15 March 2017

China’s Navy Gets a New Helmsman (Part 2): Remaining Uncertainties

Andrew S. Erickson and Kenneth Allen, “China’s Navy Gets a New Helmsman (Part 2): Remaining Uncertainties,” Jamestown China Brief (14 March 2017).

Part 1 of this series discussed Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong’s background, meteoric rise, and recent promotion to PLAN Commander. However, his appointment raises a number of questions about his role in the PLA Navy’s modernization, his promotion’s implication for China’s promotion system, and about his predecessor’s continued presence on the Central Military Commission. Part 2 will explore these important factors in depth and suggest possible conclusions and implications.

Promotion to commander of the PLA Navy has traditionally carried with it appointment to the PLA Central Military Commission (CMC), China’s highest military decision-making body. However, the latest Chinese state media reports state that Admiral Wu Shengli still serves on the CMC (Xinhua, March 5). In his capacity as a high-ranking CCP member, Wu has been a full member of the CCP Central Committee since 2007, serving on the 17th and 18th Committees. It remains uncertain when and how, or even if, Shen will assume similar roles. Perhaps there is a deliberate overlap so that Wu can help Shen learn the ropes.

During the 1990s and 2000s, there was a generally consistent path to full general/admiral and to CMC Member, combining rank and grade promotions that rarely occur simultaneously (China Brief, July 22 and August 5, 2010). However, it has always remained unclear who decides the appointment of any key leadership positions in the CMC, including the vice chairmen, the minister of national defense, directors of the four departments, and the services, as well as the theater command leaders. Shen’s appointment then raises a number of questions:  1) did Wu Shengli submit Shen’s name, or not, or as one of several names; 2) did the PLAN Party Standing Committee submit several names and then vote; 3) did the CMC vice chairmen or Xi Jinping submit Shen’s name; and 4) does the full CMC vote on the final contenders? 5) What if any role did personal connections (guanxi)—known to be a key factor in selecting any PLA leaders at multiple levels—play in his selection? [1] Examination of the general steps used for promotion and notable exceptions to these rules provides a framework for understanding the dynamics at play during Shen’s promotion.

Although none of the six previous PLAN commanders, including Shen, have had similar career paths, they have met the required time-in-grade and  time-in-rank requirements (See Table 2 in Part 1 of this series) (China Brief, July 22, 2010; August 5, 2010). [2] While the bullets below show the pattern in 2010; it is clear that the PLA is already adjusting past practices to meet Xi’s new requirements. …