China’s Military Reforms Under Xi Jinping: Back To The Future


China’s Military Reforms Under Xi Jinping: Back To The Future

Source: AUN News

The highest military leadership is notably well-represented by military officers who have advanced their careers through the missile and air force, sometimes known as PLA elites in the “cosmos club.” After the Party Congress this autumn, it seems likely that the trend of high-ranking military elites with solid professional backgrounds and significant expertise in aviation and aerospace will continue throughout Xi’s third term.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has made a concerted effort over the past ten years under the leadership of Xi Jinping to transition away from the traditional Russian military model, which heavily emphasises land forces, and toward the American military model, which places a high priority on joint operations among various forces (air, sea, land, digital networks, and space). To carry out this reform, the Party leadership has prioritised military commanders with a background in science and technology in senior officer cohorts. It aims to attract more young talent through “shortcut measures.”

Attracting new talent

Miliary-Civil Fusion (MCF), according to the Chinese leadership, has as one of its primary goals the recruitment of “strategic talents” (Zhan Lue rencai) from the civilian sector to the military at all levels and ranks in the PLA. The Party leadership had already started a thorough plan for “military-civilian joint education” even before the idea of MCF had been discussed in the nation (jun min lianhe peiyang). To attract the best high school graduates, the PLA Air Force and Tsinghua University, for instance, started the “3+1 joint programme” in 2011. Selected candidates would first spend three years in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the Tsinghua School of Aeronautics and Astronautics before transferring to the PLA Air Force Aviation University for their final year of study.

“For any ambitious young person in China, he probably has a one in a million chance to become a pilot and a one in a million chance to become a student at Tsinghua; now I want to congratulate you for successfully achieving both ‘one in a million at the same time,” a Tsinghua University official told the first class of cadets in this programme. Later, Peking University and the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, two of the nation’s most prestigious colleges, also embraced comparable collaborative programmes with the PLA Air Force.

The PLA Navy has also created its “military-civilian cooperative education” programmes to train naval pilots. According to a Chinese official source, for instance, the number of pilot cadets in the PLA Navy increased overall by 20% in 2019, while the number of those flying aircraft from carriers increased by 41%, setting “a new record both in the number and the quality of the enlisted pilot cadets.”

Many young experts and talents in aviation and aerospace have stayed in the civilian sector, despite some joining the PLA. The average age of the critical engineering task teams, such as those focusing on human-crewed spaceflight and lunar exploration, is roughly 30. It is noteworthy that more than 55% of China’s aerospace science and technology employees are under 35.

Over the past ten years, Chinese space experts have exhibited this youthful tendency. Eighty-one per cent of CASC employees were under the age of 45 in 2013, and 54 per cent were under the age of 35. According to a Chinese survey at the time, the First Academy (the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology) had a population that was 53% under the age of 35 and had an average age of 35.3 years, which was roughly 15 years younger than that of industrialised nations in Europe and the United States.

According to a People’s Daily story, these young professionals in the space sector frequently spent significant time working in the military industry after graduating from college. Their professional and political careers have been clearly defined by years of semi-military service. In the forthcoming Central Committee (CC), many of the critical members of this group—who were previously profiled in an article in this series—will hold seats, and some will join the Politburo.

Military members of the “cosmos club” who participate in decision-making

Some rocket scientists and other experts in aviation and aerospace hold top positions in the PLA and are thus more closely involved in military planning and technological advancement. Table 1 lists 21 distinguished PLA officers who have held executive positions in the aerospace and aviation industries. This comprises the defence minister and the two CMC vice-chairs, who are currently the three highest-ranking PLA officers. Xu Qiliang (1950), a pilot by training, held the positions of chief of staff and commander of the PLA Air Force for ten years, while Wei Fenghe (1954) advanced his career in China’s strategic missile corps. Zhang Youxia (1950) served as commander-in-chief of China’s Manned Space Project and the Human-crewed Space Engineering Space Laboratory Mission in recent years. The fact that these three senior military figures in the CMC have aviation and aerospace leadership backgrounds demonstrates the “cosmos club” predominance in the PLA’s upper ranks.

However, it is anticipated that these three top PLA officials will step down following the 20th Party Congress. The PLA delegation to the 20th Party Congress did not include a few additional senior military generals with full membership at the 19th Central Committee and significant leadership expertise in aviation and aerospace. The delegation will not include former CMC Logistics Support Department Director Gao Jin (1959), who served as the first commander of the PLA Strategic Support Force (2015–2019). Having ascended from the missiles corps and held the positions of the commander of Rocket Force No. 52 Base and chief of staff of the Second Artillery, he was frequently seen as a leading contender to become the next CMC. Gao has already stepped down as military commander.

Zhang Shengmin (1958), a current member of the CMC who rose through the ranks of the strategic missile corps, is a candidate for the post of Politburo member. This fall, he will compete for a spot on the Politburo with Miao Hua (1955), a member of the Navy, and Li Zuocheng (1953), a member of the Army.

Director of the CMC Equipment Development Department Li Shangfu (1958) is a candidate for election to the Politburo or the following CMC. Li, who graduated from the PLA National University of Defense Technology in 1982, worked at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center for over three decades. This facility is responsible for 40% of China’s space missions. Li succeeded Zhang Youxia in 2017 as director of the CMC Equipment Development Department and 2019 as commander-in-chief of China’s Manned Space Project after serving as chief of staff, deputy director of the General Equipment Development Department, and deputy commander of the PLA Strategic Support Force.

