Why Xi Jinping is planning a historic move to rename China’s army corps

Corps linked to father and one that defeated US troops in Korea among 13 facing loss of historical unit numbers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 April, 2017, 11:56am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 April, 2017, 11:24pm

Army corps in China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are likely to have their unit numbers changed for the first time in their history as part of President Xi Jinping’s efforts to reshape the world’s biggest army, military sources said.

“Serial numbers for the 13 army corps are likely restart from 71 and end at 83,” a senior retired army officer in Beijing told the South China Morning Post.

The PLA had up to 70 army corps – numbered sequentially from one – when the Communist Party seized power in 1949, but now has just 13 after Xi ordered five disbanded this year.

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Corps facing the prospect of being renamed include the 1st Army Corps, which was part of 1st Field Army in which Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, served as political commissar during the civil war.

Analysts said that not even Xi’s powerful predecessors Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping had attempted to rename the army corps, but he was taking on the task to curb longstanding factionalism in the army.

The retired officer said the 13 renamed army corps were among the 84 newly restructured corps-level units announced by Xi on Tuesday when he met the units’ leaders at the PLA’s headquarters in Beijing.

At that meeting, Xi demanded their absolute loyalty to the Communist Party, the PLA Daily reported.

The 84 units were part of the huge military overhaul introduced by Xi in late 2015 aimed at turning the PLA into a more nimble and modern fighting force, it added.

Other corps-level units include provincial military commands, military academies and universities directly under the Defence Ministry, and the head offices of the land, navy, air and rocket forces.

“Except for Mao Zedong, no one has dared to implement such drastic moves in the PLA in such a resolute way,” another Beijing-based PLA veteran said. “The major move by Mao in the early 1970s was just to swap commanders of the eight military commands at the time to prevent factionalism.”

A source close to the army also said the unit name change was aimed at “curbing factionalism in the army and the pernicious influence” left by two disgraced Central Military Commission vice-chairmen, Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou.

Xi launched an unprecedentedly sweeping anti-corruption drive when he became party general secretary in 2012, leading to the downfall of many high-ranking officers, including Guo and Xu.

Guo, 75, was jailed for life for corruption in July last year, while Xu died of cancer at the age of 72 in March 2015 while in custody awaiting trial for corruption.

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Chen Daoyin, an associate professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said Xi was attempting to “create something more innovative and superior” than Mao or Deng.

“The PLA army corps system changed in the decades after the military was founded in the late 1920s, with Mao playing the key role in creating and remodelling it before the Communist Party seized power in 1949, while Deng’s key mission was to cut its size from the late 1970s,” Chen said.

“However, Xi’s ambitions are more aggressive than Deng’s. He is trying to do something surpassing Mao by scrapping the army structure thoroughly and rebuilding it.”

Xi’s military overhaul has seen the previous seven military area commands regrouped into five theatre commands, with the four military headquarters – staff, politics, logistics and armaments – reorganised into 15 agencies last year.

He is also cutting troop levels by 300,000 from 2.3 million.

The number of PLA army corps shrank in the course of at least 10 massive demobilisations after 1949. A white paper published by the Defence Ministry in 2006 said the PLA had 18 army corps that year.

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Military experts said those that had survived were all elite units that had experienced innumerable combat ordeals.

They included well-known army corps such as the 38th, 42nd, 27th and 39th, which had participated in the Korean war. The 38th Army Corps, based in Baoding, Hebei, once defeated the United States’ 2nd Infantry Division on the battlefield.

Macau-based miliary expert Antony Wong Dong said he was concerned the name changes would erase part of the PLA land force’s “glorious record” in history.

“Every army corps could be kept until now just because of its bloody and tearful history, which shouldn’t be forgotten,” Wong said, adding that as a military enthusiast, he could not accept the 38th Army Corps being renamed the 81st.

Chen countered that Xi’s plan to change the army corps’ names was not targeting their “glorious history”, but was a necessary technical measure to simplify the army’s command system so that it could play its role in modern, joint-operations warfare.

“Xi will keep promoting the glorious history of the PLA because the revolutionary heroism and collectivism of the PLA’s predecessor, the Red Army, is the root of the army’s military spirit, and because that history will help him to control ideological education in the PLA,” Chen said.

“The renaming is purely an innovative technical decision to let the army corps integrate with the navy, air force, rocket force and other troops to boost the full PLA’s combat capabilities.”