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The Emperor’s New Ministers

President Xi Jinping continues to face trouble with the military establishment. Who is the new PRC Defence Minister, Admiral Dong Jun, Prabhat Shukla explains.

The new PRC Defence Minister, Admiral Dong Jun [L]; the ousted Defence Minister, Gen Li Shangfu [R]

The current Defence Minister, Admiral Dong Jun, is unusual in several respects. He is the first Naval officer to hold the post; he is also the first Defence Minister, going back to 1993, who did not simultaneously make it to State Councillor. He did not make it to the State Central Military Commission [CMC], though there could be a partial explanation for that.

To try and address these issues, a look at the recent past – essentially after the Tiananmen massacre in June 1989, when a measure of predictability was introduced – is helpful in understanding the significance of the current situation.

The central thesis underlying this brief analysis is that of serious differences between the people’s Liberation Army Ground Force [PLA GF] and President Xi Jinping over India and possibly the South China Sea [SCS], though they appear to be of one mind on Taiwan. President Xi would prefer to build a more positive relationship with India, possibly also with ASEAN, but the PLA is inclined to follow more aggressive policies towards both.

President Xi had taken over the India relationship soon after becoming President, though his Premier, Li Keqiang, did beat him to it by visiting India within months of assuming office. During his visit, Premier Li made great play on the fact that India was the first foreign country he was visiting.

Both the leaders were embarrassed by the PLA GF during or before their visits, and this was almost Standard Operating Procedure for the PLA, going back to the early 1990’s. Just prior to Premier Li’s visit to India, the PLA Ground Force occupied and pitched tents in Depsang, a departure from the existing practice of occasional patrol face-offs; it was only after high-pressure diplomacy that the issue was settled, and Premier Li’s visit could take place. In his turn, President Xi was embarrassed by the PLA troops’ intrusion into Chumar during his visit in September 2014, a fact that he knew nothing about. Again it took some doing before the Chinese forces withdrew.

In order to discipline the PLA, President Xi embarked on a large-scale restructuring of the PLA. The proposed revamp of the PLA had been around since early 2014, and a Central Leading Group on National Defence and Military Reform was set up in March 2014, with President Xi as Chairman and the two Vice Chairs of the Central Military Commission as Deputies, Air Force Gen Xu Qiliang as the Executive Deputy. The upshot of the exercise – driven by General Xu Qiliang, was to weaken the PLA GF; this was done by restructuring the CMC, and revamping the existing four General Departments [General Staff, General Political Work, General Armaments, and General Logistics] into fifteen Departments, Commissions and Offices and to bring the PLA GF on par with other Services, and to reduce its numbers. 

This served to reduce the preponderance of GF influence in the CMC. It also reduced the GF to a Service on par with all others, with their own HQ – hitherto, the CMC and its Departments were their HQ. Not surprisingly, Gen Xu Qiliang was the first Air Force officer to hold the position of Vice Chair of the CMC, appointed to the post by President Xi.

Two points about President Xi are worth mentioning at this stage: like his two predecessors, he has had no military experience; all other leaders, up to Deng Xiaoping, were military men as well as political leaders. President Xi did a brief stint in the early 1980’s with Defence Minister Geng Biao, and his supporters are wont to argue that this gives him military experience. But this does not mean much because Geng was himself the only Defence Minister not to hold a military rank, though, like all the revolutionaries of his time, he did fight against the Japanese and in the Civil War. His career in the People’s Republic, however, was all in civilian fields until his appointment to the CMC in 1979, and Defence Minister in 1981.

The second is that, at the time of the transition from President Hu Jintao to President Xi, there was much soul-searching within the Chinese leadership circles as to why the USSR collapsed, driven by the fear that the same could happen to the People’s Republic. And early in his tenure, President Xi gave is understanding of the two reasons for the Soviet collapse: one was what he called “historical nihilism”, which was the practice of each new leader denouncing the predecessor; and, second, the fact that the Soviet Army had become a national army, and had ceased to be the sword arm of the Communist Party.

He has been true to the first principle, and has actually been softer than the internal Party consensus on issues like the Cultural Revolution and on Mao Zedong himself, as well as all subsequent leaders. Evidence of this may be found in the politics around the Third Historical Resolution, compared with the noticeably softer interpretation of it in President Xi’s speech on the “explanation” of the Resolution, in which he manages to elide any reference to the Cultural Revolution.

But it is his explicit reliance on the Armed Forces as the sword arm of the Party that has given the PLA a standing that was always implicit, though not usually explicit. At least since the Tiananmen massacre, the legitimacy of CPC rule has been open to doubt, and the role of the PLA in maintaining Party rule is clear.  President Xi fell afoul of the top brass of the PLA GF over his seeking to settle the border issues with India, and, to a lesser extent, over the South China Sea. 

This has defined his relationship with the PLA as a whole; while he realises the role of the PLA as the ultimate guarantor of Communist Party power in the PRC, he also seeks to free himself from its constraints in running foreign policy. Where India is concerned, it is the PLA GF that is preventing him from settling the troubled relationship.

The choice of Defence Minister in recent years has demonstrated the same desire on the part of President Xi to curb the power of the PLA GF. Thus, the first Defence Minister he chose after the restructuring was Gen Wei Fenghe, who had spent his career in the Second Artillery Corps, which became the independent Rocket Force after the restructuring of 2016. However, his choices have not always been felicitous; thus, although Gen Wei was allowed to go into honourable retirement at the end of his five-year term, he is reported to be under investigation for corruption now.