General Li Fengbiao is another contender for a spot on the upcoming CMC (1959). Li mainly advanced his career through the land force, but he also held the position of commander of the Strategic Support Force from 2019 to 2021. It’s interesting to note that he has now transitioned from his previous position as commander to that of commissar of Western Theater Operations, where he currently manages political matters. The CCP top leadership may be considering elevating him to an even more senior position on political issues in the PLA, given this change of course at this point in his military career.

The list’s other military officers were all born in the 1960s. Yang Xuejun, president of the Academy of Military Sciences (1963), and Shang Hong, deputy commander of the Strategic Support Force (SSF), are currently full members of the 19th CC and will probably continue to be so on the 20th CC. Shang has dedicated his entire professional life to launching missiles and satellites, much like the Li above Shangfu. Shang continues to serve as the SSF’s commander of the Space Systems Division, which is in charge of managing China’s important military space programmes. Yang was once the Yinhe-III Development Project’s principal designer.

The Air Force Commander Chang Dingqiu (1967), the Rocket Force Commander Li Yuchao (1962), and the Rocket Force Commissar Xu Zhongbo (1960) are three freshly appointed top generals in the PLA forces who are now alternative members of the 19th CC. Given the highly significant positions they each currently hold, they will likely be elected full members of the following CC.

Eleven officers, including Strategic Support Force Commander Ju Qiansheng (1962), Air Force Commissar Guo Puxiao (1964), President of the National Defense University Xu Xueqiang (1962), and Commander of the CMC Joint Logistics Support Force Wang Liyan (1962), do not currently hold positions on the CC and will most likely join the new CC for the first time, with the majority of them being full members. This indicates that there would be a high turnover of military representatives at the forthcoming Party Congress and highlights the PLA’s continued strong representation in the “cosmos club.”

The officers (past and present) in the SSF’s Space Systems Division and Cyber Systems Division are well-represented on the publicly released list of the PLA delegation to the 20th Congress. The Space Systems Division Commander Shang Hong, the SSF Commander Ju Qiansheng (former SSF Cyber Systems Division Commander), the Space Systems Division Deputy Commander and Chief of Staff Hao Weizhong (1961), the SSF Political Department Director (former Cyber Systems Division Commissar) Ding Xingnong (1963), the CMC Disciplinary Inspection Committee Deputy Secretary (former Space Systems Division Political Department Director) Chen Guoqiang (1963), and the Air Force Commander Chen (1963).

Some of the officers on the list are accomplished scientists in their fields of specialisation. Li Xiang, president of the National University of Defense Technology, as an illustration (1967). He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in electronic engineering from the School of Electronic Engineering at Xidian University in 1989. He also earned master’s and doctoral degrees from the National University of Defense Technology in 1995 and 1998, respectively. He has primarily worked on the acceptable feature inversion of radar’s core technology and application system research. Li was chosen as an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2021 as the top authority in the nation on radar target recognition. Likewise, an academic and PLA major general, Huang Minqiang (1960) is another illustration (though he is not listed in Table 1). Presently employed by the PLA General Staff’s 58th Research Institute as a senior researcher. Huang has long been involved in system logic structure analysis as China’s foremost authority on information processing. He is an alternate member of the 19th CC and will probably continue to hold that position in the 20th CC.

It is also noteworthy that the delegation roster for the 20th Party Congress does not include several PLA rocket scientists who served as alternate members on the 19th CC. For instance, Major General Li Yinghong (1963), the director of the State Key Laboratory of Aeronautical Plasma Dynamics, enlisted in the PLA and enrolled at the Air Force Engineering College’s Department of Aeronautical and Mechanical Engineering in 1978 when he was 15 years old. At the East China Institute of Technology (now Nanjing University of Science and Technology), he earned a master’s degree in engineering in 1989. In his late 20s, he was appointed an Air Force Engineering College professor. Li has a long history of research in component surface strengthening, diagnosis, and aero-engine aero-thermal control. He presently has 13 innovation patents. Li was chosen as an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2013 due to his knowledge and contributions to the field of aircraft propulsion technology. Li attended the 16th Party Congress in 2002 as a delegate. Major General Zhang Zhifeng (1966), who directed the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center from 2016 to 2021, is another illustration. Zhang was also the Chief of Staff of the Xichang Satellite Launch Base.

Li Yinghong and Zhang Zhfeng will probably continue to play significant roles in China’s aerospace programme even though they won’t be on the upcoming CC. Other young rocket scientists in the PLA delegation will probably run for alternate membership in the 20th CC simultaneously. They include, for instance, Party Secretary of Beijing Aerospace Control Center Chu Hongbin and Chief Engineer of Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center Zheng Yonghuang (1969), who previously held the position of deputy chief designer of Manned Space Engineering Launch Site System (1967).

Although the rise of Chinese technocrats in both civilian and military leadership during the reform era is not new, the presence of so many rocket scientists and other specialists in cutting-edge technology raises the possibility that elite politics in China are now entering the second wave of technocratic rule, which will be discussed in more detail in the following article.

The chairman of Advocacy Unified Network, Arindam Bhattacharya, said, “Advocacy Unified Network carries out this analysis report as part of its core objectives of advocating for global inclusiveness in the policy-making system. Involving the qualified youth in the policy-making system furthers AUN’s global perspective.”

Analysis by: Advocacy Unified Network

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