China’s Central Military Commission Under Hu Jintao

China’s Central Military Commission Under Hu Jintao


At long last, Jiang Zemin stepped down as Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) at the Fourth Plenum of the 16th Central Committee (16-19 September 2004). Hu Jintao, General-Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as well as First Vice-Chairman of the CMC, succeeded him. Did Jiang really intend to retire at the Fourth Plenum? Why did he retire? Will he have any significant influence after his retirement?


Jiang Zemin’s complete retirement


The issue of Jiang’s complete retirement was not new in September 2004. The issue had been decided before the convening of the 16th CCP National Congress in 2002. As Jiang recalled in his resignation letter to the Politburo dated 1 September 2004, he had requested before the 16th Party Congress to retire from all leadership positions and the Party had accepted his request. He subsequently retired as General-Secretary of the CCP and was not a candidate for membership on the 16th Central Committee. However, he stayed on as Chairman of the Central Military Commission without being a Central Committee member. Moreover, he deliberately missed two opportunities in 2003 for complete retirement: at the First Meeting of the 10th National People’s Congress (NPC) in March 2003 and at the Third Plenum of the 16th Central Committee in October 2003.


Jiang’s comeback in 2004


Instead of planning for complete retirement as he claimed in his resignation letter, Jiang was actually staging a comeback in 2004. In March 2004, he walked in front of all standing members of the Politburo including General-Secretary Hu Jintao in all proceedings during the meetings of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), even though he was supposed to have followed Hu Jintao according to the protocol. On 11 March, Jiang took Hu to the meeting of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Deputies to the 10th NPC because this was an occasion where Jiang as CMC chairman could have his name listed in front of that of Hu as CMC Vice-Chairman in official news releases. On 28 April, Jiang took Hu to an exhibition of military logistics equipment technology in the Beijing Exhibition Hall for the same publicity reasons.[i] On 19 May 2004, Jiang took Hu to a meeting with Deputies to the 10th Party Congress of the PLA Air Force, again showing his symbolic superiority over Hu.[ii]


Most significantly, on 8 July he turned his meeting with Condoleezza Rice, then the US President’s National Security Advisor, into a major publicity show with a strong signal that he was still dominant in Chinese politics. First, his meeting with Rice was scheduled one day ahead of President Hu’s meeting with Rice, a scene reminiscent of the 1989 scenario in which Deng Xiaoping met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev before General-Secretary Zhao Ziyang’s meeting with Gorbachev. Second, in an attempt to justify his stay as CMC Chairman, Jiang complemented Rice by saying that ‘you look younger’, with the expectation that Rice would say ‘You too’.[iii] Unfortunately, Rice did not reply in kind. Third, Jiang told Rice that he was ‘handing over more and more power’ to President Hu, implying that ultimate authority still rested with him instead of Hu Jintao.[iv]


Finally, Jiang played up the Taiwan issue to boost his position. He told Rice that the Taiwan issue was the most vital and most sensitive issue in Sino-American relations and that China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity were paramount. ‘If the Taiwan authorities go toward independence and foreign forces step in’, he said, ‘we will never sit by and watch’.[v] A few days later Globe Weekly – a publication of Xinhua News Agency (the most important official news agency in China) – published an interview with Yan Xuetong, Director of the Institute of International Affairs at Tsinghua University. According to Yan, the Taiwan issue was paramount because Taiwan’s independence would lead to the collapse of China as what had occurred to the former Soviet Union. For this reason, China should do whatever possible to prevent Taiwan from declaring independence and the most effective way is to initiate a limited military action against Taiwan by 2006. This limited military action, as Yan saw it, should not affect China’s economic development. On the same day, Hong Kong’s Wenwei Pao also revealed that at an expanded meeting of the CMC a few days earlier, Jiang had set a timetable of solving the Taiwan issue by 2020.


Whether China is going to ‘solve’ the Taiwan issue by 2006 or 2020, however, is not of any particular significance for Jiang. The most important political message is that Jiang, as Commander-in-Chief, should be regarded as indispensable so long as the Taiwan issue remains unresolved. In other words, playing up the importance of the Taiwan issue is Jiang’s tactic to postpone his complete retirement.


Pressures for Jiang’s retirement


Clearly, Jiang did not really want to retire as CMC Chairman. He was in fact trying to come back to the centre stage in politics in 2004. Pressures for his complete retirement, however, were being built up. During an interview on CCTV (China’s premier official television station) on 28 July 2004, there was a replay of Deng Xiaoping’s resignation letter to the Politburo and farewell speech. ‘In order to make the contingent of leading cadres younger and to abolish the life-long tenure’, the CCTV commended, ‘Deng Xiaoping retired on 9 November 1989 while he was still healthy, setting a good example’.[vi] Although Jiang Zemin’s name was not mentioned, the interview was widely interpreted as sending Jiang a reminder of about Jiang’s own complete retirement.


On 31 July 2004, in a speech at the ceremony to celebrate the 77th anniversary of the founding of the PLA, Defence Minister Cao Gangchuan (Politburo member and CMC Vice-Chairman) did not mention Jiang Zemin’s name at all. This omission was an indication that military leaders were getting impatient with Jiang because on a similar occasion in 2003, Cao mentioned Jiang’s name three times. The key phrase – the Army will ‘obey the directions of the Party Centre, the Central Military Commission and Chairman Jiang in all actions’[vii] – was visibly absent from Cao’s speech in 2004.


Half a month later, Qiushi – the CCP’s official journal – published an article by former Defence Minister Chi Haotian. In the article, Chi devoted a whole section to the principle of the Army following the leadership of the Party. According to Chi, Deng made a very simple farewell speech before his retirement and then left. ‘He is really an unselfish and fearless person, a person who is really free from vulgar interests, and a person who is truly concerned with the overall situation’, Chi commended.[viii] This is another indication that military leaders were ready to see Jiang’s departure.


Finally, Hu Jintao also seemed to be getting impatient with Jiang. At the ceremony to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s birthday on 22 August 2004, Hu made references to Deng’s efforts to eliminate the life-long tenure twice and highly praised Deng for having set a good example in this regard. Although Jiang was sitting right behind Hu at the ceremony, he seemed to turn a deaf ear to Hu’s admonitions.


Jiang’s Resignation Letter and His True Intentions


It was probably under these pressures as well as some reportedly more direct pressures from former senior military leaders[ix] that Jiang Zemin wrote a resignation letter on 1 September. However, he showed no signs of preparing for imminent retirement. On the very next day he had a publicized meeting with Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.


Moreover, Jiang’s loyalists came out to ‘oppose’ Jiang’s retirement. During his inspection tour of Xinjiang and Gansu in early September, Guo Boxiong (Politburo member and Second Vice-Chairman of the CMC) urged the army to ‘resolutely obey the directions of the Party Centre, the Central Military Commission and Chairman Jiang at any time and under all circumstances’.[x]


On 16 September, the day when the Fourth Plenum began in Beijing, Jiang’s name again appeared in People’s Daily as CMC chairman. He issued an order to re-issue a revised PLA regulation on environmental protection, showing that he was still working as CMC Chairman.


The Politburo’s Votes on Jiang’s Retirement


According to a report in Cheng Ming by Luo Bing, the 16th Politburo Standing Committee had two meetings on Jiang’s retirement in late August and early September 2004 without a final decision. After Jiang submitted his resignation letter, the Politburo voted at a meeting on 14 September. Eighteen voted to support Jiang’s retirement; three against it; and three abstained.


Noticeably, Guo Boxiong, a staunch supporter of Jiang, changed his mind on Jiang’s retirement. He was reportedly forced to make a self-criticism about his remarks on obeying Jiang Zemin under all circumstances in early September 2004.[xi] And he joined the others to end Jiang’s career in the military.


In a word, Jiang’s clique collapsed. Few stood up for Jiang. Even his most loyal supporters refused to fight for him.


The Fourth Plenum and Jiang’s Farewell


On 19 September 2004, the Fourth Plenum approved Jiang’s resignation from the CMC. It appears that the issue was decided by a show of hands and the decision was made unanimously. During his meeting with Plenum participants that day, Jiang Zemin made a brief speech, acknowledging the decision to accept his resignation and the help he had received over the years.


The next morning Jiang attended an expanded meeting of the CMC and delivered a long speech. He described his attitude toward the post of CMC Chairmanship as ‘bending [his] back to the task until [his] dying day’. He gave himself high marks as the CMC Chairman and he was trying to gain sympathies from the military leaders: ‘In the past fifteen years’, he said, ‘I have developed deep feelings for the PLA, for the officers and soldiers of the PLA and for comrades of several central military commissions’.[xii]


Compared to Deng Xiaoping’s farewell speech, Jiang’s speech was too long, too much about himself and too insincere.[xiii] Deng used only 466 characters, while Jiang used at least 2,663; Deng’s speech was to establish Jiang’s authority, while Jiang’s speech was to praise himself; Deng made the speech and left, while Jiang waited to hear more praises about himself.


The CMC under Hu Jintao


Since Jiang was pushed from the CMC, he was not able to staff the new CMC with his loyalists. First, Zeng Qinghong did not enter the CMC as a Vice-Chairman, although he had reportedly been nominated for such a post.[xiv] Second, Xu Caihou, another one of Jiang’s loyal men, was promoted to Vice-Chairman of the CMC but his actual power has been reduced. Before his promotion, Xu was Director of the General Political Department; after his promotion, he was removed from that important office. Third, Guo Boxiong has suffered reputation damage because of his foolhardy support of Jiang on the eve of the Fourth Plenum.


On the other hand, Hu Jintao scored substantial gains in the CMC (Table 1). First, Hu succeeded Jiang as CMC Chairman without causing any relationship damage with Jiang. It was Jiang who nominated Hu as his successor and endorsed Hu at the expanded meeting of the CMC. In other words, Hu was able to get rid of Jiang without making Jiang his enemy. Second, Li Jinai, former Director of the General Armament Department, was made Director of the General Political Department. On the surface, this was simply a lateral transfer; in essence, it was a promotion. This is because the General Political Department is in charge of personnel issues and political affairs and thus is more powerful than the General Armament Department. By replacing Xu with Li, Hu became dominant in the personnel issues and political affairs of the PLA. Evidently, this move was politically significant.


It is not clear which side Chen Binde was on, but he is likely to cultivate his relations with Hu instead of Jiang. Two new members, Zhang Dingfa and Jing Zhiyuan, are likely to be loyal to Hu because he promoted them to the rank of General.


Although Qiao Qingchen might have had some contact with Hu Jintao in the 1980s, he is unlikely to be Hu’s ‘old friend’.[xv] But he is less likely to be Jiang’s man in the CMC, even though Jiang Zemin promoted him to the rank of General in June 2002.


Taking the CMC as a whole, Cao Gangchuan, Liang Guanglie and Li Jinai are known Hu supporters; Zhang Dingfa and Jing Zhiyuan are Hu’s Generals; Chen Binde and Qiao Qingchen are unlikely to challenge Hu; and even Xu Caihou has been cultivating his relations with Hu. Without Jiang, it is difficult to imagine that Guo Boxiong would defy Hu. In other words, Hu is likely to be dominant in the CMC without much difficulty.


