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Prominent PLA Elites in the “Cosmos Club”

Sep 02, 2022
  • Cheng Li

    Director, John L. Thornton China Center, The Brookings Institution

Military officers who have advanced their careers through the missile force and air force, known as PLA elites in the “cosmos club,” are remarkably well represented in the top military leadership. This trend of strong professional backgrounds among high-ranking military elites with substantial experience in aviation and aerospace will likely continue into Xi’s third term after the Party Congress this fall.

Over the past decade under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has made a concerted effort through drastic military reforms to move away from the traditional Russian military model, which heavily emphasizes land forces, to the American military model that places a high priority on joint operations among various forces (air, sea, land, digital networks, and space). To implement this transformation, the Party leadership has not only aimed to recruit more young talents through “shortcut measures” but has also favored those military leaders with expertise in science and technology in senior officer cohorts. 

Recruiting young talents

For the Chinese leadership, a key objective of Miliary-Civil Fusion (MCF) is to recruit “strategic talents” (zhanlue rencai) from the civilian sector to the military at various levels and ranks in the PLA. Even before any discussion of the concept of MCF in the country, the Party leadership had already initiated a comprehensive plan for “military-civilian joint education” (junmin lianhe peiyang). In 2011, for example, the PLA Air Force and Tsinghua University launched the “3+1 joint program” to recruit top high school graduates. Selected students would first study at the Department of Aerospace Engineering in the Tsinghua School of Aeronautics and Astronautics for three years and then would continue their fourth year of study at the PLA Air Force Aviation University.

A Tsinghua University official told the first class of cadets in this program that “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 Tsinghua student; now I want to congratulate you for successfully achieving both ‘one in a million’ at the same time!” Similar joint programs with the PLA Air Force were later also adopted by Peking University and the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, two other most selective universities in the country.

Like the PLA Air Force, the PLA Navy has also adopted its own programs for “military-civilian joint education” to train navy pilots. In 2019, for example, according to a Chinese official source, the total number of PLA Navy pilot cadets increased by 20 percent, and the number of carrier-borne aircraft pilot cadets increased by 41 percent compared with the previous year, setting “a new record both in the number and the quality of the enlisted pilot cadets.”

While some young talents and professionals in the aviation and aerospace industries have joined the PLA, many others have remained in the civilian sector. Notably, among China’s aerospace science and technology employees today, young people under the age of 35 account for more than 55 percent, and the average age of major engineering task teams, such as those focused on manned spaceflight and lunar exploration, is about 30 years old.

This phenomenon of youthfulness among Chinese space professionals has endured over the past decade. In 2013, among all employees of CASC, 81 percent were under the age of 45, and 54 percent were under the age of 35. In the First Academy (the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology), 53 percent were under the age of 35, and the average age was 35.3 years old, which was about 15 years younger than that of developed countries in Europe and the United States, according to a Chinese study at the time.

As a People’s Daily article described, these young professionals in the space industry have often worked in the military industry system for a long time after graduating from college. Years of semi-military experience have distinctly marked their professional and political career. The leading figures of this group, as described in a previous article in this series, will occupy many seats in the upcoming Central Committee (CC), and some will enter the Politburo. 

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

Some rocket scientists and other professionals with expertise in aviation and aerospace serve in the PLA leadership and are thus more directly engaged in military strategy and technological development. Table 1 presents 21 prominent PLA officers with leadership experience in aviation and aerospace. This includes two vice chairs of the CMC and the minister of defense, and they are presently the three highest-ranking PLA officers. Zhang Youxia (1950) served as commander-in-chief of China’s Manned Space Project and commander of the Manned Space Engineering Space Laboratory Mission in recent years; Xu Qiliang (1950), a pilot by training, served as chief-of-staff and commander of the PLA Air Force for 10 years altogether, and Wei Fenghe (1954) advanced his career in China’s strategic missile corps. The fact that these three top military members of the CMC have leadership experience in aviation and aerospace shows the dominant role of the “cosmos club” in the PLA leadership.

RR17 Table 1 Military Members Cosmos Club Updated.jpg

These three highest ranking PLA leaders, however, are expected to retire after the 20th Party Congress. A few other senior miliary generals with full membership at the 19th Central Committee with substantial leadership experience in aviation and aerospace did not make it onto the PLA delegation to the 20th Party Congress. Most notably, former CMC Logistics Support Department Director Gao Jin (1959), who was the inaugural PLA Strategic Support Force commander (2015-2019), will not join the delegation. He was often regarded as a strong candidate for the next CMC, having advanced from the missiles corps and served as Second Artillery chief-of-staff and Rocket Force No. 52 Base commander. Gao has already retired from the military leadership.

Current member of the CMC Zhang Shengmin (1958), whose career advanced through the strategic missile corps, is a candidate for the next Politburo. He will compete with two other current CMC members –– Miao Hua (1955) from the Navy and Li Zuocheng (1953) from the Army –– for Politburo membership this fall. 

CMC Equipment Development Department Director Li Shangfu (1958) is a candidate for membership on the next CMC or even the Politburo. Li, a 1982 graduate of the PLA National University of Defense Technology, spent over three decades in the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, which accounts for 40 percent of China’s space launches. After serving as chief-of-staff and deputy director of the General Equipment Development Department and deputy commander of the PLA Strategic Support Force, Li succeeded Zhang Youxia in 2017 as director of the CMC Equipment Development Department and in 2019 as commander-in-chief of China’s Manned Space Project.

