It has been a decisive prologue to a crucial ideological session. Ahead of the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) from 18 October, President Xi Jinping has reshuffled the omnipotent People’s Liberation Army, which is no less a powerful entity than the party.
The Congress will almost certainly extend Xi’s term as the party’s general secretary for another five years. Hence his anxiety to strengthen his power-base in the world’s largest military.
Given the opaque nature of China’s governance ~ even in the post-Mao era ~ it is hard not to wonder whether there were differences at the helm.
Not least because the changes have been effected at the very top of the military hierarchy. It thus comes about that General Fang Fenghui, head of the Joint Staff Department, Central Military Commission (CMC), and General Zhang Yang, head of its Political Work Department, have been removed in Tuesday’s shake-up of the 2.3-millionstrong PLA.
This will without question enhance Xi’s dominance over the military during his second term. The President heads the all-powerful CMC, which is the overall high command of the PLA, and Xi happens to be the only civilian in the 11-member entity.
The removal of Fang and Zhang would suggest that Xi is cementing his control over the military. Is it possible that there were differences over that “control”? An answer to that question may not be available anytime soon; at any rate, not quite yet.
Suffice it to register that Xi has entrenched his authority further still and he has done so a fortnight before he is awarded with another innings at the crease. Fang has been replaced by Gen. Li Zuocheng, a decorated veteran of the Sino-Vietnamese war.
Admiral Miao Hua, formerly the PLA Navy’s political commissar, has been appointed as head of the Political Work Department in place of Gen. Zhang. Both are known for their proximity to Xi.
Indeed, proximity to the person at the helm is the thread that marks strategic appointments with every change of guard in the subcontinent’s respective General Headquarters.
Yet in the case of China, it would be hasty to speculate whether the reshuffle is the outcome of the recent Doklam kerfuffle. As the country’s President and head of the military, Xi is doubtless more powerful compared to his predecessor, Hu Jintao.
In his first term, he had carried out a massive anti-graft campaign in the party and military in which thousands of officials were either punished or purged. It can reasonably be presumed that, with ardent loyalists at the helm, the cleansing will continue.
It is generally expected that he will use the party Congress to restructure the Central Military Commission. He has made the contours clear over the past few years ~ a crackdown on corruption and graft within the army and revamping the PLA, notably by truncating the strength of the world’s largest military and according to his lights.