The Commanders of PLAAF Military Regions

As this is written, the military region air force commanders are all tran­sitioning to retired status. The youngest commanders were born in 1949 and

the oldest in 1947. Jia Yongsheng of the Beijing MRAF and Liu Zhongxing are already over the retirement age.28 The CMC has applied a level of flexibility in service age to some special cases in recent years.29 The current MRAF com­manders will all retire before the end of 2011, unless some “historical acci­dents” happen, such as an outbreak of conflict.

Attention should therefore be focused on the younger and rising stars in the MRAFs, who are in their early 50s, have served in operational front­line posts, and have held senior commanding positions for a number of years. Most are chiefs of staff of MRAFs who proved themselves as the top-grade fighter pilots, commanders of the “fist units” and as staff officers in headquar­ters assignments. They are:

Major General Ma Zhenjun (ЙШ¥), deputy commander and chief of staff of the Beijing MRAF. Born in 1964, he is probably the only major general at the full corps rank in the air force who was born in the 1960s.30 This indi­cates that Ma has distinguished himself in the race to the apex of power. He is now in a unique position to succeed either Jia Yongsheng, his current superior, or to be transferred to another MRAF as commander. It is worth noting that by March 2010 the PLA had only eight post-1960s major generals at the corps level, the youngest being Yang Hui (ШЩ), director of the 2d Department of the GSD.31 Mao Xinyu (^ff^) (Mao Zedong’s grandson) is the only one born in the 1970s. So far, apart from Ma, no other post-1960s corps level officer is found in the PLAAF.

Ma earned his fast promotion after proving himself as a top-grade fighter pilot, an outstanding fighter division commander, and a keen proponent of training. Instead of emphasizing routine technical training, Ma emphasized tactical combat training. When he commanded the 2d Fighter Division, it was rated as having displayed the most proficiency in training for three successive years. He also won three PLA science and technology awards.32

In 2007 Ma was promoted from commander of the 2d Fighter Division to deputy chief of staff of the Guangzhou MRAF, when he was 43. Two years later, he was promoted to deputy commander of the Jinan MRAF (a full corps rank) and again within 1 year he was transferred to his current position. The frequent transfers clearly reflect the air force leadership’s confidence in Ma and their crafting a succession plan for him involving gaining intimate familiarity with various MRAFs and combat units.

Major General Ding Laihong (Т#Ю was born in 1957 and is the sec­ond youngest senior officer among the seven PLAAF MRs (at the full corps rank). He became regimental commander of Regiment 71 of Fighter Division 24 while in his early 30s. From the position of division deputy commander he moved to command of a training base in the Beijing MRAF, a divisional unit.

Like Ma, he emphasized combat-realistic “Red versus Blue” training. In 2001 he was swiftly promoted to chief of staff of the 8th Corps, deployed on the Tai­wan Front, reaching the deputy corps level at the age of 44. When the 8th Corps was reorganized down to the Fuzhou Forward Commanding Post in 2003, Ding remained its foundational head. In 2007 he was promoted to be presi­dent of the Air Force Command Academy. One year later he was transferred to the Chengdu MRAF as its chief of staff. Looking back, Ding has been at the corps-command level for almost a decade. In terms of seniority or in terms of the PLAAF’s demand for a large pool of candidates to complete the forthcom­ing reshuffle, Ding is certainly at the front in the queue.

Major General Zheng Qunliang (ЙЙЙ), born in 1954, is older than Ding, but is still a valid candidate to “catch the last train” to reach deputy MR rank. Previously he was a corps commander who would have had to retire at the age of 55 if he could not advance further; but now, his active service can be extended, perhaps to age 58.33 Zheng, as commander of the PLAAF’s elite 1st Fighter Division, was selected to participate in a PLA senior officers’ delegation to visit the United States in July 2000, a sign of the PLA having identified him as a future PLAAF leader.

After his trip, he wrote a widely distributed article recounting his expe­riences visiting various U. S. Air Force bases.34 For instance, he noticed it took only 15 minutes for an F-15 wing to change munitions, as compared with his division’s 3 hours. He was highly impressed that USAF F-15 Eagle fighter pilots took off in formation, even under heavy clouds below 200 meters (some­thing his own pilots could only do individually under the same conditions) and landed out of steep, descending turns.

At one base in California, he was particularly surprised to find Air Force male and female personnel working together and was impressed with the orderly and systematic airfield operations. He was surprised to find non­commissioned officers supervising flight operations (a task performed only by commanders in a PLAAF fighter division). Zheng concluded that if his com­manders could be freed from such duties, they could devote their attention to more important tasks. He concluded that the more the PLA understood the U. S. military, the more the PLA would know its own shortcomings and be motivated to catch up.

