As the 20th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) draws near, generals born in the 1960s (the post-60s generation) have taken over as the commanders of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s theatre commands, forming the backbone of senior military generals.
Structure of PLA’s theatre commands
The PLA’s theatre commands are divided into “theatre command leader grades” (正战区级) and “deputy theatre command leader grades” (副战区级). Following the military reform in 2016, the PLA has 14 theatre command leader grade units, distributed among the functional departments of the CCP’s Central Military Commission (CMC), the five major theatre commands, military branches and independent units.
Theatre command leader grades
- Central Military Commission
The CMC has 15 functional departments, among which three are of the theatre command leader grade — the Joint Staff Department, the Political Work Department and the Discipline Inspection Commission. These three major departments are helmed by incumbent members of the CMC, who hold seniority over the other theatre command leader grade units.
At present, within the CMC, chief of the Joint Staff Department General Li Zuocheng; director of the Political Work Department Admiral Miao Hua; and secretary of the Discipline Inspection Commission General Zhang Shengmin, are in the post-50s generation. With the 20th Party Congress set to kick off on 16 October for about a week, a new CMC leadership team will be formed by the end of the congress, with the positions of Li, Miao and Zhang likely changed.
The CMC’s General Office, Logistic Support Department, Equipment Development Department, Training and Administration Department, National Defense Mobilization Department, Politics and Law Commission, and Science and Technology Commission are deputy theatre command leader grade units. Among them, the directors and political commissars of the Logistic Support Department and Equipment Development Department are typically military generals of the theatre command leader grade, meaning that their ranks are higher than the positions they hold (高配).
- Major theatre commands and military branches
After the military reform, the PLA’s original seven military regions were streamlined into five theatre commands — Eastern, Southern, Western, Northern and Central — all of which are theatre command leader grades. The remaining six theatre command leader grade units are the main military branches — Army, Navy, Air Force, Rocket Force, Strategic Support Force, and Armed Police Force.
The PLA’s Academy of Military Science and National Defense University became deputy theatre command leader grade units, but the positions of deans, presidents and political commissars are still held by generals of the theatre command leader grade, which means that their ranks are also higher than the positions they hold.
Reshuffling since 2020: post-60s generation in leadership positions
Since 2020, the chiefs of the PLA’s various theatre commands and military branches have been reshuffled. In 2020, Wang Chunning became commander of the People’s Armed Police Force; in 2021, Wang Xiubin and Wang Haijiang became commanders of the Southern and Western Theater Commands respectively; Liu Zhenli, Dong Jun, Chang Dingqiu and Ju Qiansheng became commanders of the PLA Army, PLA Navy, PLA Air Force and PLA Strategic Support Force respectively.
Meanwhile, Lin Xiangyang was briefly appointed commander of the Central Theater Command, and then appointed commander of the Eastern Theater Command in early 2022. The 58-year-old Lin is the only general in active service to have served as commander of two theatre commands.
The political commissars of military branches and theatre commands, except the Eastern, Southern and Western theatre commands, are also helmed by the post-60s generation.
Early this year, officials announced several appointments: Wu Yanan as commander of the Central Theater Command, succeeding Lin; Li Yuchao as commander of the PLA Rocket Force; Liu Qingsong, Xu Deqing, Qin Shutong, Yuan Huazhi and Zhang Hongbing were appointed as political commissars of the PLA Northern Theater Command, PLA Central Theater Command, PLA Army, PLA Navy and People’s Armed Police Force respectively.
Also, on 8 September, Wang Qiang from the Air Force was promoted to general and replaced Li Qiaoming as commander of the Northern Theater Command.
At present, apart from the three theatre command leader grade units of the CMC, the military commanders and political commissars of the five theatre commands and six military branches have basically been replaced. Commanders of these theatre command leader grade units are made up of the post-60s generation and have become the backbone of the PLA’s senior military generals.
The political commissars of military branches and theatre commands, except the Eastern, Southern and Western theatre commands, are also helmed by the post-60s generation. Post-50s generation Eastern Theater Command political commissar He Ping and Southern Theater Command political commissar Wang Jianwu are 65 and 64 respectively this year. Both are expected to step down soon.
Among the post-60s generals of the theatre command leader grade, 61-year-old former commander of the Northern Theater Command Li Qiaoming is the most senior. He became commander of the Northern Theater Command in 2017 and was the youngest commander of the theatre command leader grade at the time. Officials have yet to announce Li’s new position.
Some faces to watch in the Central Committee
Fifty-eight-year-old PLA Army Commander Liu Zhenli was previously awarded a first-class merit for his role in the Sino-Vietnamese War. In 2012, Liu became the youngest army commander when he was promoted to commander of the 65th Group Army. In 2014, he became commander of the 38th Group Army, then the most elite group army in the PLA. In 2015, he was chief of staff of the Armed Police Force and later the first chief of staff of the ground force that same year. Liu became a member of the 19th Central Committee at the CCP’s 19th Party Congress in 2017.
Currently, Chang Dingqiu (b. 1967) is the youngest commander of the theatre command leader grade in the PLA. He served as a flight group commander in the PLA Air Force, and was the youngest full general of the Air Force when he became chief of staff of the Air Force in the former Shenyang Military Region in 2013. Following the military reform in 2016, Chang was appointed deputy commander of the Southern Theater Command and deputy chief of staff of the CMC’s Joint Staff Department. In 2017, he became an alternate member of the CCP’s 19th Central Committee, and was promoted to commander of the PLA Air Force in August 2021.
Unexpectedly, General Gao Jin, director of the CMC’s Logistic Support Department who was once seen as a “star general” (明星将领), failed to become one of the delegates from the PLA and Armed Police Force to the 20th Party Congress. The 63-year-old spent much of his career in the PLA Second Artillery Corps, the predecessor of the Rocket Force. In late 2011, Gao was promoted to chief of staff of the Second Artillery Corps, and became an alternate member of the 18th Central Committee in 2012.
In 2014, Gao was appointed president of the PLA Academy of Military Science, joining the theatre command leader grade. In 2015, he became the first commander of the Strategic Support Force, and in July 2017, he was promoted to general, becoming the youngest general at the time. In the same year, Gao became a member of the 19th Central Committee. He was appointed director of the CMC’s Logistic Support Department in 2019.
Gao’s name was not included in the list of delegates of the PLA and the Armed Police Force to the 20th Party Congress released last month, which implies that Gao, who is not yet at the retirement age of theatre command leader grade officials, will not enter the new Central Committee. His position in the military is also set to undergo major changes.
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