wartime bonds, having participated in the same border incursion with Vietnam.
Liu was chief of staff of the 65th GA within the Beijing MR in December 2009 and was promoted to major general in December 2010 and commander of the 65th GA in February 2012. In March 2014, he was appointed commander of the 38th GA (now the 82nd GA) based in Baoding, Hebei, part of the Central Theater Command (CTC). The former 38th GA is famous for its involvement in the crackdown of Tiananmen Square protesters in the summer of 1989.
General Liu reportedly oversaw the joint command post during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)’s “Peace Mission-2014” joint anti-terrorism military exercise with the Russian military in August 2014.
In July 2015, Liu was transferred to the People's Armed Police (PAP) as the chief of staff. In December 2015, he was moved back to the Army as the first chief of staff of the newly reformed PLA Army, serving under then commander of the PLA Army, and current outgoing CMC member, Li Zuocheng. In June 2021, General Liu was made commander of the PLA Army. On July 2021, he was promoted to general.
Liu’s combat experience, coupled with a career spent protecting the capital of Beijing and a short stint in the PAP which inevitably involves domestic terrorism preparations, in all likelihood secured his spot on the CMC.
Miao Hua (苗华) — Navy — Head of Political Work
Admiral Miao Hua continues in his role as Director of Political Work of the CMC, having served in the same role in the CMC since October 2017. Miao is the only non-Army/SSF/PLARF member of the CMC, thus fulfilling one of the only “joint” billets in the CMC. But like Zhang Shengmin, he rose through the ranks in the Political Work Department, serving as the political commissar of the PLA Navy from 2014-2017. What that means in practical terms is Miao does not have any operational or combat experience.
Admiral Miao was born in November 1955 in Fuzhou, Fujian Province. He enlisted in the PLA Army in December 1969, serving in the 274th regiment of the 31st GA (now the 73rd GA) in Xiamen, Fujian, within the Nanjing MR. In the 1980s, he switched to the political track eventually rising to director of the political department of the 93rd division, and then political commissar of the 91st division of the 31st GA. In August 1999, Miao became director of the political department of the 31st GA and promoted to major general in July 2001. He was made political commissar of the 12th GA in July 2005.
In December 2010, Miao was appointed director of the political department of the Lanzhou MR in December 2010. In July 2012, he became deputy political commissar of the Lanzhou MR, and was promoted to lieutenant general. In July 2014, he was promoted to political commissar of the Lanzhou MR. In November 2012, Miao was made a member of the 18th Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.
In December 2014, Miao made the unusual move of being transferred from the Army to the Navy, and was appointed political commissar of the PLA Navy until September 2017. Miao was promoted to admiral in July 2015. Miao was appointed member of the 19th Central Committee of the CCP in October 2017.
Like General Zhang and He, Miao is a close ally of Xi, having overlapped in Fujian province in the late 1990s to 2002 when Xi was Deputy Party Secretary and later Governor of Fujian Province.
Miao’s political reliability and as a trusted interlocuter between the CCP and the PLA made him an easy choice to stay on another term in the CMC.
Zhang Shengmin (张升民) — PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) — Head of Discipline and Inspection
Last but not least, General Zhang Shengmin continues in his role as head of Discipline and Inspection of the CMC, a role he has served since 2017. Xi’s choice to retain Zhang to continue to lead the most sweeping anti-corruption campaign of the PLA in modern PRC history is an important signal that Xi trusts him. The appointment also implies that Xi is happy with Zhang’s leadership and reflects a desire to maintain continuity on a politically sensitive area for Xi and the PLA.
Zhang Shengmin was born in August 1958 in Wugong County, Shaanxi Province. He joined the Army in February 1978. In the 1980s and 90s, he rose through the ranks of the political department of the Second Artillery Force (2nd (now the PLARF), first serving as 141st Division Artillery Regiment of the 47th GA within the Lanzhou MR, then deputy director and later director of the political research office of the political department of Lanzhou MR.
