China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) promoted yet another four senior officers to the rank of general or admiral in early September. That this most recent round of promotions happened in such a short timeframe – just a couple of months after the last promotions – should be understood as part of the preparations for the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), slated for the fall of 2022.
Incumbent Chinese President Xi Jinping, whether he seeks a third term in office or just tries to maintain his political influence behind the scenes, must have been inspired by previous leader Jiang Zemin, who set a precedent by promoting quite a few generals to higher ranks during his remaining days in office. That move had the effect of helping Jiang keep the Central Military Commission (CMC) under his control even after he was no longer in power.
Whether the same thing will happen again during Xi’s likely third term is worthy of note. Whoever controls the military will gain political domination. The CCP, after all, still strongly believes in Mao Zedong’s famous saying: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
Below, I profile the new generals and admirals and what their promotions tell us about China’s evolving military.
New Air Force Commander Chang Dingqiu
Chang, born in Hunan province in 1967, served as deputy commander of Southern Theater Command before he was selected as the new leader of the PLA Air Force (PLAAF). He had been deputy commander of the 14th Air Division under the now defunct Nanjing Military Region, commander of 3rd Air Division under the Nanjing Military Region, assistant to PLAAF chief of staff (he got this deputy corps commander-grade position in 2012 and was promoted to the rank of major general in the same year), deputy of chief of staff of the former Shenyang Military Region (a corps commander-grade position), and chief of staff of the Shenyang Military Region Air Force. He even flew a J-10 fighter jet in a flypast over Tiananmen Square in Beijing in a military parade in September of 2015. Besides having been deputy commander of Southern Theater Command, Chang also assumed the post of deputy chief of staff of the Joint Staff Department (JSD) of the CMC in 2018.
With his command-and-control experience in joint operations in the upper and lower echelons of the PLA, Chang stood out as the most qualified candidate for the current position. His being an alternate member of the Central Committee of the CCP also helped. His service as deputy chief of staff of the JSD was especially consequential. Now as commander of a service (a theater command commander-grade position), Chang has gone through a promotion process identical to that of his predecessor, Ma Xiaotian.
Though without the experience of commanding a theater command, Chang had cooperated with the navy multiple times in joint operations between the PLAAF and PLA Navy (PLAN) and had participated in the arrangement of flights and voyages to far seas while being deputy commander of the Southern Theater Command. Whether such work experience will help him realize the PLA’s objective of enabling “each service to be fully responsible for operations” remains unclear. After all, there is still quite a difference between being a deputy chief of staff of the JSD and being a theater command commander, in that the latter is tasked with the mission of facilitating coordination between the services and interaction between the military and local authorities, a job usually not assigned to a deputy theater command commander.
New Central Theater Command Commander Lin Xiangyang
Lin Xiangyang, born in Fujian province in 1964, served mainly in the former Nanjing Military Region, which was deactivated in the most recent round of military reform launched in 2016. He is a member of the so-called “Southeastern Corps,” referring to a group of officers with tours of duty in southeast China. This group has been highly appreciated by Xi in recent years. Lin’s appointment as commander of the Central Theater Command represents the command’s return to control by the army once again. It is significant as a sign that the joint operations mechanism desperately needed by the PLA is now fully in place.
A more important reason for the arrangement is that it is important to secure control of the military, which in turn ensures political power, in the lead-up to next year’s 20th National Congress of the CCP. The Central Theater Command is especially important because it is responsible for the security of the capital city. Its commander must be a general that Xi can trust.
New Southern Theater Command Commander Wang Xiubin
Wang Xiubin, born in Jiangsu province in 1964, previously also served mainly in the Nanjing Military Region, where he took positions in the 1st and 31st Group Armies in sequence. He is a member of the “Southeastern Corps” as well. The significance of his appointment as commander of the Southern Theater Command does not lie in its association with the re-emergence of the army-centric mentality in recent days, but rather in the possible strengthening of combat deployments targeted at Taiwan.
The Eastern Theater Command used to be mainly responsible for operations against Taiwan. Now that the PLA adopts a tactic of responding to emergency situations in four sea regions (the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, and the South China Sea) at once, the Southern Theater Command thus becomes vital in a campaign against Taiwan. Wang’s previous ties with Xi might also be a reason for him to become the chosen one.
Notably, the PLA Army (PLAA)’s recent efforts to expand its aviation branch and the PLA Marine Corps’ efforts in the same direction might get a boost from the deployment of the Type 075 amphibious assault ship. While serving in group armies under the Nanjing Military Region, Wang might have accumulated sufficient experience in the operation of amphibious mechanized infantry brigades. Whether such experience can be of use to the operation of amphibious assault ships under the Southern Theater Command is worthy of our attention.
