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General Li Zuocheng, the commanding officer of the ground force of the People’s Liberation Army, is expected to fill a vice-chairman’s vacancy on the Central Military Commission. Photo: Handout.

War hero tipped as Xi Jinping’s choice for key role in world’s biggest army

General Li Zuocheng, 64, a veteran of the 1979 war with Vietnam, expected to become new vice-chairman of CMC, sources say

A veteran of the Sino-Vietnamese war is expected to take a key vice-chairman role on China’s powerful Central Military Commission (CMC), military sources said.

General Li Zuocheng, the 64-year-old commanding officer of the ground force of the People’s Liberation Army, will fill the vacancy left by CMC vice-chairman Xu Qiliang, several sources told the South China Morning Post.

Xu is likely to take over as CMC first vice-chairman, the sources said. Incumbent General Fan Changlong, 70, is expected to retire from that position next month.

US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter (left) welcomes General Fan Changlong, vice-chairman of China’s Central Military Commission during the Chinese military official’s 2015 US visit. Photo: EPA

Li, 64, a Hunan native, was decorated by the CMC as a war hero during China’s conflict with Vietnam in 1979, awarded a first-class merit for his personal achievements. His combat company also won a collective order of merit.

A source close to the PLA told the Post that Fan may retire next month and Xu would fill the void. A second source, who requested anonymity, said the vacancy created by Xu’s move would be filled by Li.

When Li was promoted to division commander in 1994, his combat unit was awarded a second-class merit for their part in a flood-relief mission in Guangxi.

Four years later, Li – who was by then the 41st Army Corps commander – led his force to fight devastating floods that hit 24 provinces across China. Lasting two months, the deluge wreaked havoc, affecting 220 million people, claiming 3,004 lives and destroying at least 13.3 million homes.

A retired senior colonel based in Beijing told the Post that Li’s nomination for the job would pave the way for the upcoming leadership reshuffle at the party’s national congress in autumn.

“Li is the most experienced general – he’s taken part in real battles and disaster relief missions, meaning he meets all the requirements for President Xi Jinping’s call to build up a combat-ready fighting force.”

The promotion would be a “breakthrough” in terms of the make-up of the CMC, another military source said, because Li was not one of the existing 10 military members. President Xi, who is also chairman of the CMC, is its only civilian member.

“There is a medium- and long-term political consideration behind Li’s nomination – it’s a sign that promotion within the PLA will go back to being based on achievements and experience rather than connections and background,” the source said.

Li has been regarded as one of Xi’s hand-picked rising military stars since 2013, when he was named head of the former Chengdu Military Region. Li was promoted to full general in 2015.

Xu Qiliang, then deputy chief of the People's Liberation Army General Staff Department, pictured in Tajikistan in 2006. Photo: AP

The president appreciated Li’s “clean background”, the first source said. “Li was promoted as commander of the new ground force early this year mainly because of his stable background,” the source said. “Xi once said there were three kinds of people who could not be nominated to lead the ground force: the offspring of senior officials, their sons-in-law, and personal aides to military officials. He believes the PLA needs capable leaders to rise up from the grass roots.”

Several independent military insiders said Li did not have the opportunity for career advancement when Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou were the CMC vice-chairmen in charge of leadership promotion in the 2000s.

Guo and Xu were the most senior military officials to be brought down by the army’s former top graft-buster Liu Yuan as part of Xi’s massive anti-corruption drive. Guo, 75, was jailed for life for corruption in July last year, while Xu died of cancer at 72 while in custody in March 2015.

(Left to right) General Guo Boxiong, Xu Qiliang and director of the CPC office, Ling Jihua, at the closing of the 18th Communist Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2012. Photo: AFP
Fan Changlong (second from left) accompanies President Xi Jinping during a visit to Hong Kong to mark the 20th anniversary of the city’s handover in June. Photo: AFP