Who Will Xi Jinping Put in Charge of China’s Military?

October 30, 2015 Updated: November 1, 2015

Xi Jinping, leader of the Chinese regime since 2012, has done a lot to make sure the People’s Liberation Army—China’s Communist Party-controlled military forces—answers to him only. High-ranking officers have been purged, personnel will be cut, and a groundbreaking reform of the command structure is in the works.

Now, Xi and the Party leadership are deciding who to put into the 10-member Central Military Commission that commands the PLA, according to Chinese military sources cited by the South China Morning Post. As was the case with earlier Party leaders, Xi reserves the Commission’s position of chairman for himself, making him the commander-in-chief of the PLA. 

The current round of decision-making is taking place as part of the Communist Party’s 5th plenary session of the 18th Party Congress, the sources said. Appointments made during this time are intended to be effective in the 2017-2022 period of Xi Jinping’s administration.

Among the likely candidates for vice chairman of the Central Military Commission is Gen. Zhang Youxia, known as one of Xi Jinping’s most loyal. The 65-year-old, who currently heads the PLA’s general armaments department, served in the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979, making him him one of the few high-ranking Chinese military officers with experience in an armed conflict.

Zhang Youxia, head of the PLA's general armaments department and ally of Xi Jinping. (Sohu Military Net)
Zhang Youxia, head of the PLA’s general armaments department and ally of Xi Jinping. (Sohu Military Net)

Sources close to the PLA told South China Morning Post that there was little chance of Liu Yuan, another general loyal to Xi Jinping, being promoted to the position of vice-chairman. Gen. Liu has been involved in carrying out Xi’s anti-corruption campaign in the military.

Liang Guoliang, a Hong Kong-based military expert, told the South China Morning Post that promoting Zhang Youxia to vice-chairman of the Commission would help Xi carry out his plans to reshape the PLA command. These include abandoning Soviet-inspired organizational principles and reducing the number of military zones across China from seven to four.

Zhang Youxia, like Xi Jinping, is originally from the western province of Shaanxi, and their fathers were both high-ranking officials who fought for the communists in the Chinese Civil War.

In 1947, when the PLA was fighting the forces of Nationalist China, Zhang’s father Zhang Zongxun commanded the communist Northeast Army Corps while Xi Zhongxun, father of Xi Jinping, was a political commissar.

The Struggle Behind Military Reform

Soon after he came to power in late 2012, Xi Jinping’s administration directed the Communist Party’s disciplinary agency to crack down on corruption in the ranks. At the same time, his planned reforms, the details of which have been hinted at in recent months, look to make China’s military a smaller, more quality-based force in the vein of Western-style militaries.

In September, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency quoted Xi Jinping as saying that the PLA would be cut by 300,000 troops. In addition, the South China Morning Post reported that there were proposals to reduce the total number of personnel from Chinese security forces, most notably the People’s Armed Police, by 1 million.

The personnel changes coming to the PLA and Armed Police also seem to reflect Xi’s tightening grip on power, demonstrated by the removal of Gu Junshan, the corrupt former lieutenant general and deputy logistics chief, and former Central Military Commission vice-chairmen Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou from their posts. Xu died of cancer while awaiting trial.

All of these men benefited from the state of politics under former Party leader Jiang Zemin, whose extensive factional network permeated the Party, military, and industry.

The People’s Armed Police, for example, was controlled by Jiang Zemin’s ally Zhou Yongkang, who was sacked in 2012 and sentenced to life imprisonment this June. The People’s Armed Police served as a potent political tool for Zhou Yongkang, whose position as head of the Political and Legal Affairs Commission between 2007 and 2012 also gave him authority over the entire civil police apparatus and the national court system.

The Committee helped not only Zhou, but Jiang Zemin in his quest to maintain power after his official retirement in the early 2000s.

If Xi Jinping intends to downsize or replace the Armed Police, he may be simply doing what Party leaders before him have done. In the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping removed over a million men from the PLA, only to create the now 1.1 million-strong Armed Police. And Jiang Zemin, who came to power in the late 1980s and 1990s, cut 200,000 troops, again from the PLA, but vastly strengthened the regime’s internal security forces, in large part in order to wage a brutal, single-minded campaign against the Falun Gong spiritual practice.

Aside from posing a threat to Xi Jinping’s political power, the likes of Zhou, Xu, Gu, and Guo rendered the PLA a breeding ground of corruption and inefficiency.

“In the years that the military was under the control of Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, corruption became very serious,” Xin Ziling, the former chief of the editorial desk at PLA’s National Defense University, told the new York-based New Tang Dynasty Television.

“Many unqualified people took on different military posts or got promoted simply by bragging, flattery, or bribery,” Xin said. “So these people need to be removed” through the troop cuts.

According to Liang Guoliang, the military observer who spoke to the South China Morning Post, Gen. Zhang Youxia’s reputation of charisma would “help unify opinion to help Xi carry out his reforms.”

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