From 2008-2012, he served as political commissar of Units 96201 and 96351 of the Second Artillery Force (now the 62nd base of the PLARF), located in Kunming, Yunnan province. In September 2012, he took over as the political commissar of the Second Artillery Command College in Wuhan.
In December 2014, he was appointed director of the political department of the Second Artillery Force. In November 2015, he moved to the newly reformed CMC, working as the first political commissar of the training management department. In July 2016, he served as political commissar of the logistics support department of the CMC and later promoted to lieutenant general. In January 2017, he began to work in the Discipline and Inspection department of the CMC, serving as secretary of the Disciplinary Inspection Committee, before becoming a full member of the CMC in October 2017. On November 2, 2017, he was promoted to the rank of general.
Although last on the list of CMC members, Zhang is by no means unimportant. To the contrary, Zhang’s role as Xi’s anti-corruption czar will be pivotal in the next five years. Since Xi took over as General Secretary in 2012, at least 48 senior military officers (lieutenant general to major general rank) and nine generals, six of whom are former CMC members and two former VCs, have been prosecuted for corruption, according to statistics compiled by scholar Nan Li. In all likelihood, Xi’s full-throttled anti-corruption campaign is far from complete.
Xi has major ambitions for PLA modernization, and the next slate of CMC leaders will have no shortage of expectations on their shoulders to achieve Xi’s dream of building a modern military, on what is now considered an accelerated timeline of modernization by 2027 — the 100th anniversary of the PLA.
Given these expectations, there are numerous implications for Xi’s choice of the new CMC members.
First, Xi has signaled he prefers continuity over change by retaining three CMC members from the 19th Party Congress. By choosing the elder Zhang as the first of two VCs, Xi has indicated the importance of combat experience and personal ties to Xi over other potential factors.
Second, Xi has maintained the historically “green” service representation of the CMC by choosing two Army generals as the two VCs (Xu Qiliang, the previous VC, for example, was an Air Force general). While three of the six new CMC members are Army generals, given the close ties of PLARF and SSF with the PLA Army, Li Shangfu and Zhang Shengmin are steeped in Army culture and doctrine to a much greater extent than the PLA Navy or the Air Force, for example. That leaves Miao Hua as the only true non-Army member of the CMC. But given Miao’s political career track, and the fact that he spent the majority of his career in the PLA Army, not Navy, the new CMC leadership lacks authentic joint experience.
Third, as mentioned earlier, political and familial ties to Xi remain prominent factors for CMC membership. The careers of two of the six members — He Weidong and Miao Hua — have overlapped with Xi at various times in Xi’s provincial leadership career. Zhang Youxia’s Red Army princeling status with Xi was undoubtedly a factor in his promotion.
Fourth, CMC members who previously served in senior leadership within the CMC EDD or its earlier incarnation, the General Armaments Department (GAD), appears to be an important factor in upward mobility. Li Shangfu and Zhang Youxia both served as directors of GAD/EDD. Therefore, it may be the case that directors of the EDD may be particularly well-placed for CMC membership in the future.
Fifth, Xi has placed his faith in a young and comparatively inexperienced He Weidong as one of his CMC VCs. By skipping some of the normal promotion procedures for He, such as previous CMC experience or membership in the Central Committee of the CCP, Xi is taking a chance on the untested Army General. General He has nonetheless demonstrated the leadership traits, operational experience, and political reliability to earn Xi’s trust.
Finally, it is hard not to theorize how much He's experience in the ETC and in Taiwan contingency planning played into Xi’s decision to fast-track him as one of the next VCs. It undoubtedly played a role, but how much of a role is difficult to determine. Given Zhang’s deep combat experience, and Miao Hua’s background in military districts in Xiamen opposite Taiwan, one might connect the dots of He’s promotion as leading to a greater military focus on Taiwan and, with it, greater possibilities for intensifying tensions and confrontation across the Taiwan Strait.