Jiang’s Influence


Since Jiang resigned from the CMC of the Party unwillingly, he will continue to appear in the media as a central leader until March 2005 when the Third Meeting of the 10th National People’s Congress removes him from the post of CMC Chairman of the State. On 5 October 2004, Jiang Zemin joined Hu Jintao, Wu Bangguo and Wen Jiabao in sending a congratulatory telegraph to Pyongyang on the 55th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with North Korea. For a retiring leader, this was completely unnecessary. But for Jiang, he had to be seen. Four days later he was again seen to be working. Premier Wen Jiabao and Jiang issued an order on 17 September 2004 to publish a Regulation on National Defence Patents. On 11 October, Jiang reportedly had an unofficial meeting with French President Chirac in Shanghai as a ‘good friend’.[xvi]


These public appearances, however, should not be taken as evidence that Jiang will continue to exert influence on Chinese politics. On the contrary, since Jiang was pushed out, it is unlikely that he will have any significant influence beyond March 2005. This is particularly true in terms of military affairs because it was military leaders who played the major role in sealing his political career.



Zhiyue Bo

The author is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of International Studies at St. John Fisher College, Rochester, New York.



[i] RMRB, 29 April 2004,

[ii] RMRB, 20 May 2004,

[iii] Xinhua News, 8 July 2004,

[iv] Joseph Khan, ‘Former leader is still a power in China’s life’, The New York Times, 16 July 2004, Section A, Column 5, p. 1.

[v] RMRB, 9 July 2004,

[vi] Xinhua News, 28 July 2004,

[vii] RMRB, 1 August 2003,

[viii] Chi Haotian, “Zhiguo Xingweiye Tongjun Kaixinpian” [Great Accomplishments in Governance and opening a new chapter in the command of the army], Qiushi, no. 389 (16 August 2004),^389^0^3.htm.

[ix] Luo Bing, ‘Jiang Zemin xiatai neimu’ [The inside story of Jiang Zemin’s retirement], Cheng Ming (October 2004): 6-8.

[x] RMRB, 13 September 2004, For a story of Guo’s ‘secret’ of getting promoted under Jiang Zemin, see Jiang Qing, ‘Shengguanmijue! Jiang gei Li Xiannian song shengridangao Guo Boxiong wei Jiang wujiao zhangang’ [A secret path to success: Jiang Zemin delievered a birthday cake to Li Xiannian and Guo Boxiong stoond sentry while Jiang Zemin was taking a nap], Reminbao, 3 November 2004,

[xi] Jiang Ping,  ‘Guo Boxiong zuojiantao! Junweilianye jiajimingling quanjun bixu tingcong zhongyang diaoqian’ [Guo Boxiong made a self-criticism! The Central Military Commission issued an order over night, instructing the PLA to follow the orders of the Central Committee of the Party], Renminbao, 13 September 2004,

[xii] Jiang’s original speech was not released; part of the report on the meeting that was devoted to his speech consists of 2,663 Chinese characters. See “Jiang Zemin Hu Jintao chuxi zhongyangjunwei kuodahuiyi bing fabiao zhongyaojianghua” [Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao attended the expanded meeting of the CMC and delivered important speeches],, September 12, 2004,

[xiii] For an analysis of the differences between Deng and Jiang in terms of retirement, see Zhu Zhan, ‘Jiang Hu jiaobang (3): Deng Jiang tuichu junwei de yitong’ [Jiang and Hu power transition (3): similarities and differences between Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin in terms of retirement from the CMC], Asia Times, 21 September 2004,

[xiv] Luo Bing, ‘The inside story of Jiang Zemin’s retirement’, p. 8.

[xv] See Wang Yijiang, ‘Jiang Hu jiaobang (2): Hu Jintao youkeneng zhudao junwei’ [Jiang and Hu power transition (2): Hu Jintao is likely to be dominant in the CMC], Asia Times, 20 September 2004,

[xvi] Jiang Qing, ‘Jiang Zemin bei honghui Shanghai’ [Jiang Zemin was kicked back to Shanghai], Renminbao, 11 October 2004,; Wang Yijiang, ‘Jiang Hu jiaobang (13): Jiang Zemin dongzuo pingreng beihou youhe neiqing?’ [Jiang and Hu power transition (13): Why does Jiang Zemin still make frequent appearances?], Asia Times, 17 October 2004,


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