Following the end of Wei’s term in 2023, Gen Li Shangfu was appointed Defence Minister. Like Gen Wei, he was promoted to the State CMC and to the State Council on the day of his appointment, 12 March 2023. The PLA Rocket Force having blotted its copybook, it was the turn of the Strategic Support Force [PLA SSF] to take up the post. Gen Li Shangfu was the first Defence Minister from that Force, and he was removed in short order by October 2023. Gen Li appeared a safe choice for President Xi: he had the pedigree of being the son of a well-regarded PLA officer, who was a Long March veteran and had fought in the Korean War. And yet, he was swept aside after the shortest tenure in the history of Defence Ministers. [It has just been announced that the PLA SSF has been dissolved by order of the CMC].

Meanwhile, a wide-ranging purge of the Rocket Force was taking place: five of the nine PLA officers removed from the National People’s Congress [NPC] were members of the Rocket Force. That Force had itself seen the removal of its Commander, Gen Li Yuchao, and Political Commissar, Gen Xu Zhomgbo. Their replacements were Gen Wang Houbin, a Naval Officer, who was the Deputy Commander of the PLA Navy, now seconded to the PLA RF, and Gen Xu Xisheng, a career officer from the Political Work Department, who spent the bulk of his career with the PLA Air Force.

There is a general point that can be made about President Xi’s approach to the so-called “aerospace clique”. From both the purely military side and the military-industry side, he has been promoting its members since around the time of the 20th Congress of the CPC. Several provincial Party Secretaries and Ministers have been taken from the aerospace industry, including the Party Secretaries in Xinjiang, Liaoning, Sichuan and others, as well as Ministers of Industry & IT, and of Science & Technology are from different branches of the aerospace industry, especially from the China Aerospace Science & Technology Corporation [CASC]. A parallel pattern seems to hold in the Armed Forces, seeing that both Gen Wei Fenghe and Gen Li Shangfu have similar connections. 

But at least in the military – and this could be the result of pressures from the PLA GF – they have been cut to size. Not only has the Defence Minister been sacked, but the Rocket Force itself has lost its top officers and some others besides. Further, a number of them, who were members of the NPC, have also been dropped from that body: some of them had already lost their positions in the relevant arm, but there were others too, including those who had served and retired from these and similar positions. 

The non-military side, though, has not been left unscathed. While the Party and Ministerial placements are largely intact, three members of the military industry, including two from CASC, were removed from membership of the China People’s Political Consultative Conference [CPPCC]. This would suggest that President Xi has firm control over the Party, but less control over the military and the legislature.

This was the background to the appointment of another Naval officer as Defence Minister – continuing President Xi’s efforts to weaken the hold of the PLA GF on the military. Admiral Dong is the first Naval officer to hold the post, but the third non-GF officer under President Xi. Gen Wei Fenghe was from the Rocket Force, and Gen Li Shangfu from the Strategic Support Force. There is an obvious pattern here. But the change is still incomplete. Going back as far as 1993, every Defence Minister was also appointed State Councillor the same day [some Defence Ministers were also Vice Chairs of the CMC]. However, this time, Admiral Dong has not made it to the State Council. There was an empty chair at the State Council meeting after the NPC session in March this year, and the speculation was that there was a last-minute hitch that prevented the new Defence Minister from taking the seat.

What adds to the significance of this is the fact that, under President Xi, the Defence Minister is the first among the State Councillors. It was not always this way. Under President Hu Jintao, for example, the Defence Minister, Gen Liang Guanglie, ranked third; the Defence Minister in President Xi’s first term, 2013 – 18, Gen Chang Wanquan ranked second. But after the restructuring of the Armed Forces, the Defence Minister ranked first; Gen Li Shangfu, during his short tenure, was also ranked first. This is what makes Admiral Dong’s failure to make it to the State Council all the more inexplicable.

The Defence Minister under President Xi has also automatically held a place in the CMC, and again the first place among the members, after the Chairman and the Vice Chairmen. This applies to both the Party and State Commissions. So far, Admiral Dong has not made it to either the Party or the State CMC. But there could – just could – be an explanation for this. By convention, the Party CMC admits a member first, then the State CMC; the only recent exception has been the redoubtable Gen Chi Haotian, in the mid-1990’s. For the Party CMC to expand and admit a new member, a plenum is necessary, and President Xi has failed to call one, though it has been due since October 2023; this, the third plenum, is traditionally called to discuss economic issues. So, possibly, once President Xi calls the plenum, and Adm Dong is admitted to the Party CMC, the State CMC will follow suit. 

The failure to admit the Defence Minister to the State Council may have had a mini-fallout. At the Boao Forum, held every spring [with rare exceptions, as during the Covid lock-down], this year, the keynote speech was delivered by the NPC Chair, Zhao Leji. This is quite unusual, as the speech has been delivered either by the President or, more often, by the Premier. Perhaps, this was President Xi expressing his unhappiness over the State Council’s failure to admit Admiral Dong as a member.

Fitting into the same pattern is the fate of the head of the PLA top military court. From 1968, this has been headed by an officer of the Ground Force. President Xi broke with this tradition and appointed a Naval officer, Rear Admiral Cheng Dongfang to the post in December 2022; in September 2023, he was removed from the post. But this time, President Xi managed to pull one back: in March this year, he promoted the Secretary of the Political and Legal Affairs Commission of the CMC, Admiral Wang Renhua to the rank of full Admiral [March is an unusual time of year for such promotions – they usually happen in July-August, to coincide with Army Day, or December]. This is the Department that oversees the work of the court system of the PLA. As a full three-star officer, he will be able to hold his own – if he is so minded – among the other full members of the CMC. None of his predecessors was a three-star officer.

However one sees it, all these developments, or lack thereof, can only be interpreted in one way: there is continuing friction between President Xi and his military colleagues, centred mainly in the PLA Ground Force. Moreover, it appears that the latter group is having its way rather more than the Commander-in-Chief.


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