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Assessment of Simultaneous PLA 3-Star and Theater Command Leader-grade Promotions since 2019

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  • China Aerospace Studies Institute

For anyone looking at the PLA, it is important to understand the link between the rank and grade systems and how it is changing at the highest level. In the PLA officer corps, there are 10 ranks and 15 grades. Historically, grade and rank promotions have rarely occurred at the same time. The PLA is trying to move to a “rank-centric” system, which, since late 2019, has focused on simultaneous promotions to 3-stars and Theater Command Leader grade.

In 1988, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA /人民解放军) officer corps reinstated a 10-rank system for the first time since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1965 when ranks were abolished. It also adjusted its officer grade system from 18 down to 15 grades, which are assigned not only to officers but also to every organization and are more important than ranks. Historically, rank and grade promotions have not occurred at the same time since each grade has had a primary and a secondary rank; however, the system is slowly changing at the 3-star level and is discussed in this report.

This report discusses the shift to simultaneous 3-star flag officer rank (上将) promotions and promotions in grade to Theater Command (TC) Leader (正大战区职) grade for 32 PLA  and 1 People’s Armed Police (PAP/人民武装警察部队) officers that began in December 2019. However, there are still some anomalies for three officers, which will be discussed. The figure at the right shows the 3-star rank insignia for the PLA Army (PLAA), Navy (PLAN), and Air Force (PLAAF), and PAP. The PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) also has its own rank insignia.[i]

Rank and Grade System Background

As discussed in detail in Appendix B, the PLA had an officer 15-rank system from 1955 until it was abolished when the Cultural Revolution began in 1965. It did not reinstitute a 10-rank system until 1988. However, the base for the PLA officer corps has always been the grade system that included 23 grades from 1952-1955; 20 grades from 1955-1965; 27 grades from 1965-1972, 23 grades from 1972-1979, 18 grades from 1979-1988, and 15 grades from 1988 to now.

As shown in Table 8 in Appendix B, from 1988 to 1994, each grade had up to three ranks (primary, secondary, and standard). However, in 1994, the standard rank was abolished and each grade was only assigned a primary and secondary rank. The key is that, until recently, rank and grade promotions rarely ever occurred at the same time, which will be discussed later. As a general rule, officers have received a grade promotion every 3 years and a rank promotion every 4 years up to the regiment level.

3-Star Promotion Ceremonies Background

From 1988, when ranks were reintroduced, to March 2024, a total of 208 PLA and 10 PAP officers were promoted in rank to 3-stars in 38 ceremonies.[ii] Of note, the PLA only has 1-, 2- and 3-star flag officers. There are no 4-star ranks.

Altogether, concerning the PLA, there have been 167 Army, 16 Navy, 19 Air Force, 6 Second Artillery Force, 6 Rocket Force,[1] and 4 Strategic Support Force officers who received promotions. Both commanders for the Strategic Support Force, which was recently abolished, have been Army officers.[2] Seven Air Force officers held billets other than the Air Force Commander and PC, such as a Deputy Chief of the General/Joint Staff Department; however, no Navy officers held other billets, such as a Deputy Chief of the General/Joint Staff, at the time of their promotion. In addition, some officers served in one service and then moved to another service. For example, Admiral Miao Hua was a career Army political officer until he became the Navy’s PC in 2014. He then retained his Navy uniform when he became the Director of the CMC’s Political Work Department in 2017. In addition, the new Rocket Force commander in July 2023 was previously a PLA Navy deputy commander and the new PC was a PLA Air Force political officer.

The first ceremony was held in 1988 when the PLA re-introduced ranks; however, the next ceremony was not held until 1993. From 1994 through 2006, ceremonies were held only every two years except for special ceremonies in 1999 and 2004 to promote two people each time. Three special ceremonies were also held (2007 and 2012 and 2017) to promote a total of four people. Of note, no ceremony was held in 2018; however, two separate ceremonies were held in 2019 and 2020 in July and December. Two ceremonies were held in 2021 (July and September). Two ceremonies were held in 2022 (January and September). The September ceremony was only for one officer. The first 2023 ceremony was held in January and was only for one officer and the second ceremony was in June for only two officers. The third ceremony in 2023 was for only two officers and was linked to a corruption scandal in the Rocket Force leadership. The fourth ceremony in 2023 was for two officers. The first ceremony in 2024 was held in March for two officers.

The 2010 Path to 3 Stars

According to retired Army Colonel John Corbett, the July 2010 group of promotions demonstrated the path to full general, which combined rank and grade promotions consisting of three observable steps:[iii]

  • Step One: Lieutenant Generals (LTGs) in an MR Deputy Leader-grade moved laterally to a second position in the same grade
  • Step Two: After three or so years, they received a grade promotion to an MR Leader-grade position, and
  • Step Three: After three years or so as a LTG in an MR leader-grade position, they received a rank promotion to full general [Note: Since the rank-to-grade adjustment in 1994, all MR Leader-grade officers in the PLA received their third star.]

