Chairman Xi and his men: Entering a new phase

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Chairman Xi and his men: Entering a new phase

The future of the relations between India and China is linked to the outcome of the seismic changes in the PLA. India should not only watch carefully, but also get its acts together

The 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party is fast approaching. This is the occasion for Chinese President Xi Jinping to make drastic changes, not only in the Central Committee, who will elect a new Politburo, but also in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

On this side of the Himalaya, the Doklam incident is over; many rejoice that India ‘won’ the battle, though some incertitude remains and corrective measures need to be taken to avoid similar incidents in the future. In this context, it is interesting to look at the changes which are taking place in the Central Military Commission (CMC).

Chen Li, one of the best PLA watchers wrote for Brookings: “If many analysts prove correct in their forecasts, China’s military leadership will undergo an unprecedentedly large-scale turnover …Xi Jinping’s bold, years-long campaign against corruption has already reached high into the ranks of the military elite — purging ‘tigers’ like Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, both former vice chairmen of the CMC — which perhaps points to the sweeping scale of change that is underway. A number of high-ranking generals, who allegedly obtained their positions through bribery and patron-client relationships with Guo and Xu, will surely be replaced. Xi’s tenacious reform of the military structure — no less bold and consequential than his anti-corruption drive-has further set the stage for massive turnover.”

Let us not forget that more than 55 PLA officers of the rank of major general and above have been sacked during the past three years. Chen speaks of a bevy of ‘young guard’ waiting in the wings for promotion “who are more professionally prepared for modern joint military operations.”

But will the mindset of the new generals change? Interestingly, some officers in Beijing seem to realise that aggression can lead China nowhere. Maj Gen Qiao Liang, one of the best known military strategists and the co-author of Unrestricted Warfare, wrote in The Global Times: “Road construction in this area [Doklam] is not a matter of right and wrong, but we need to understand that it’s not always right to do something right at any time. Only doing the right thing at the right time is correct …resorting to war is irresponsible.”

This comes at a time when Xi, who is the CMC Chairman overlooking the PLA, has undertaken a complete overhaul of the defence forces. New faces have appeared on the scene; a massive reshuffle of the PLA’s senior officers, not only at the Group Army (Corps) level, but at the top of the hierarchy too, is on going.

Analysts believe that Xi is promoting his favorites to the PLA’s top posts to gain absolute control over the PLA; in the process, two top generals got the sack hardly a month before retiring.

Gen Fang Fenghui, the equivalent of the US Chief of Defence Staff, was replaced as Chief of the PLA’s Joint Staff Department by Gen Li Zuocheng. Fang and Gen Zhang Yang, another CMC member, will not even participate in the forthcoming Congress; the rumour mill in Beijing says that they were being ‘investigated’, a term not usually auguring well for the targeted person.

In China, unlike in democratic India, there is no fuss about ‘seniority’; superseded generals have only to learn the meaning of ‘impermanence’.

In any case, Li Zuocheng has a solid ground experience, having served during the Chinese-Vietnamese War in 1979; though one of the most promising officers in the 1980s, his career later stagnated after he offended Jiang Zemin, the then CMC’s Chairman. His fortune took a new turn two years ago, when he was appointed commander of the PLA Army and he became chief of the crucial CMC Joint Staff Department earlier this year.

Gen Miao Hua, who replaces Zhang Yang as director of the Political Department, seems also to be in Xi’s good books; during the last three years, he received three promotions: From political commissar of the Lanzhou Military Region, to political commissar of the Navy, and now director of the CMC’s Political Department.

By mid-October, out of 11 members of the CMC, only two or three may remain. Some sources believe that the new CMC, to be announced during the 19th Party Congress, may have four vice chairmen instead of its current two.

CMC member Wei Fenghe (presently commander of the PLA Rocket Force) could be a strong candidate for vice chairman; so are Li Zuocheng and Miao Hua.

Incidentally, the PLA Rocket Force (RF), China’s strategic and tactical missile force, is a Xi Jinping favorite. As Asia Times noted: “RF brass now run several key PLA offices and constitute the second-most represented branch of service — after the Army — among heads of the Joint Staff Department.”

But it is not all, on September 1, Gen Han Weiguo was appointed commander of the PLA Army and Gen Ding Laihang, commander of the PLA Air Force (PLAAF). Gen Han served in Fujian in the 1980s at the time Xi was Deputy Mayor of Xiamen, while Gen Ding’s career also overlapped when the latter was Governor of Fujian Province.

The recently-released list of PLA delegates to the 19th Congress had some surprises. The 253 ‘elected’ members belong to 31 different units, compared with 19 in 2012. More than 90 per cent of those ‘elected’ will be first time attendees, representing a new generation of officers who will owe their rise to Chairman Xi.

The ethnicity factor still plays a negative role in PLA promotions; though there is a slight rise in the number of ‘ethnic’ delegates (six per cent of the delegates are ethnic minority officers, from 4.6 per cent in 2012), their number is relatively small and they don't occupy important posts.

The Manchus and the Tibetans will send three delegates each, while the Uyghur, Hui and Tujia will each put forward two. The Zhuang, Xibe, Korean, Qiang, Bai and Naxi ethnicities will each send one delegate to the Congress. Many consider this as the PLA’s Achilles’ heel.

It is, however, worth noting that there is a Tibetan Major General. Thupten Trinley, alias Tidan Dan serves as a deputy commander of the Tibet Military Region. Two Tibetan ladies, Kalsang and Sonam Dolma made it in the list though their qualification or designation is unknown. Their presence in the Congress will probably be for ‘ethnic’ representation only.

As Chen Li put it: “The PLA’s top officer corps seem to align with Xi’s pronounced goal of transforming China’s military operations from a Soviet-style, Army-centric system toward what analysts call a ‘Western-style joint command’ …significant strides have also been made in promoting professionalism.”

There is no doubt that Xi is in firm control of the PLA. The future of the relations between India and China is undoubtedly linked to the outcome of the seismic changes in the PLA. India should not only watch carefully, but also get its acts together, particularly in the field of border infrastructure and operations jointness.

(The writer is an expert on India-China relations and an author)

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