Liberal-leaning officer joins top brass

The leadership's decision to appoint a liberal-leaning officer to the heights of the army is part of the party's effort to refashion its image as open-minded and inclusive, analysts say.

Liu Yazhou, who once warned his hawkish military colleagues that China must embrace US-style democracy or accept a Soviet-style collapse, was promoted on Monday from lieutenant general to full general, along with three others in the PLA.

Liu, 60, has been supporting democracy since the early 1980s when he was a military reporter for the PLA. When he was not reporting on the army, he was penning military novels that enjoyed some success. Liu is the political commissar for the National Defence University.

He comes from a princeling background, with his father, Liu Jiande , a senior army official and his wife the youngest daughter of late president Li Xiannian. He learned English while at university and read a wide range of Western works, which would later help him explain Western thinking to his countrymen.

'Liu was a torchbearer who helped the Chinese people keep up with the world's military advances through his articles in the 1980s, as the country was waking up from the Cultural Revolution,' said Ni Lexiong , director of a research centre on sea power and defence policy at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.

'Liu's promotion indicates the party and the PLA want to polish an image that they are going to recruit people with different political views.'

In an internal speech to mid-level officers in 2009, Liu approved of a decision by two former PLA generals, Xu Qinxian and He Yanran , to refuse to suppress protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

In an essay titled 'Western theory' that Liu completed in 2004, he urged Beijing to launch political reforms. In 2010, the Hong Kong-based political affairs magazine Phoenix Weekly ran an interview with Liu.

'If a system fails to let its citizens breathe freely and release their creativity to the maximum extent, and fails to put those who best represent the system and its people into leadership positions, it is certain to perish,' the magazine quoted Liu as saying.

'The secret of the United States' success is neither due to Wall Street nor Silicon Valley, but its long-surviving rule of law and the system behind it. A bad system makes a good person behave badly, while a good system makes a bad person behave well. Democracy is the most urgent thing; without it there can be no sustainable growth.'

Ni said that Liu's withdrawal in April from the clique supporting separating the PLA from the party and his princeling background were main reasons he was promoted.

On April 16, just six days after the Communist Party expelled former high-flying Chongqing party head Bo Xilai from its top ranks, Liu published a commentary in the party's mouthpiece Qiushi Magazine, calling for the PLA to toe the party line.

'The party's absolute leadership over the PLA has been the immutable spirit of the army,' Liu wrote.

Antony Wong Dong, of the Macau-based International Military Association, said Liu was forced to make such a 'political gesture' after Bo's incident.

'It's still a good thing for China's democratic reform when an open-minded official is promoted.'