The Current Path to Simultaneous 3 Stars and Theater Command Leader[iv]

There were clear indications leading up to the PLAs 11th force reduction that began in 2016 that the PLA wanted to shift to a rank-based system that consists of 10 ranks rather than the grade-based system that consists of 15 grades.[v] In mid-December 2016, the first official confirmation of such plans was reported when General Zhang Yang, a member of CMC and Director of the CMC Political Work Department, told members of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress that China will build a rank-centered military officer system (军衔主导的军官等级制度) that is fit for the construction of a modern armed force and, furthermore, that military rank will reflect officers’ capabilities, identities and status”. He added that ranks would determine career development, and that the appointment system would be rebuilt to promote excellent” officers and professional training. In December 2019, the CMC issued a Notice on Adjusting the Policy Concerning the Promotion of Military Ranks of Officers at and above the Corps Level.[vi] The Notice emphasized that the military would adjust the military officers’  promotion policy that is based on the military ranks system and takes into account the needs of officers with various ranks and categories. Starting with the reform of the ranks promotion system for commanding officers at and above the corps level, the Chinese military will streamline the corresponding relationship between military ranks and positions at various levels, so as to set an example and provide practical support for the revision and implementation of the Law on Officers.”

Based on analysis of the 31 3-star promotions starting in 2020 to March 2024, it appears that the PLA has clearly implemented the new rank-based system at the 3-star level and is gradually implementing it at lower levels as well. The first change appears to be that all 3-star promotions now occur simultaneously as a promotion in grade to TC Leader. Each of them previously held 1-2 TC Deputy Leader-grade billets. As such, it appears that TC Leader-grade billets now only have one (3 stars), rather than two (3 stars and 2 stars), assigned ranks.

It appears that the next change will be to link all 2-star rank promotions and TC Deputy Leader-grade promotions together. The PLA has already begun doing this for some, but not all officers. As shown in Appendix E, 8 of the 32 officers discussed received simultaneous 2-star rank promotions and grade promotions to TC Deputy Leader starting in 2021. In addition, the bullets for the 8 officers indicate that the average time to receive a 3-star promotion that coincides with a grade promotion now appears to be only 2.0 to 2.5 years.

Historically, a one-star served 5-10 years before receiving the 2nd star.  During that time, they would have served in two to three different Corps leader-grade positions followed by a grade promotion to a MR/TC Deputy Leader-grade billet—still as a one star.  After a year or two as a one-star in a MR/TC Deputy Leader-grade billet, they would be promoted to two-stars.

The bottom line is that, although the PLA has announced that it is shifting to a rank-based system and has apparently began doing this at the TC leader-grade level, there are still many hurdles it is facing in order to be able to fully implement it and, if it can actually fully implement it, it will take several years.

Three Anomalies

As with everything the PLA does concerning its personnel, there are a few anomalies and exceptions to the rule. Specifically, concerning the simultaneous 3-star rank promotions and TC Leader-grade promotions, there are 3 anomalies.

First, prior to March 2018, the National Defense University (NDU) and Academy of Military Sciences (AMS) were both TC Leader-grade organizations; however, in March 2018, they were both downgraded to TC Deputy Leader grade.[vii] Although both organizations were downgraded, it appears that the Presidents and PCs have retained the rank of 3-star general and the grade of TC Leader.

On 4 December 2018, the author of this report attended a full-day meeting at the U.S. National Defense University at Fort McNair with a visiting delegation from the PLA’s NDU. During breaks, the discussion sessions, and over dinner, I asked several questions, including the downgrading of NDU and AMS. They said that it is still in flux. For example, the President of NDU at that time (Zheng He) still had the grade of TC Leader, while the PC was a TC Deputy Leader-grade officer. They stated that it was not clear if the next president would be downgraded. The driving force for the downsizing of NDU and AMS involved reduction in personnel and to not have as many TC leader-grade organizations. It wasn’t about the mission.  

Apparently, the President has retained the 3-star rank. Specifically, Xu Xueqiang became the President in September 2021 and Xiao Tianlian became the President in March 2024 and received their 3rd star at the same time.

Second, concerning AMS, Yang Xuejun became the Commandant in 2017 and received his 3rd star in December 2019 and Ling Huanxin became the AMS PC in June 2023 and received his simultaneous 3rd-star promotion.

