The Second Echelon of the PLAAF Headquarters Elites
The second echelon of PLAAF leadership consists of the PLAAF’s deputy commanders, chief of staff, deputy chiefs of staff, and assistant chiefs of staff. Readers are advised that these elites at the headquarters belong to two clusters in CMC nomenclature. The deputy commanders and chief of staff are at the deputy MR rank and fall into the CMC “Category B” management list, requiring that (though nominated by the CMC’s professional soldiers) their appointments be approved by the CMC chair personally. The deputy chief of staff and assistant chief of staff are Corps-level leaders whose appointments are basically decided by the PLAAF, approved by the CMC in regular meetings, and signed by the CMC chair. Their appointments are professional, not political. In fact the PLA is no longer subjected to impositions of blatantly political appointments, though this was a widespread phenomenon in the now-past eras of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.14 Currently, the PLAAF has five deputy commanders, five deputy chiefs of staff, and five assistant chiefs of staff.
All five PLAAF deputy commanders were born in 1949, meaning that they have little or no prospect of upward progression, since the deputy MR rank requires compulsory retirement age at 63. Among them are three fighter pilots of the top grade and two army officers transferred to the PLAAF, with distinctive military family backgrounds.
Lieutenant General He Weirong ) is executive deputy commander,
responsible for operations and training. He commanded Fighter Division 6 and was deputy commander of the Jinan MR and the Jinan AF Region (2003). He was PLAAF chief of staff (2003) before assuming his current position (2005).
Lieutenant General Jing Wenchun (ЯЙ#) is in charge of the departments of supporting arms in the Headquarters (electronic warfare, radar and communications, education institutions, and key weapons projects).15 He was commander of the 10th Corps (1998) and deputy commander of the Beijing MR and the Beijing AF Region (2002-2006) before assuming his current position.
Lieutenant General Zhao Zhongxin (М&ЭД is in charge of headquarters affairs and air force MR affairs. He was commander of the 19th Fighter Division and the Dalian base (2000) and chief of staff for the Nanjing (2002) and Chengdu (2004) AF Regions and deputy chief of staff (2004) and chief of staff of the PLAAF (2005) before assuming this position.
Lieutenant General Yang Dongming (ШЖЩ) is in charge of the PLAAF Research Institutions (basic weapons design, research and development), the Engineering Department, and logistics. Although recruited into the PLA as an air force technical officer—he graduated from the Beijing Aero-Space and Aviation University in 1977 as a rocket engineer—his career advancement came mostly in the army, with postings to the Defense Technology Commission, the Hebei Military District, and the Beijing Garrison. He was transferred back to the PLAAF as deputy commander from the GLD (where he was director for the Material and Oil Department). Without the connections of his father (General Yang Chengwu [Ш$.Ж], former PLA chief of general staff), he would not have come this far in the air force, for he was not an airman and possessed no prior experience in PLAAF combat units or headquarters.
Lieutenant General Chen Xiaogong (^/JI) is in charge of intelligence, training safety, and foreign affairs. He is probably the only senior commander in the PLAAF with battlefield combat experience, having fought in the Sino-Vietnam border war as a battalion commander. He was PLA defense attache in Washington (2001) and then the PLAs intelligence chief (director of the 2d Department of the GSD). He represented the PLA as deputy director of the Politburo’s Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group (FALSG) office and was appointed assistant chief of general staff in 2007, temporarily filling the vacancy left by General Xiong Guangkai.
Chen’s career progression is intriguing. It is not clear how he was transferred to the PLAAF, which had already filled its four deputy-commander quota. Chen belongs to the PLA category of “cadre to be rescued” (ЙЙ^нР), a commander with a distinctive service record who, due to lack of a compulsory experience or lack of a vacancy, is transferred elsewhere as a way of promotion. General Pei Huailiang (Ш’Тй) was a good example of this category when he was promoted as president of the NDU. General Zhang Qingsheng was promoted to be deputy chief of general staff without experience as a group army (GA) and MR Commander. For Chen Xiaogong, assistant chief of general staff is still between the army and DMR ranks that he achieved long time ago ()#^KS).16
But without experience as a commanding officer at or above divisional level (¥#iW), it went against the norm to create an exception for him to become deputy chief of general staff. Overall, Chen’s career progression was frustrated despite his extensive connections with top leaders while working in the Politburo’s FALSG and his father’s connection as China’s first ambassador to Japan. He thus went to the PLAAF because the PLAAF was a place that could adopt him.
Lieutenant General Yang Guohai (ЙВЛ) is the PLAAF chief of staff. From his resume, we can see that he has been Xu’s old associate in Shanghai and is the same age as Xu. The relations between a commander and his chief of staff are always special, and this makes the post of chief of staff a key position in the PLA. According to PLA regulations, the chief of staff is in a way more important than deputy commanders. For instance, if the commander is killed in combat, the next person in line to fill the commanding job is not one of the deputy commanders, but the chief of staff because the former are in charge of specific areas while the latter is more familiar with the overall responsibilities and workings of the unit.17 Although deputy commander and chief of staff are at the same military rank, in recent years more chiefs of staff have been promoted to lead MRs and Corps-level units than deputy commanders.
Yang was born in 1950, and became commander of the 4th Fighter Division in his late 30s and commander of the Shanghai base in 1998. He stayed in the post of chief of staff of the Lanzhou AF Region for 6 years from 2000, a bit too long for a designated candidate for a future PLAAF leader and, as a result, his future is relatively limited. But after he was appointed to deputy chief of staff of the Air Force in 2006, he held that post for hardly a year before being promoted to chief of staff. Obviously his deputy period was transitional, waiting for the incumbent chief of staff (Zhao Zhongxin) to vacate the position.