Xi Jinping

All the president’s men: Xi Jinping earmarks top brass for overhaul of Chinese military

New heads of navy, air force and land force command decided, source says, underlining president’s determination to reshape military

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 December, 2015, 10:34pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 December, 2015, 5:01am

President Xi Jinping (習近平) has earmarked four of the five commanders to head the country’s new military zones, according to a source familiar with matter.

The military’s seven regional commands are to be replaced by five new zones – North, South, East, West and Central – as part of a massive overhaul to modernise and increase the efficiency and combat readiness of the People’s Liberation Army. The reforms also include cutting about 300,000 personnel.

Xi has ordered the new military zones to be operational by January 1 and, according to the source, has chosen four out of the five commanders.

The source did not disclose the names of the four commanders, but said that General Cai Yingting was likely to be passed over.

READ MORE - PLA to announce overhaul: five ‘strategic zones’ will replace regional commands, most army HQ to be scrapped

Such a move would come a surprise as Cai had been seen by many as a rising star since Xi promoted him to become the youngest serving general at the age of 59 two years ago.

Cai heads the Nanjing (南京) Military Region, but was previously a secretary to Zhang Wannian, a former vice-chairman of the Central Military Committee.

The source said Xi wanted to root out all established factions in the army and avoid using officers who had served as close aides to previous leaders.

The new heads of three major branches of the PLA had also been decided, the source said.

Two deputy chiefs at the PLA General Staff Department, Admiral Sun Jianguo, 63, and Lieutenant General Yi Xiaoguang, 57, would take over at the PLA Navy and Air Force, the source said.

If the appointments are confirmed, Sun would replace Wu Shengli and Yi would take over from Ma Xiaotian. Wu and Ma are retiring.

READ MORE - PLA general who helped Xi battle graft in military retires

Sun was a sensible choice, said Hong Kong-based military affairs commentator Liang Guoliang.

Sun’s previous promotion to deputy at the General Chief of Staff showed he was well regarded by top military leaders as the role was generally held by army commanders, rather than naval ones, he said.

Were Sun to get the top job he would probably focus on developing nuclear submarines, given the huge gap between China and the US and Russia in underwater warfare, Liang said.

Meanwhile, Li Zuocheng, 62, commander of the Chengdu (成都) Military Region, is tipped to become the first chief of a newly-formed land force command.

The appointments underlined Xi’s determination to reshape China’s military capacity and organisation, analysts said.

The reputation of the PLA had suffered since former military chiefs Guo Boxiong (郭伯雄) and Xu Caihou (徐才厚) were accused of graft and nepotism, said Ni Lexiong, a Shanghai-based military analyst. Ni added that some incompetent officers had been promoted in recent years.

In order to deal with increasing military pressure from outside China, the PLA needed to promote new faces who had real expertise in their chosen fields, he said.

“It is a matter of life and death,” said Ni.

READ MORE - China’s sweeping military reforms to strengthen grip of Communist Party, says army newspaper

Senior officers needed to have performed solidly as military commanders on the battlefield and have demonstrated strong personal charisma, said Zeng Zhiping, a military expert based in Nanchang (南昌), Jiangxi (江西) province.

Li, tipped to head the new land force command, experienced combat in the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979. Sun Jianguo was a nuclear submarine captain and Yi Xiaoguang was a fighter pilot.

Loyalty to the party was also key in making top military appointments, said Chen Daoyin, an associate professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.

“There are more than enough candidates with adequate expertise. Loyalty to the leader of the Central Military Commission, therefore, is the core criterion,” said Chen. The commission is headed by Xi.

An outspoken general, Liu Yazhou, a political commissar at the People’s Liberation Army National Defence University, has said the military must be willing to make sacrifices for the cause of reform.

He hinted in an article published on Wednesday by the state-run news agency Xinhua that there was strong resistance in the army against the changes.

“The opposition in the war is from our enemies, but the opposition for reform is from inside the army,” he wrote. Reforms were sometimes as bloody as wars, he added.

Meet the Top Brass


General Li Zuocheng, 62, has served as the Commander of Chengdu Military Region since 2013.

Li was born in Anhua, Hunan province. He joined the PLA in 1970.

Li was lauded as a “War Hero” for his performance in the Sino-Vietnamese War as a company commander. He was also the Commander of the 41st Army in the relief effort in the 1998 great Yangtze flood.

Li was promoted to deputy Chief of Staff of the Guangzhou Military Region in 2002, and moved to Chengdu in 2007 as deputy Commander.

He rose to the rank of general in July 2015


Admiral Sun Jianguo, 63, has served as Deputy Chief of PLA General Staff Department since 2009

Sun’s family is from Wuqiao, Hebei province, which is also the hometown of current PLA Navy Chief Commander Wu Shengli. Sun is born in Ningbo, Zhejiang.

Sun joined the People’s Liberation Army Navy in 1968, and studied at its Submarine Academy. In 1985, as the captain of Changzheng III, he set a world record of longest Nuclear Submarine patrol of 90 days.

He became the deputy commander of the navy’s submarine base in 1996, and named the navy Chief of Staff in 2004. In 2006, he was named assistant to the Chief of PLA General Staff.

He attained the rank of admiral in 2011.

In 2013, Sun took over the China International Institute for Strategic Society and in charge of military intelligence and diplomacy.

Air Force:

Lieutenant General, Yi Xiaoguang, 57, has served as Deputy Chief of PLA General Staff Department since 2014.

Yi is from Shuyang, Jiangsu province. He graduated from then PLA Air Force Second Aviation College in Baoding (now PLAAF Aviation University). He was an ace combat pilot with experience of various types of fighter jets and took part in a number of battles.

Yi served as president of the PLA Air Force Command Academy from 2004 to 2008, and then the PLA Air Force deputy Chief of Staff from 2008 to 2010. He was appointed Air Force Commander of Nanjing Military Region in 2010, and assistant to the Chief of PLA General Staff in 2012.

When he was promoted to lieutenant general in 2012 at the age of 54, he was the youngest of his rank.