Tense times call for battle-tested Chinese commanders, analysts say
General Li Zuocheng’s appointment to the military’s nerve centre comes as China faces geopolitical tests in the region
China has appointed a decorated war veteran to head its military nerve centre, suggesting President Xi Jinping’s preference to have battlefield-tested commanders in charge of military operations.
General Li Zuocheng, 63, who fought in the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war and was awarded a first-class merit for his combat service, takes over from General Fang Fenghui as head of the Joint Staff Department. Fang played host to US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Joseph Dunford earlier this month.
Analysts said Li’s appointment underscored Beijing’s need for officers at the top with real combat experience to tackle geopolitical tension, and to counter the legacy of corruption left by the last administration’s top brass. But they also said the new job meant Li was unlikely to be promoted to be one of the vice-chairmen of the armed forces’ top Central Military Commission at the five-yearly Communist Party congress this autumn.
Li’s new role became public when the defence ministry issued a brief statement late on Saturday saying Li met Pakistani army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, as the Joint Staff Department chief.
The statement did not say what Fang’s next role would be but there has been speculation that he might have a new job.
Li, a Hunan native, has been seen as one of Xi’s favoured officers since he became head of the former Chengdu Military Region in 2013. He was promoted to full general in 2015 and appointed the commander of the newly created ground force last year.
Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said Li’s appointment reflected China’s security challenges, including the stand-off with India in the Himalayas and tension on the Korean peninsula.
“China needs an officer like him with real combat experience and command expertise to quickly respond to military crises,” Zhou said.
Li’s new job was crucial to Xi’s overhaul of the armed forces and his appointment was a break from the legacies of disgraced CMC vice-chairmen Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, analysts said. Guo was given a life sentence for graft last year and Xu died of cancer in 2015 in custody while under investigation for graft.
Military insiders had said Li was held back when Guo and Xu were in charge of the military’s promotions.
Military analyst Ni Lexiong, who met Li in 2008, said Li’s rise reflected Xi’s desire “to further wash away the negative effects of Guo and Xu, who disrupted military order and were not loyal to the party or the country”.
Some military insiders had said in recent weeks that Li, who is not a CMC member, might have a shot at becoming a CMC vice-chairman even though that would be a big departure from the military’s practice.
James Char, a Chinese military analyst at the China Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said Xi had to strike a balance between generals of different backgrounds, including princelings and those who advanced by merit. “Xi cannot simply promote one group at the expense of the other, and has always tried to seek a balance in the make-up of the CMC.”