Based on the author’s assessment, all 4 generals also have the grade of TC Leader, even though their organizations are TC Deputy Leader-grade organizations.[viii] Specifically, the TC Deputy Leader grade does not have any 3-star ranks associated with it. Furthermore, as an example, prior to 2016, the leaders of the General Staff Department (GSD), General Political Department (GPD), General Logistics Department (GLD), and General Armament Department (GAD) were CMC Members because that was the grade of their organization. In addition, following the addition of the commanders of the PLA Navy (PLAN), PLA Air Force (PLAAF), and PLA Second Artillery Force (PLASAF) as CMC Members in 2004, their grades were “upgraded” based on a “policy promotion” (政策升级) to CMC Member grade even though the grade of their organization was only a MR Leader grade.[3] Based on the author’s interviews with PLA officers about this issue, I was told that this meant that the commanders and PCs were still co-equals within their service and that their service retained the MR Leader grade, but that the commanders now had equal responsibilities as the other CMC Members.  In addition, the GLD and GAD PCs only had the grade of MR Leader, even though  they were co-equals with the directors and were the Party Standing Committee secretary. Based on this information, it is possible that, while  the NDU and AMS are TC Deputy Leader grade organizations, their leaders are “policy promotion” TC Leader grade officers so that they can interact on an equal basis with the other Theater Command Leader-grade officers.[4]

Third, Wang Renhua, received his 3rd star in March 2024, but he had already assumed the billet as Secretary of the CMC Politics and Law Commission in December 2019. The author’s best guess is that the Politics and Law Commission was most likely upgraded to TC Leader at that time as well, to support its involvement with overseeing corruption issues.



It is clear that the PLA implemented a system in 2020 to provide simultaneous 3-star rank and TC Leader grade promotions. It is apparently also gradually shifting to the same process for simultaneous 2-star and TC Deputy Leader grade billets as well, but it will take several years to accomplish it. As with everything in the PLA, there are exceptions to every rule.


Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the Department of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other U.S. government agency. Cleared for public release: distribution unlimited.

Click here for the full report and appendixes 

[1] The Rocket Force became a service in 2016 and received their own uniforms. Prior to that, the Second Artillery Force was an independent branch under the Army and all personnel wore Army uniforms.

[2] The Strategic Support Force was created in 2016 as a “force” not a “service”. It has personnel from each service, who wear their service uniforms.

[3] Of note, the Commanders of the Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Force were not added to the CMC in 2017.

[4] According to Frank Miller from CIRA, the US military equivalent to a “policy promotion” is called “frocking” to create a temporary promotion (without increased pay, by the way) to align a junior officer with the rank needed for the performance of the job assigned to, in order to give said officer the rank needed for the job. The need to have certain rank to coordinate with your colleagues is no different in the US system than in the PLA. In our system, if you are not formally promoted before you leave that job you revert back to your formal rank for the next job (or re-frocked if the situation is similar there).

[ii] For a full list of 1988 to 2001 see http://club.xilu.com/zgjsyj/replyview-819697-74407.html?PHPSESSID=74e7ac6eed51d240ab47d34b9d6311d8. For 1988-2004 see Hong Kong Kuang Chiao Ching in Chinese -- non-PRC-owned monthly magazine (“Wide Angle”); reputed in Hong Kong to have close ties to the PRC military establishment]

[iii] Kenneth Allen, “Assessing the PLA’s Promotion Ladder to CMC Member Based on Grades vs. Ranks”; Washington, DC: Jamestown  Foundation China Brief, Part 1, Volume 10, Issue 15, 22 July 2010, and Part 2, Volume 10, Issue 16, 5 August 2010, accessed at https://jamestown.org/program/assessing-the-plas-promotion-ladder-to-cmc-member-based-on-grades-vs-ranks-part-1/ and https://jamestown.org/program/assessing-the-plas-promotion-ladder-to-cmc-member-based-on-grades-vs-ranks-part-2/.

[iv] Kenneth W. Allen and John F. Corbett, “Assessment of the PLA’s 3-Star Promotions in January 2022,” China Aerospace Studies Institute, 9 February 2022. https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/CASI/Display/Article/2916576/assessment-of-the-plas-3-star-promotions-in-january-2022/. James Char, “What a Change in China’s Officer Rank and Grade System Tells Us About PLA Reform” The Diplomat, 31 March 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/03/what-a-change-in-chinas-officer-rank-and-grade-system-tells-us-about-pla-reform/.

[v] Kenneth Allen, “China Announces Reform of Military Ranks,” Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Volume 17, Issue 2, 30 January 2017. Joel Wuthnow and Phillip C. Sanders, “A New Step Forward in PLA Professionalization,” Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Volume 21, Issue 5, 15 March 2021.

[vi] “China to reform military ranks promotion system,” 9 December 2019, accessed at http://eng.mod.gov.cn/news/2019-12/09/content_4856476.htm.

[vii] Cui Shifang, “National Defense University’s Downgrade Is a Reality” (崔士方:国防大学被降级成真), epocht;imes.com, 12 March 2018, http://www.epochtimes.com/gb/18/3/12/n10211708.htm.

[viii] Concerning “Policy Promotions”, see Kenneth W. Allen, Dennis J. Blasko, John F. Corbett, Jr., “The PLA’s New Organizational Structure: What is Known, Unknown, and Speculation (Part 2)”: Washington, DC: Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Volume 16, Issue 4, 23 February 2016.) https://jamestown.org/program/the-plas-new-organizational-structure-what-is-known-unknown-and-speculation-part-2/.