China's Military Has a Discipline Problem. Here Is How Xi Jinping Is Trying to Fix It.

Military troops march during a welcoming ceremony for U.S. President Donald Trump in Beijing

Instilling discipline is critical to the PLA’s ability to achieve progress in its current cycle of reform and modernization.

Several changes to the CMC made at the 19th Party Congress aimed to build on the foundation laid earlier in Xi’s tenure, and ensure a more disciplined PLA leadership. First, Xi did not reappoint two key CMC members despite them not yet having reached normal retirement ages—Fang Fenghui, who as director of the CMC’s Joint Staff Department played a critical role in operations, and Zhang Yang, who oversaw the PLA’s political work system (responsible for personnel management and both internal and external propaganda). While foreign media speculated that both may have run afoul of anticorruption rules, it is also possible that one or both were dismissed for less dramatic reasons, such as poor performance or a poor working relationship with Xi. Their replacements, Li Zuocheng and Miao Hua, had been rapidly promoted since Xi took office (a signal of his confidence in their abilities).

Second, the chiefs of the navy, air force, and rocket force, along with the heads of the central departments responsible for logistics and equipment development, were removed from the CMC (the PLA army commander is a new position created in early 2016, and was never included in the CMC; previously, ground force affairs were collectively managed by the general departments). This change, which brought the CMC’s size down from eleven to seven members, meant that the services and the logistics and armament departments would no longer have an ex officio vote in major budgetary and personnel decisions, depriving them of a key source of bureaucratic leverage. Those officers would thus be in a weaker position to try to subvert the reforms, and would have to rely instead on arguments and relationships with more powerful officers who are CMC members.

Third, the director of the discipline inspection commission, Zhang Shengmin, became a CMC member. Zhang, a career rocket force political officer, assumed his role as the PLA’s top anticorruption official in March, having replaced Du Jincai—who himself was rumored to be an anticorruption target. Zhang’s CMC appointment underscored Xi’s emphasis on Party discipline, paralleling his reliance on former Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Qishan as his chief anticorruption enforcer for civilian Party members. The change also meant that the discipline inspection commission would now bureaucratically outrank the recently demoted services, and logistics and equipment departments, giving it greater clout to combat graft in those organizations. Xi thus emerged with a more potent anticorruption tool that he could use, along with auditing, prosecution, and personnel changes, to instill discipline.

The net result of these changes was to strengthen Xi Jinping’s position relative to the military, both because he has more effective tools to reward and punish senior officers and because he has been able to promote officers in whom he has more confidence to the most senior positions in the PLA. The use of the discipline inspection commission to investigate and punish retired officers—such as former CMC vice-chairs Xu and Guo—is also a warning that retired officers are still vulnerable if they try to challenge Xi’s decisions.


Despite Xi’s efforts over the past five years, including the recent CMC changes, the PLA’s senior officer corps will continue to face a variety of discipline issues. First, removing specific leaders such as Fang or Zhang will still leave in place many senior officers who purchased their ranks during the vice chairmanship of Xu and Guo. Xi may select officers reputed to be clean (such as new CMC Joint Staff Department director Li Zuocheng, whose alleged refusal to engage in corruption prior to Xi’s arrival purportedly slowed his career progress), and he could use a broader 300,000-man downsizing of the PLA—set to be complete by the end of 2017—to ferret out officers thought to be corrupt, and retain those believed to be clean and reliable. Yet because corruption was a systemic problem, Xi will still have to deal with many officers who arrived in top positions due to reasons other than professional competence.