‘Reticent’ general Wei Fenghe could be China’s new defence minister, sources say

Former strategic missile force chief handed Xi Jinping the plan to break apart his own unit – even though it wasn’t in his interests, insider says

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 February, 2018, 2:27pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 February, 2018, 10:07pm

A “reticent” general who was instrumental in the break-up of the strategic missile force he headed – even though it was not in his interests – is expected to become China’s new defence minister, sources said.

General Wei Fenghe was named as one of the members of the Communist Party’s powerful Central Military Commission (CMC) on October 25.

Wei, the last commander of the Second Artillery Corps – before it became the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force – is known as a strategist whose political nous and philosophy of “doing more but saying less” has helped him to climb the career ladder faster than others, according to military insiders.

“Wei was the first PLA department head to not only promise to support President Xi Jinping’s unprecedented military overhaul from the very beginning, but also to proactively meet Xi, who is also the CMC chairman,” a military insider who is close to Wei’s family said.

Wei is the only member of the commission without a portfolio – Li Zuocheng has already been named as head of joint staff, while Miao Hua has been given the top role for political work and Zhang Shengmin is responsible for the military’s discipline commission. In addition, the defence minister is usually a member of the CMC.

But Wei, now 63, had seen “dramatic ups and downs” in his career, the insider said, particularly in recent years as Xi rolled out his military reform programme to turn the PLA into a modern fighting force.

His career was on the up in November 2012 when, just eight days after Xi formally took over from Hu Jintao as CMC chairman, Wei was promoted to general – making him, at 58, the youngest to hold the rank.

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Unusually, a ceremony was held to mark the occasion, cementing his status as a rising star, hosted by CMC vice-chairman General Xu Qiliang and attended by most of the country’s military heavyweights, The PLA Daily reported at the time.

He had been removed from his position as deputy chief of the PLA’s operational department a month before the promotion and sent back to his power base as head of the strategic missile force.

But three years later, that unit was divided in two – the Rocket Force and the Strategic Support Force – as part of Xi’s shake-up. Wei took the helm of the Rocket Force”, with another rising star – General Gao Jin, then 58 – brought in at the same level to be the new chief of the Strategic Support Force, which oversees aviation and space projects.

Adam Ni, a researcher on China’s foreign and security policy at the Australian National University, said the move could be seen as a “promotion”.

“[Wei’s] grade did not change when the Second Artillery became the Rocket Force. However, given that the Rocket Force is a full service whereas the Second Artillery was only a branch, it’s seen as an increase in status,” Ni said.

In September, the CMC announced that Wei would be replaced by his deputy, Lieutenant General Zhou Yaning, prompting speculation over whether others would again rise past him.

But Ni said the appointment freed up Wei for the defence minister position.

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The military insider also said Wei was in line for promotion. “Wei was sent back to the Second Artillery Corps, where he first made a name for himself and which he knew well. But it was also Wei, who was cultivated by the strategic missile force, who ended up breaking it apart ... in line with Xi’s reforms,” the insider said. “That was a very tough decision for Wei, but it was a wise move that Xi respected – so Xi will make it up to him.”

Born into a farming family in the northwestern county of Chiping, in Liaocheng, Shandong province, in 1954, Wei joined the Second Artillery Corps in 1970 when he was just 16. Two years later, he joined the Communist Party, paving the way for promotion.

At 21, he was sent to learn rocket engineering at a missile school under the Commission for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence. He went on to train as a strategic missile commander at the Second Artillery Corps’ college in Wuhan.

It took him less than two decades to rise from grass-roots officer to senior colonel, in 1994.

He then became the youngest deputy chief of what was then the General Staff Department in 2010, at the age of 56. The operational department – along with three other PLA headquarters – was disbanded and replaced by 15 new divisions in January 2016.

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Wei was among the first of a number of senior military officers to pledge their loyalty to Xi even before the president announced his ambitious reform programme, according to another source close to the military and based in Beijing.

“Wei actually provided Xi with the plan to reorganise the Second Artillery Corps in an innovative way, even though it wasn’t in his personal interests,” the source said. “That sacrifice did not go unnoticed by Xi, and it also convinced other senior officials in the strategic missile force to make similar concessions.”

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Despite his contributions to the military, Wei was a “quiet achiever” who focused on his work, the source added. “Wei’s reticent personality is appreciated by Xi the strongman – that’s why he’s being put in the position of defence minister, which is the No 1 among the four ordinary CMC members,” the source said.