by Chris Clarke.

With the appointment of the two vice chairmen, it now seems clear that outgoing General Armaments Department Director Chang Wanquan, 63, will be the new defense minister, a position that likely will not be formally announced until next March when the National People’s Congress reveals the state and government leadership changes.  Chang was one of only three members of the Central Military Commission eligible to stay on.

The promotions to CMC vice chairmanships contained a few surprises:  first, some analysts expected Navy Commander Wu Shengli to be the one to get the VC slot, given the increasingly important role of the Navy in China’s strategic thinking and military outreach and Wu’s seniority.  But at 67, he would be eligible for only one term.  Recently replaced PLA Air Force Commander Xu Qiliang, by contrast, is only 60 and will be eligible to stay on for two full terms, suggesting the leadership opted for both youth and future continuity.

Importantly, the promotion of a non-ground forces officer as CMC vice chairman underscores the PLA’s recent drive for greater “jointness.”  Even so, with Xu gaining the CMC vice chair position  it seems unlikely that another non-ground force officer like the PLAN’s Adm. Wu,  would get the defense ministry.  Most likely, Wu will remain as Navy commander.  (The only post-Mao precedent for a non-ground forces CMC vice chairman is Adm. Liu Huaqing, who was promoted under very unique circumstances after Tiananmen and cannot be considered as a “precedent” for greater inter-service opportunity to attain the PLA’s top positions.)

General Fan Changlong’s promotion was also something of a surprise, and represented an unusual two-grade promotion in position and a jump from military region command directly to the top.  Fan has never served on the CMC , but did have experience as an assistant chief of the general staff and so is familiar with central PLA politics and procedures.  At 65, however, he will likely be a one-term vice chairman.

Both Fan and Xu attracted favorable attention from party chief Hu with their quick and capable response during flood-fighting and emergency rescue operations in recent years, a major part of Hu’s effort to adjust the PLA’s mission focus.  Both have also been at the forefront of pushing joint training and operations.

These changes leave unanswered two key questions about the inner dynamics of decisions about PLA leadership change, however.   First,  will Hu remain as CMC chairman for several years?   And second, what role (if any) did heir apparent and CMC Vice Chairman Xi Jinping play in these decisions on PLA leadership change?

One would hope, if Hu is genuinely trying to engineer a smooth transition, that he would have consulted closely with Xi on his preferences for top PLA promotions, but we outsiders really have no insight into the Hu-Xi dynamics on military affairs.  I think also it’s still a 50-50 toss-up whether Hu will remain or not.  To do so will raise all the complaints Jiang Zemin faced about creating “two centers” and having someone not even on the politburo commanding the military. At the same time, it might ease Xi into power, allowing him to consolidate authority in party and government before having to assume the role as commander in chief.  On balance, it seems to me a smooth transition requires Hu to step down from all positions at once.  But only time will tell (and not much time at that).

Christopher M. Clarke is an independent researcher and the retired chief China analyst for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors


  1. Thank you, Chris, for this analysis. I am on all four with you that an institutionalized transition should require Hu to step down from all offices, and the bad precedent set by Jiang should not be repeated. I also share your skepticism that Hu would hand over the CMC chair. We will find out soon enough. China needs a new leadership that can make bold decisions and do what it takes to make significant changes, such as re-structuring the economy but the selection process for the new leadership is designed to produce the safest pairs of hands. The two requirements do not seem to match up.

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