Zheng is a top-grade jet fighter pilot. When he reached the PLAAF’s compulsory nonflight age of 47, he had accumulated 2,200 flying hours. He became commander of Regiment 3 of the 1st Division in 1992, then divisional commander in 1997. In a transregional combat drill under no pre-set flying conditions, he led the division to a deployment at another air base, breaking PLA records for the largest number of aircraft moved on a single mission, traveling the longest distance, and the longest flying time under instrument – only (blind flying) flight conditions. In 1999 he was the in-flight commander for the Air Force National Day Military Parade. The review formation was 7 kilometers (4.34 miles) long, and passed the review stand at Tiananmen Square exactly on time, to the second. This exhibition won him high praise from PLAAF leaders.35 In 2002 he was promoted to commander of the Wuhan base and concurrently deputy commander and chief of staff of the Shenyang MRAF. Clearly, if age is not an obstacle for his advancement, he will receive a more senior post in the PLAAF’s leadership reshuffle.

Major General Zhuang Kezhu (ЙИЙ), chief of staff of the Lanzhou MRAF. He was born in 1955 and rose quickly in his early career. He was com­mander of the 33d Fighter Division, the top division in Southwest China and always the first combat unit to equip with new generation aircraft in that region. He was promoted to commander of the Kunming Forward Headquar­ters in 1999. In 2005 he was transferred to Beijing to serve as assistant chief of staff of the PLAAF, in charge of combat plans and training of air force units in the southwest. He has thus gained valuable access to the top AF leadership on the one hand and had rich commanding experience at the basic campaign units on the other. His future upward movement is certain.

Major General Xu Anxiang (1£Ш¥) is chief of staff of the Nanjing MRAF. In his early 50s, Xu has already acquired valuable experience in com­manding divisional and corps-level operations and training. In 2002 he was commander of the 14th Fighter Division, a unit on constant combat duty in the Nanjing War Zone. He was in charge of the MR’s air force units in the Wenchuan operation when he was deputy chief of the staff. He personally oversaw preparation of aircraft in the Special Rescue Regiment that received emergency mobilization orders at 10:30 p. m. on the night of the earthquake, departing 3 hours later with all necessary materials.36 In 2007 Xu was front­line commander for PLAAF fighters deployed to the Sino-Russian joint mili­tary exercise Peace Mission 2007. This was the first time that PLAAF aircraft had entered a foreign country for combat drills. Xu directed 24 sorties of eight Chinese J-7s and Il-76s within a short period of time. Xu’s division achieved its tactical objectives, even though in a strange location, against unfamiliar tar­gets, and under uncertain circumstances.37 Given the fact that the PLAAF top leadership always selects the most competent commanders to command trans­national military missions, Xu’s experience in the mission was a telling proof of how the PLAAF leadership regarded him. As a richly experienced commander in charge of operations and training in an important air force war zone, he held heavy responsibilities, a contributing factor likely to influence his promotion to higher command in future years.

Major General Sun Herong (ї’Мп®) is chief of staff of the Jinan MRAF (2009). He was deputy chief of staff of Shenyang MRAF (2003-2006) and com­mander of the Dalian Forward Headquarters (2007). His seniority is about the same as that of Ding, Zheng, and Xu, and he is a clear candidate for more important positions. In 2003 he coauthored with Yi Xiaoguang (Z, K^) a book entitled The Stealth Aircraft: A Difficult Adversary (ШШАЖ&М’&Ш-). This highly acclaimed work subsequently proved popular with the PLAAF, then in the midst of examining high-tech warfare.

Clearly, there are many promising commanders among this cluster of relatively young major generals at the MRAF level. A number of other officers are also potential candidates; however, due to limited space, they can only be briefly noted:

Major General Chang Baolin (^S#), deputy commander of the Nan­jing MRAF, was chief of staff of the 1st Corps in 2000 at the age of 44 and then the Guangzhou MRAF’s chief of staff and deputy commander (2005). He is a candidate for commander for one of the MRAFs.

Major General Yang Weidong (Й!^), commander of PLAAF Wuhan Base, was commander of the 31st Fighter Division and deputy chief of staff of the Jinan MRAF. He served briefly as assistant chief of staff of the PLAAF, which gave him close access to top PLAAF leaders. His current job is meant to increase his experience in regional command and campaign level units. He is poised to become chief of staff of one of the MRAFs.

Major General Wang Tieyi (И£Щ). Born in 1959, Wang is deputy chief of staff of the Shenyang MRAF. He was commander of the 9th Fighter Division, which is one of the top divisions in the air force, in 2000. He was selected to study at National Defense University in 2005 and was a deputy leader in the 54th Base of the Strategic Missile Force under the PLA senior officer exchange program of different services. In his capacity of deputy chief of staff of the Shenyang MRAF, Wang was the first-line commander of PLAAF units in the 2009 Sino-Russian Peace Mission joint exercise.

Major General Li Xiangmin (^ЙВД). Born in 1959, Li became com­mander of the PLAAF Nanning Forward Headquarters in 2004 at the age of 45, younger than Ding Laihang (Fuzhou) and Zheng Qunliang (Wuhan) who held the same rank at the same time.


