China’s 18th Party Congress And The PLA – Analysis


By Bhaskar Roy

Along with the change in the civilian leadership hierarchy at the conclusion of the 18th Party Congress starting November 08 in Beijing, the Central Military Commission (CMC) will see the exit of old faces and induction of new military leaders in the body.  Based on the new promotions/appointments announced recently, the following appears to be the new line up of the CMC:

  • Gen. Fang Fenghui, previously commander of the Being military region, had been appointed the new chief of general staff.
  • Gen. Zhang Youxia, previously commander of the Shenyang military region, had been appointed director of the General Armaments Department.
  • Gen. Zhao Keshi, former commander of the Nanjing military region, had been appointed director of the General Logistics Department.
  • Gen. Wei Fenghe had been appointed head of the Second Artillery (nuclear missile) Corps.
  • Gen. Zhang Yang had been appointed as head of the General Political Department
  • Gen. Ma Xiaotian had been appointed as the new air force chief.
  • Adm. Wu Shengli, the current commander of the navy is expected to stay in the post.
  • The officers in these key posts are traditionally given seats on the Central Military Commission.
  • Gen. Xu Qiliang, the outgoing air force chief, and Gen. Chang Wanquan, the outgoing director of the armaments department are too young to retire and are expected to be promoted either to the post of defense minister or to one of the two uniformed vice chairmanships.
  • Xi Jinping, the virtue of becoming party General Secretary will take over the Chairmanship.
  • That leaves one commission slot open.

The new Chinese leadership, both civilian and military, will be announced officially at the end of the Party Congress.  As per the existing practice the congress session is expected to last for a week.  Party General Secretary and the Chairman of the CMC , Hu Jintao, will present the work report for the last time.

The CMC Chairmanship is an impotent issue to follow, and its importance to China’s politics brooks no question.  The last party changes were seen at the 16th Party Congress in 2002, when Hu Jintao took over as the Party Chief and thereafter in 2003 as President of the country.  But his predecessor, Jiang  Zemin, held on to the Chairmanship of the CMC for two years till forced to give up  by the old guard.  Jiang understood very well  importance of the PLA, and he splurged the PLA with budget increase, perquisites and promotions.  Therefore, he still has some influence in PLA as the middle level officers of his time have risen to high promotions.

Deng Xiaoping, the Long Marcher and political Commissar of the 4th Field Army wanted to give up all posts after the Maoist were ousted by 1978.  He just kept a  nominal  post  of  a Vice Premier while setting up Party Chief like Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang.  But both these civilian leaders were not acceptable to the PLA generals.  Hence, Deng was compelled to hold on to the chairmanship of the CMC till he could impose Jiang Zemin in this post and gave him protection for another five to six years.

It is not clear yet if Hu Jintao will give up the CMC Chairmanship immediately.  Unlike all other party and government posts, the CMC chairman does not have an age limit.  Further, like Jiang Hu Jintao does not have any military experience, but has tried to buy the loyalities of the PLA.    The extent of his hold is, however, not clearly known.

Xi Jinping, an influential princeling and currently the only civilian Vice-Chairman of the CMC, has some military  experience having worked with the military.  He  is also a protégé of Jiang Zemin, which goes to his advantage.  Under the circumstances, Hu Jintao is expected to make a quiet exit.  Otherwise, things will get complicated.

“The  Party commands the gun” and the gun secures the Party.  That is the motto of the Chinese Communist Party from the years of the Long March.  In the revolutionary years civilians leaders also doubled up as military leaders.  But things have begun to change in the last few years with separation of civilian and military hierarchy.

But the Party increasingly depends on the military.  A section of China analysts believe that the PLA’s role in policy has decreased since it has no representation in Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) and only two in the  25-member politburo.  This appears to be a misreading of the setup.  As mentioned above the old leaders used wear two hats – civilian and military.With their attrition, the civilian and military leadership have adopted the respective command system.

It would be important to note that the PLA has just over 20 percent representation in the Central Committee of the Party.  This is highly disproportionate to the size of the PLA.  They are, therefore, critical in the voting process of top leaders at the Party Congress.  At the same time, the CMC is a PLA citadel with the Chairman as the only civilian in the body.   The CMC also holds the decision for the use of nuclear weapons.

In recent years the PLA has been given the responsibility for psychological warfare, media warfare and legal warfare.  It now has a new strategic department under which the PLA interacts with civilian ministries and departments on foreign policy in strategic issues, and securing  Chinese resources abroad including energy resources.  Currently, the PLA  superimposes itself in foreign policy especially on territorial disputes and strategic relations including with India.  The PLA think tanks have become very aggressive, with officers like Maj Gen Luo Yuan and Yang yi.

It is not known how authoritative are Luo and Yang, but their missives which are published in the Chinese official media serve ancient Chinese warfare doctrine of keeping the opposition confused and guessing.  At the final stretch, however, the Party still appears to be in control.

But there are other problems in the PLA.  Corruption has become of epidemic proportion threat in the PLA.  Some Chinese with knowledge inside the PLA privately say there is a problem of plummeting morale which will show itself in a battle.  Some very senior officers are being investigated for corruption.  But as in the civilian sector, corruption in the PLA is so wide spread that it is not possible to make an anti-corruption sweep.

The officer under inquiry is Lt. Gen. Gu Junshan, and this would be the biggest corruption in the PLA since 1949.  In many ways the PLA is a sacred cow in China.  Gen. Liu Yuan who exposed Lt. Gen. Gu, is the Political Commissar General Logistic Department of the PLA, and son of President Liu  Shaoqi who was persecuted and killed during the Cultural Revolution.  Did Gen. Liu ruffled important feathers in the PLA  and the Party because the PLA’s  image stands tarnished? He was considered as a strong candidate for a Vice Chairman of the CMC.  His friendship with Bo Xilai, another princeling, from school days and in recent years may also go against him.  Gen. Liu appears to be out.  He was considered as a strong candidate for a Vice Chairman of the CMC.  His friendshipwith Bo Xilai, another princeling, from school days and in recent years may also go against him.  Gen. Liu appears to be out.

Other problems include leftist/Maoist ideology growing in the PLA.  On the other hand of some senior officers argue that a professional army should be under the state and not a party.  This is not a small problem, and it threatens the dominance of the party.  A challenge to the party from even sections of the PLA is disturbing.

On the other hand, the rapid modernization of the armed forces with new weapons and equipment, and demonstrating its military muscle in the neighbourhood is a morale booster for the PLA.  The aim is to prevent the USA from interfering in the affairs of the region China considers its backyard. These are some of the important issues that the 18th congress will have to iron out.  They have already unleashed an arms race in the Asia Pacific region.  Asia is tending towards a powder keg.

Note: the author is a New Delhi based strategic analyst.  He can be reached at  e-mail [email protected]


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *