Xi Jinping rolls out leaner top line-up for China’s military machine

Central Military Commission shrinks by a third as president consolidates hold on the armed forces, observers say

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 October, 2017, 12:05am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 October, 2017, 1:35am

The top echelon of the body overseeing the running of the world’s biggest military has shrunk by a third to make it the smallest leadership line-up in the history of the People’s Liberation Army.

The Communist Party announced on Wednesday that the Central Military Commission would be led by a seven-member group, down from the 11 members who headed its operations before.

Military analysts said the streamlined group indicated President Xi Jinping, the CMC’s chairman, was further consolidating his hold over the organisation.

A Beijing-based retired senior colonel said the six others were “either military heavyweights who had pledged loyalty to Xi when he took over as chief of the PLA in late 2012, or younger generals promoted by him”.

The new line-up will comprise Xi, two vice-chairmen and four other members.

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The CMC’s former second vice-chairman, PLA Air Force General Xu Qiliang, moves up one spot to replace General Fan Changlong, who is retiring. Xi ally General Zhang Youxia takes over from Xu.

At 67, Xu and Zhang are the oldest of the seven, suggesting that Xi followed the party’s unwritten “seven up, eight down” rule, which means leaders aged up to 67 can stay on for another term while those 68 or older must retire.

The four other CMC members are General Wei Fenghe, General Li Zuocheng, Admiral Miao Hua and Lieutenant General Zhang Shengmin.

Zhang Shengmin is the chief of the CMC’s Discipline Inspection Commission, and his elevation suggested that the anti-graft campaign, which has already brought down at least 100 generals, would continue in full swing, military observers said.

“The move further indicates that Xi wants to make the anti-graft campaign a regular job in the PLA,” Hong Kong-based military observer Liang Guoliang said.

During Xi’s first term, the CMC followed the precedent set by former presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, by having a chairman, two vice-chairmen, and eight regular members.

The CMC reached a peak membership of about 50 during the Cultural Revolution when Mao Zedong was the military’s chairman.

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China’s constitution says only that the CMC must have “several” vice-chairmen and “several” members, giving Xi the scope to make changes.

There is still a big question mark over the roles and functions of the two vice-chairmen and the four members in the new structure.

The military is in the midst of an unprecedented military overhaul Xi launched in 2015. As part of the changes the PLA has scrapped its four former general staff, general political, general logistics and general armaments headquarters, and distributed their powers among 15 new departments.

Two military insiders said that heads of the 15 new units were jockeying for power because many of their roles and functions overlapped.

Meanwhile, another source said new CMC member Wei, 63, is tipped to become the country’s defence minister next year, taking over from General Chang Wanquan. Chang is 68.

A Beijing-based military source said Li Zuocheng, 64, a decorated hero of the Sino-Vietnamese war and a veteran leader of disaster relief campaigns, would assume responsibility for combat and strategic support forces, as his predecessor General Fang Fenghui had.

Miao, 61, who once was the PLA Navy’s political commissar, will oversee the CMC’s political work, filling the shoes of his predecessor Zhang Yang.

Both Fang and Zhang Yang were CMC members in Xi’s first term, but they were left off the list of PLA delegates to this month’s national party congress. Sources close to the military said the pair were taken away on the same day last month as part of a corruption investigation.