This chapter’s research tentatively reveals a few commonalities in PLAAF leadership politics, especially in regard to the patterns of elite selection and promotion.

First, the leadership selection process is increasingly based upon meritoc­racy and even “expertocracy’ The candidates for top leadership are inevitably well-trained, learned, and internationally exposed. The level of professionalism is very high, both in terms of their careers as airmen and their experience as com­manders. Mediocre officers simply do not make it to the top, given the extremely tough competition among peers. The officers in the CMC and PLAAF cadre reserve lists have to go through several rounds of performance tests, through var­ious commanding posts and at different levels of command. In this regard, the PLAAF is much like professional air forces in other parts of the world.

Second, fighter pilots have dominated the PLAAF leadership from its formative years to the present day. Virtually all top service leaders and lead­ers at the region level are fighter pilots. Partly this is due to the PLAAF force structure that gives numerical advantages to fighter divisions and partly to a tradition dating to the earliest years of the service. Functionally, fighter jets undertake a proportionally higher responsibility for homeland air defense. It is interesting to watch how this tradition will evolve and change, as the air force increasingly emphasizes power projection missions away from home, which will require other types of aircraft to play a larger role. In terms of personal net­works, it is logical and commonplace for the incumbent fighter-pilots turned AF leaders to groom their subordinates into commanding positions. This situ­ation is unlikely to change much any time soon.

Third, the age of the PLAAF’s current leadership will soon force a mas­sive leadership reshuffle at the service and MRAF levels. The generational suc­cession can be expected to be orderly, as an array of candidates is already in place to take over key positions as they become available. This chapter lists a number of them, although it is not an exhaustive examination. If there is no substantial intervening surprise, they will become the next generation of air force leaders. They are younger, better educated, with more flying hours, and more capable of piloting various types of third-generation (fourth-generation in Western terminology) fighter aircraft.

Fourth, the PLA as a whole and the PLAAF in particular have developed a sophisticated, institutionalized, and comprehensive personnel selection and promotion system. It is multi-layered, with a CMC reserve list, a PLAAF list, an MRAF list, a corps list, and a divisional list. Each list normally has 1.5 times the number of personnel who can be promoted to the next level to guarantee that the best make it through the selection filter.38 Different tiers are mutually supportive, as a promising PLAAF candidate can enter the CMC list simultane­ously, to be groomed with a variety of opportunities, as takes place in the other services. As far as the air force is concerned, a pattern of upward mobility is thus clearly visible for those lucky enough to be screened as future top leaders.

They are identified early compared with those in other PLA services, thanks to the service age regulations for combat pilots, whose flying career ends at age 47. In their early 30s they become regimental commanders, get to the divisional rank in their mid to late 30s, and then to corps level posts before age 50. From there they are transferred frequently to gain familiarity with central affairs and different MRAFs, normally staying in one place no more than 2 years. A top air force leader is thus tempered with as much necessary experience as possible.

To stress yet again, meritocracy and expert knowledge of one’s profes­sional career field are now the core defining qualities for the deepening pro­fessionalization of the PLAAF’s top elites. This is seen by the following facts:

■ They are all top-grade pilots, typically rated in several kinds of high-per­formance aircraft (typically fighters), or other aerospace professionals.

■ By the time a commander is selected for a corps-level command, he has gone at least three times to advanced training in military acade­mies (for a deputy MR commander, at least four times).

■ PLAAF officers are given special missions to test their ability in the process of being selected and promoted, such as joint combat drills with foreign military services and large-scale military operations other than war (MOOTW) experience.

■ The selection of future leaders is increasingly open and competitive, using measures such as a satisfactory graduation thesis, peer opinion survey, and examination marks on technological tests (for instance, computer knowledge and skills). All these and others heavily impact subsequent personnel selection. Thus, the scope of arbitrary nomina­tion of favored candidates by individual leaders is markedly decreasing.

In conclusion, the PLAAF is capable of identifying potential leaders and giving them the experience and skills needed to undertake the complicated and tough transformation of turning the air force from a purely defensive force to one with reasonable long-range offensive and defensive power-projection capabilities. The next years will bring about a major reshaping of the PLAAF leadership as those born in the late 1940s and early 1950s give way to younger officers. This will take place in an orderly fashion, though some disruption is likely to occur, with gaps between the right people in the right posts being nar­rowed and bridged only in a gradual manner.

By December 2011 the reshuffle of the military region air force leader­ship had seen five new MRAF commanders: Jiang Jianzeng (>ІЙн), Beijing MR, transferred from the Nanjing MR; Zhang Jianping (ЖШТ), Guangzhou MR; Zhuang Kezhu (SWfi), Lanzhou MR; Yi Xiaoguang (Z, K^), Nanjing

MR; and Zheng Qunliang Jinan MR. Two other air force military

region commanders Fang Dianrong (^)^®),Chengdu MR and Zhou Laiqiang (Ml#®), Shenyang MR have not been changed.