Another candidate for a seat on the next CMC is General Li Fengbiao (1959). Li largely advanced his career through the land force, but also served as Strategic Support Force commander in 2019-2021. It is interesting to note that he has now switched from the role of commander to now oversee political affairs as commissar of Western Theater Operations. With this change of track at this stage of his military career, the CCP top leadership may be considering promoting him to an even more senior post in political affairs in the PLA.

All other military officers on the list were born in the 1960s. Two current full members of the 19th CC, Strategic Support Force (SSF) Deputy Commander Shang Hong (1960) and Academy of Military Sciences President Yang Xuejun (1963), will likely retain their full membership on the 20th CC. Shang, similar to aforementioned Li Shangfu, has spent his entire career focused on the launching of missiles and satellites. Shang currently still holds the post of commander of the Space Systems Division under the SSF, and that division oversees China’s key military space programs. Yang previously served as the chief designer of the Yinhe-III Development Project.

Three newly appointed top generals in the PLA forces –– Air Force Commander Chang Dingqiu (1967), Rocket Force Commander Li Yuchao (1962), and Rocket Force Commissar Xu Zhongbo (1960) –– are currently alternate members of the 19th CC. Given the critically important positions that they currently hold, they all will likely secure full membership on the next CC.

Eleven officers, including Strategic Support Force Commander Ju Qiansheng (1962), Air Force Commissar Guo Puxiao (1964), National Defense University President Xu Xueqiang (1962), and CMC Joint Logistics Support Force Commander Wang Liyan, do not currently serve on the CC, and they will most likely become first-time members of the new CC, and most of them will be full members. This not only forecasts a rapid turnover of the military members at the upcoming Party Congress, but also reflects the enduring strong representation of PLA members of the “cosmos club.”

Based on the officially announced list of the PLA delegation to the 20th Congress, the officers (former and current) in the SSF’s Space Systems Division and Cyber Systems Division are prominently represented. Examples include aforementioned Space Systems Division Commander Shang Hong, SSF Commander Ju Qiansheng (former SSF Cyber Systems Division Commander), Space Systems Division Deputy Commander and Chief of Staff Hao Weizhong (1961), SSF Political Department Director (former Cyber Systems Division Commissar) Ding Xingnong (1963), CMC Disciplinary Inspection Committee Deputy Secretary (former Space Systems Division Political Department Director) Chen Guoqiang (1963), Air Force Political Department Director (former Space Systems Division Commissar) Jiang Ping (1961), and Rocket Force Political Department Director (former Systems Division Political Department Director) Cheng Jian (1963).

Some officers on the list are well-accomplished scientists in their professional areas of focus. For example, National University of Defense Technology President Li Xiang (1967). He received a bachelor’s degree from the School of Electronic Engineering at Xidian University in 1989 and a master’s degree in 1995 and a doctoral degree in 1998, both from the National University of Defense Technology. He has been mainly engaged in the key technology and application system research of radar’s fine feature inversion. As the country’s leading expert in the field of radar target recognition, Li was elected as an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2021. Huang Minqiang (1960), also an academician and PLA major general, is another example (though he is not listed on Table 1). He currently serves as a senior researcher at the 58th Research Institute of the PLA General Staff. As China’s leading expert on information processing, Huang has long been engaged in system logic structure analysis. He serves as an alternate member of the 19th CC and will likely retain that seat in the 20th CC.

Also notably, several rocket scientists in the PLA who served on the 19th CC as alternate members are not on the delegation list for the 20th Party Congress. For example, Major General Li Yinghong (1963), director of the State Key Laboratory of Aeronautical Plasma Dynamics, joined the PLA and enrolled in the Department of Aeronautical and Mechanical Engineering of the Air Force Engineering College in 1978 at the age of 15. He also obtained a master’s degree in engineering from the East China Institute of Technology (now Nanjing University of Science and Technology) in 1989. He became a professor at the Air Force Engineering College in his late 20s. Li has long been engaged in aero-engine aero-thermal control, diagnosis, and component surface strengthening research. He currently holds 13 patents for inventions. Because of his expertise and contributions in the field of aviation propulsion technology, Li was elected as an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2013. Li was a delegate to the 16th Party Congress in 2002. Another example is Major General Zhang Zhifeng (1966), who served as Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center director from 2016 to 2021. Zhang also served as Xichang Satellite Launch Base Chief-of-Staff.

Though they will not serve on the next CC, both Li Yinghong and Zhang Zhfeng will likely continue to play important roles in China’s aerospace program. At the same time, some other young rocket scientists in the PLA delegation will likely be the candidates for the alternate membership in the 20th CC. They include, for example, Chief Engineer of Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center Zheng Yonghuang (1969) who previously served as deputy chief designer of Manned Space Engineering Launch Site System and Party Secretary of Beijing Aerospace Control Center Chu Hongbin (1967).

It is one thing to say that well-educated and professionally capable military technocrats are prominently represented in the PLA leadership, and it is quite another thing to assume that they are well prepared for high-tech warfare, especially given that the Chinese military has not been at war for many decades. Yet, as China has recently emerged as a global power on the economic, technological, and military fronts, including in artificial intelligence, this new corps of military technocrats in the senior leadership of the PLA deserves to be more intensively examined by overseas China watchers. 

The rise of Chinese technocrats in both the civilian and military leadership in the reform era is not new, but such a large representation of rocket scientists and other professional experts in cutting-edge technology seems to suggest that Chinese elite politics is entering the new era of technocratic rule 2.0, which will be explored further in the next article. 

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