New Western Theater Command Commander Wang Haijiang
Wang Haijiang, born in Sichuan province in 1963, participated in the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979. His work under Li Qianyuan, who was commander of the Lanzhou Military Region in 1999, as Li’s secretary gave a great boost to his military career. He commanded the Tibet Military Region and later the Xinjiang Military Region. That was the reason why he was selected to command the Western Theater Command.
What should be noted is that former Western Theater Command Commander Xu Qiling just took the position in July. Xu was replaced in a matter of two months. Discipline problems or health issues might be the reason for the replacement. Another possible reason, however, might have something to do with the situation in Afghanistan. Whether the Taliban’s return to power might embolden rebels in Xinjiang and thereby cause unrest in the autonomous region is of great concern to Beijing. With his previous experience in Tibet and Xinjiang, Wang might be better able to handle unexpected happenings in the Western Theater Command. His relations with local authorities will also help. That might be the reason why he was selected to replace Xu.
Xu, born in Henan Province in 1962, spent most of his time in the military in field units. Because of that, he lacked work experience in the top echelon or experience in joint operations, which became factors most detrimental to his further development in the military. He was especially lacking in relations with local authorities, which group army commanders or service commanders under theater commands are not supposed to be responsible for cultivating. A commanding officer who spends most or all of his time in the military in field units might not know the attitude of people within his area of responsibility.
It will be interesting to find out what Xu’s next appointment will be. After having been commander of the Western Theater Command, Xu could not take a corps commander-grade position or deputy theater command commander-grade one. As we try to learn more about newly appointed PLA generals, we should find out whether the replaced ones have reached the retirement age or whether there are other reasons, such as health conditions, power struggles, and corruption. It is also possible that the new positions are meant as promotions or demotions.
New Navy Commander Dong Jun
Newly appointed PLAN Commander Dong had served as director of PLAN Command Military Training Department, deputy chief of staff of the North Sea Fleet, and commander of the 92269th Unit (Zhoushan Water District). He was promoted to the rank of rear admiral in July of 2012 and became deputy commander of the East Sea Fleet in September of 2014. He had also been chief of staff of the East Sea Fleet and deputy commander of the Southern Theater Command. In 2017, he had the opportunity to cooperate with Chang Dingqiu, who was then deputy Commander of the Southern Theater Command. They are now commanders of the navy and air force respectively.
Such a combination should be helpful to the PLA’s efforts to develop joint operations between the air force and navy. With aircraft carriers entering into service one after another in recent years, cooperation between the air force and navy should be something the PLA is trying to enhance. Admirals who have served in the Southern Theater Command should have a lot to offer to the navy with their understanding of the situation in the South China Sea and the military strength of other countries in the region. This is something we will notice while observing the PLAN’s exercises in the future.
Conclusion: Taiwan as the Apparent Target?
The noticeable reshuffle of PLA leadership as described above happened within only two months. As stated previously, it might have something to do with the upcoming 20th National Congress of the CCP. Control of the military will help determine whether Xi can extend his tenure by one more term and whether he can secure his power base during his third term. Promoting generals is a method often used by Chinese leaders to control the military.
What we should note, however, is that new Central Theater Command Commander Lin, Southern Theater Command Commander Wang (promoted in July), and Eastern Theater Command Commander He Weidong all have same background of serving in in the former Nanjing Military Region and its successor, the Eastern Theater Command. Their service in the Nanjing Military Region might have coincided with Xi’s years in southeast China, especially Fujian province. But we also need to consider that three theater commands tasked with the mission of invading Taiwan have been given new commanders who have served in units with a primary mission of taking Taiwan.
Unifying Taiwan by force has always been a primary mission of the Eastern Theater Command. In a campaign against Taiwan, bombers based in the Central Theater Command will provide fire cover and make cross-theater flights to other bases. The main reserve force for operations against Taiwan and airborne troops required for such operations are concentrated in the Central Theater Command. Airborne troops are one of the “iron-fist forces” established for the sole purpose of attacking Taiwan. The forces mentioned above form part of the order of battle for an invasion of Taiwan.
What does these recent promotions mean for Taiwan? Are the generals or admirals involved simply men trusted by Xi because their previous service in southeast China happened to coincide with Xi’s time in the same region? Or does this series of promotions reveal something about the recent situation in the Taiwan Strait? We need to pay more attention to this question.
These generals or admirals will surely try their best in the coming year. The next promotion of generals, set to take place at the beginning of next year, could decide the future membership of the CMC. It’s very possible that the CMC members might have all been involved in the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1996. If the 18th National Congress of the CCP could be described as the rise of the “Vietnam War Gang,” referring to generals who participated in the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979, next year’s 20th National Congress is the right time for the rise of the “Taiwan Strait Gang.” The recent promotion of PLA leaders is suggestive of the growing importance of the “Southeast Corps” and the “Taiwan Strait Gang.”
By analyzing personnel arrangements in the PLA, we can find out whether there is any change in PLA strategy or whether there are any other destabilizing factors in China.