The next leadership: What is the future of the Chinese military’s top military leaders?

Presentation: Interregional Strategic Analytics

There have been only a few studies of the leadership of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army over the past twenty years. This literature has usually covered only certain sectors of the leadership, and most of it was completed before the structural reform of the People’s Liberation Army, which began at the end of 2015. In this context, in September 2022 the Institute for National Strategic Studies published a report by Joel Wuthno” – a senior researcher at the National Defense University of the United States – entitled “The Gray Dragon: Evaluating China’s Military High Command”, in which he presented a comprehensive assessment of the entire supreme leadership of the leaders of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 2021; It analyzes more than 300 biographies of senior Chinese military officers from 2015 to 2021; To assess the structure, demographics, and occupational styles of the leadership of the People’s Liberation Army, as well as their political qualifications and determinants of promotion, and ultimately to assess China’s military effectiveness, and the future of leadership within the military.

army structure

The report focuses on the structure of the senior leadership in the Liberation Army, and analyzes the most prominent changes that occurred in the light of the structural reforms of the Chinese President in 2015; This is as follows:

1- The presence of an elite group of officers in the high command: According to the report, The High Command of the People’s Liberation Army consists of the army’s 100 to 200 largest officers, who sit at the top of the officer corps of hundreds of thousands. The number of the high command in 2021 was about 155 officers. They are similar in importance to three- and four-star officers in the United States, according to the report.

2- A clear division of specializations in the senior leadership: The report notes that before these officers reach the top leadership, they advance systematically through the lower ranks. When commissioned, they are categorized into five specializations: military affairs, political affairs, logistics, equipment, and technical specialists.

3- Implementing periodic structural reforms in the army: According to the report, the senior leadership was not immune to President Xi’s structural reforms within the military; In 2015, the number of senior commanders was 182 officers, then in 2021 the number decreased to 155. The 13% decrease corresponds to the overall decrease in the army’s workforce that occurred during the same time from 2.3 million to 2 million personnel. The reductions in leadership also included the CMC itself; When Xi became chairman of the committee in 2012, it had 10 officers, but after the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, that number was reduced to six.

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According to the report, a cornerstone of Xi’s Liberation Army reforms was the development of a joint command structure in which theater leaders would enjoy peacetime authority over the land, sea and air forces. This model was better aligned with the military’s focus on preparing for high-intensity joint operations than the previous Islah regime; Where military district commanders lacked peacetime operational control over non-military units, the Chinese military has expanded joint training in recent years; This allows officers to hone their planning and leadership skills in a “realistic combat” environment.

4- The dominance of the Air Force and the Navy on positions: The report confirms that the share of ground forces officers in senior positions decreased by more than 20% in light of the recent structural reforms, after they dominated most of the key positions in public administrations and military regions; This is in favor of developing the future operations of the Chinese army in the naval and air fields. The biggest winner of the reforms was – according to the report – the “Rocket Force”, which saw its share double (from 4% to 8%). Navy and Air Force officers also became theater commanders for the first time in 2017.

5- Increasing the number of leaders in the military service headquartersAccording to the report, the share of officers appointed to the service headquarters doubled, from 16% to 32%. This reflects the establishment of new Army headquarters, such as the headquarters of the new Strategic Support Force (SSF) and the Joint Logistics Support Force (JLSF). Under the new system, officers assigned to the Army, Navy, and Air Force headquarters are primarily responsible for building the forces, in terms of their training and equipping. While the report considers that the presence of a greater proportion of senior officers in the service headquarters, it may have implications for the competition between the higher departments in the future.

Leadership traits

According to the report, the group of senior army commanders in 2021 will have different formative and professional experiences than their predecessors, but are demographically similar; This is as follows:

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1- Leaders have close professional experiences: The report notes that the current leaders were the first to join the People’s Liberation Army during the era of “reform and opening up” (1979-present), and their careers were shaped by changing China’s military strategy before and after the end of the Cold War; Most of them began their careers by preparing for a large-scale conflict against the Soviet Union, which was China’s main opponent in the late Cold War, and these officers were on duty in the 1980s, when the Chinese military engaged in significant military cooperation with the United States, but they also experienced tension Sino-US relations after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

2- The convergence of the ages of the senior leaders: Only 18 of the 155 senior officers in 2021 joined the military at some point during Chairman Mao’s era (1949–1976), are now in their mid-1960s to early 1970s, and will soon retire. Most of the senior officers joined in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the youngest joined in the mid-1980s. According to the report, officers in the Chinese military rotate every two or three years, and are exposed, to some extent, to different responsibilities but less than the US system; Four-star officers change positions approximately every 18 months.

3- Similar gender and ethnic compositionAccording to the report, the senior leadership of the Liberation Army is dominated by Han males; There were no women among the senior officers in the military in 2015 or 2021. The army also pursues preferential policies against ethnic minorities, but, according to the report, occasionally appointed Uyghur and Tibetan officers to senior levels in the Xinjiang and Tibet military regions.

4- Having limited international experienceAccording to the report, senior Chinese military leaders often travel around the country but have little international experience other than what they gained through military diplomacy on short-term tours earlier in their careers, and there is likely to be limited awareness of job skills other; For example, operational leaders tend not to have a background in logistics or acquisitions.

Upgrade Determinants

All officers of the Liberation Army must be members of good standing in the Chinese Communist Party, but candidates for promotion to the highest ranks are subject to greater scrutiny; Because of the sensitivity of their positions. The following are the most important qualifications and determinants for obtaining a promotion in the Chinese army as follows:

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1- Loyalty to the Chinese president: Senior leaders need to have political intelligence skills; Not only do they need social capital, but they also need to successfully navigate internal elite struggles. Some have already been impeached in the anti-corruption purges that Xi used to expel political opponents after taking power. The report asserts that those who survived the purges avoided association with Xi’s opponents, and were also keen to show obedience to him by supporting his agenda for military reform.

2- Efficiency and diversity of experiences: There is a misconception that PLA senior officers are disproportionately selected from the Nanjing Military District, the field in which Xi Jinping served from 1985 to 2007, and is also considered the “cradle of generals”, given its importance in preparing for the Taiwan conflict. prospective. But only about a third of senior commanders in 2015, according to the report, served in the Nanjing Military District over the past decade, and rather than favoring officers with a specific geographic background, Xi is focusing on high performers, ensuring the leadership includes a diverse set of expertise.

In conclusion, the strictness of the tasks of the Liberation Army, and the extreme centralization of decision-making – according to the report – may reduce China’s effectiveness in future conflicts, especially those that require a high level of cooperation and adaptability, such as the war launched by Russia against Ukraine in 2022, Especially if Chinese military leaders lacked thinking in new ways beyond their service and specialty.

Therefore, there are signs of change in the senior leadership, most notably providing the rising leaders with greater expertise, and providing the opportunity for new generations to participate in the senior leadership. The People’s Liberation Army requires some kind of changes in service traditions and organizational culture, which has proven difficult even for the United States, after more than three decades of Defense Reorganization Act of October 4, 1986.


Joel Wuthnow, Gray Dragons: Assessing China’s Senior Military Leadership, The Institute for National Strategic StudiesSeptember 2022, accessible at:–Article–View/Article/3156126/gray–dragons–assessing–chinas–senior–military–leadership/

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

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