Xi Jinping ‘plots shake-up’ of men running China’s massive military machine

President might divide duties for the PLA’s day-to-day operations among more generals to prevent collusion and to streamline decision-making, sources say

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 October, 2017, 7:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 October, 2017, 11:31pm

China’s powerful Central Military Commission (CMC) could expand one of its top tiers to better grapple with the day-to-day running of the world’s biggest military.

Sources close the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) said two or three officers could be promoted to vice-chairmen to complement the two-man structure already in place.

The new line-up will be revealed on Wednesday after the Communist Party ends its five-yearly national congress in Beijing.

Several sources said the result would be a compromise between the wishes of President Xi Jinping, who chairs the CMC, and those of various political and military vested interest groups.

“Xi wants to share the political and administrative powers of the two CMC vice-chairmen because he has realised that the existing structure is incapable of managing the CMC’s day-to-day affairs,” one source said.

“Too much paperwork has built up awaiting approval since the four former general headquarters were replaced by 15 smaller functional units. But none of the 15 department heads is real decision maker.”

In January, Xi dissolved the PLA’s four former general staff, general political, general logistics and general armaments headquarters and distributed their powers among the 15 new departments.

As part of an unprecedented military overhaul launched in 2015, the PLA’s seven military regions were also restructured into five theatre commands, and plans put in place to trim troop numbers by 300,000 to 2 million.

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Under the present system, the CMC comprises a chairman, two vice-chairmen, and eight regular members: the defence minister, the heads of the four former headquarters, and the commanders of the air force, navy and rocket force.

A military source said the two vice-chairmen system reduced former chairman and president Hu Jintao to a figurehead when he was in office, and Xi wanted to dilute the vice-chairmen’s power to stop himself from being undermined.

“The ideal combination is one chairman plus four vice-chairmen, because it is not easy for four people to collude with each other, and they can act as checks and balances,” the source said.

“Xi might also keep several CMC members, but they will be just consultants, not decision-makers like before.”

Under the constitution, the CMC must have “several” vice-chairmen and “several” members, giving Xi scope to make such changes.

The source said jockeying was already under way for the potential openings.

“The structure of the present CMC leadership is not adequate for the PLA’s modernisation and many vested interest groups have spared no effort to promote candidates for the new CMC vice-chairmen, with the front runners all the most trusted men from Xi’s camp,” the source said.

“Unlike his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Xi is a strong leader like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping and will have the final say on the commission’s new line-up.”

PLA Air Force General Xu Qiliang, one of the two incumbent CMC vice-chairmen, is in the running to take over the top vice-chairman’s position with the expected retirement of 70-year-old General Fan Changlong.

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Xu worked alongside Xi in Fujian province and has been on the commission since 2007 when Hu was chairman.

Another familiar face, General Zhang Youxia, a former director of the CMC’s equipment development department, is tipped to advance to Xu’s No 2 spot. Like the president, Zhang is from Shaanxi province and the two men share family ties through their fathers.

The other two front runners are General Li Zuocheng, a decorated veteran of the Sino-Vietnamese war and incumbent head of the CMC’s Joint Staff Department, and General Wei Fenghe, former chief of the PLA’s Rocket Force.

There has been speculation that Li might be promoted to the third CMC vice-chairman, while Wei is tipped to replace General Chang Wanquan to be China’s new defence minister and the fourth-ranking vice-chairman’s position.

Hong Kong-based military observer Liang Guoliang said there could be new faces at the top of the CMC as Xi presses on with his military shake-up.

“Xi needs to break traditional promotion rules to elevate more younger and capable generals if he wants to meet his goals,” Liang said.

In his work report to the party congress last Wednesday, Xi said the PLA must modernise by 2035 and become a top-ranked military by 2050.

The new CMC leadership will be disclosed after the party’s Central Committee unveils the 25 members of the Politburo and seven people on the Politburo Standing Committee.