China's leadership reshuffle 2017
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Han Weiguo attends China’s annual political gatherings at the National People’s Congress in Beijing. Photo: Handout

General seen as Xi Jinping’s keen supporter named new chief of Chinese army’s ground forces

New air force commander also named in latest round of military personnel changes

China has named new commanders of its air and ground forces in the latest wave of military personnel changes ahead of a key Communist Party congress to be held next month.

The air force announced on its social media account on Friday that Ding Laihang, 60, recently took over as commander of the 420,000-strong air force, replacing Ma Xiaotian, 68.

Ding has held the top air force job in the Northern Theatre Command since last year.

Meanwhile, Han Weiguo, who played a key role in a huge military parade showcasing the army’s latest weaponry, has been promoted as commander of the PLA’s ground forces.

The 61-year-old former commander of the Central Theatre Command made his first speech in the new role on Thursday, Beijing Daily reported. Han vowed to enhance battle readiness of the army and to ensure troops were loyal to the Communist Party, the article said.

Han replaces Li Zuocheng, who was appointed chief of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission last Saturday.

Han’s promotion comes after he made a high-profile appearance as chief instructor at a military parade in July to mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army.

The parade at the Zhurihe training base in Inner Mongolia put China’s latest weaponry on show, including its J-20 stealth fighter jet and DF-31AG advanced long-range missile.

Han Weiguo pictured during the huge military parade in Inner Mongolia in July. Photo: Handout

He is viewed by observers as a keen supporter of President Xi Jinping and his sweeping military reforms and was promoted to the rank of general just two days before the parade.

Han’s close ties to Xi and a well-rounded resume – he has held senior military positions across the country, including in Fujian, Nanjing and Beijing – likely won him the job, according to observers.

His service in Fujian in the 1980s coincided with Xi’s, who was then deputy mayor of Xiamen. This experience may have made Han a trusted aide to Xi, said Yue Gang, a military commentator and retired PLA colonel.

“Han Weiguo is a rising star,” Yue said. “He has a well-rounded resume and he has also shown a rather sophisticated understanding of the military reform.”

Ding’s career also overlapped with Xi’s in Fujian in the early 2000s. In 2001, Ding became chief of staff of the Eighth Corps based in Fuzhou, and the same year went on to lead the air force in the city. Xi was governor of the province from 2000 to 2002.

Beijing is in the process of a major overhaul to make its armed forces a more modern, nimble and professional fighting force. The changes include cutting 300,000 troops and the reorganisation of the military’s command structure.

One of Han’s key tasks in the new job would be to make the ground force more agile, particularly in the border areas, and improve its capabilities, military experts said.

“The recent conflict in Doklam has proved that we need to rethink how to rebuild the ground force,” said Yue, referring to a border stand-off between China and India that ended on Monday. “Our capabilities are greater that India’s but we misjudged the situation there – we weren’t decisive enough.”

Retired major general Xu Guangyu, a senior consultant with the Chinese Military Disarmament Control Council, said Han would also need to take on the task of further streamlining the structure of the ground force. “In terms of the ground force, we need to shift the focus from the number of soldiers to the overall capabilities of the force,” Xu said.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: New commanders for air force, army