China’s rising military stars take centre-stage as annual promotions pass over old guard
Latest additions to senior ranks announced as President Xi Jinping looks for new breed of generals to suit plans to modernise People’s Liberation Army
China’s annual round of military promotions has skipped a generation to focus on the military’s rising stars instead.
In a break with tradition, no full generals were promoted this year on August 1, the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, but in July some 15 officers were elevated to the rank of lieutenant general.
The youngest of these was Chang Dingqiu, 51, who led the 2015 fighter jet flights over Tiananmen Square to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war.
Last weekend, Chang was pictured on state television in his new lieutenant general’s uniform attending a key military congress, which took place after the top Communist Party leaders’ summer gathering at Beidaihe.
At the military meeting, President Xi Jinping, in his capacity as chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), urged his senior generals to work to develop younger officers and give them tough, frontline assignments.
He also talked of the pressing need to develop commanders who can conduct joint operations, adapt to new types of combat, develop advanced defence technologies and excel in strategic management.
Xi also highlighted the need for loyalty to the party, moral integrity and a keen sense of responsibility, according to a report by the state news agency Xinhua.
While Xi is seeking a new breed of generals to execute his vision of modernising the People’s Liberation Army, his unprecedented corruption drive in the military has also provided extra room to promote young officers.
The crackdown centred on two disgraced former vice-chairmen of the CMC, Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, who were accused of accepting bribes in return for promotions. Guo is now serving a life sentence for corruption and Xu died while under investigation.
Since the campaign began when Xi came to power in 2012, some 200 senior generals have been put behind bars or taken early retirement.
“In addition to uprooting those corrupt senior military officers who had close relations with either Guo or Xu, Xi can hardly trust the others promoted by the two disgraced former CMC vice-chairmen, even if they have proved to be honest and upright,” said Anthony Wong Dong, a Macau-based military watcher.
“I believe the newly promoted lieutenant generals are fully trusted by Xi, who approves the shortlist recommended by his allies in the PLA,” said Wong, who predicted that these rising stars were likely to be placed in key positions within the next couple of years.
Xi’s overhaul also includes a shift away from the traditional dominance of land troops, and among the 15 lieutenant generals promoted so far this summer, four are from the air force, including Chang.
“The air force has made huge progress in terms of its combat capability over the past few years,” said Wong, who credited the anti-corruption campaign with the improvement.
A retired PLA pilot has claimed that in the past, when corruption was rampant, it was not uncommon for pilots to forge their flying records.
Chang was seen as one of the most outstanding air force pilots ahead of his elevation over the past few years. He is now a deputy chief of staff with the Joint Staff Department.
Because of the Chinese Communist Party’s tight grip on the PLA, Chang’s party position – he is one of the 172 alternate members to the elite Central Committee – also helps his prospects for further elevation.
He is seen as a strong contender to head either the Joint Staff Department or the air force in the run-up to the next five-yearly political reshuffle in 2022.
Another rising military star, Li Huohui, director of the Training and Administration Department, was also made a lieutenant general late last month.
Li, 54, is the youngest head of the 15 departments directly under the CMC and a full member of the party’s Central Committee.
He was the former commander of the PLA’s 73rd Group Army, which was known as the 31st Group Army before the 2016 military reforms.
The unit, which is based in the coastal city of Xiamen in Fujian province, is seen as the most trusted by Xi, who spent a total of 17 years based in Fujian.
Most of Li’s predecessors in the post have gone on to take on senior roles, including General Zhao Keshi, a former CMC member and head of the General Logistic Department; General Cai Yingting, the former commander of the Nanjing Military Command; and General Wang Ning, the serving commander of the People’s Armed Police Force.
Yu Guang, the deputy political commissar of the PLA’s Rocket Force, and Shi Zhenglu, the deputy commander and chief of staff with the Northern Theatre Command, were also made lieutenant generals in the latest round of promotions. Both are incumbent alternate members of the party’s Central Committee.
Another prominent rising star is Lieutenant General Xu Zhongbo, originally the political commissar of the ground force with the Western Theatre Command, who was promoted last summer.
Xu is expected to succeed Lieutenant General Zhang Shuguo as the next political commissar of the Logistic Support Department. He was seen last month on television in logistics department uniform.