As China’s big leadership revamp nears, Xi Jinping is carrying out a military reshuffle

Image: Reuters/Damir Sagolj
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China just set the date for its twice-a-decade leadership reshuffle: the ruling Communist Party will hold its 19th national congress on Oct. 18. As the big day nears, lots of the behind-the-scene political struggles are gearing up. As we’ve explained earlier, speculation is mounting that Chinese president Xi Jinping could break away from convention to hold onto power for 10 more years, rather than five.

Another key reshuffle is already underway in the run-up to the congress. In recent days, Xi has promoted favorites to top posts in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Xi chairs the Central Military Commission, a 11-member top decision-making body of the Chinese military, the world’s biggest. Since 2015, Xi has launched a string of military reforms including cutting troop numbers and regrouping existing military districts. He also waged war against allegedly corrupt military officials—prominent among them are two disgraced top generals, Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong. Under Xi, China has become more assertive in its territorial disputes, as its armed forces develop advanced technologies including aircraft carriers and stealth fighters.

“To build a strong military, we must unswervingly adhere to the Party’s absolute leadership over the armed forces,” Xi said in a speech marking the PLA’s 90th anniversary last month. Undoubtedly, the leadership is with Xi at its core, as reflected by the recent personnel changes.

Hang Weiguo, 61, army commander

Han Weiguo has been appointed the new commander of the PLA’s ground forces, state media reported Friday (Sept. 1). Previously Han had served as head of the central theater command, one of China’s five military districts that includes Beijing and a large part of central China.

Han was the commanding officer of a grand military parade in July, which is overseen by Xi to mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of the PLA. Han was promoted to the rank of general just two days before the event. He is widely viewed as a candid supporter of Xi and his military reforms.

Li Zuocheng, 63, head of the Joint Staff Department

Han’s predecessor, Li Zuocheng, was promoted as head of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission over this past weekend. His new post oversees the PLA’s operations, training and intelligence, and was created last year by Xi as a key part of his military reform.

A veteran of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war, Li is among the few top Chinese generals with combat experience. He has enjoyed a fast career ascent under Xi.

Ding Laihang, 59, air force commander-to-be

Ding Laihang is expected to be named the PLA’s new air force commander, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported last week, citing unidentified sources.

Ding currently serves as head of the northern theater command. As the SCMP noted, Ding’s career overlapped with Xi’s when the president headed the southern Fujian province about two decades ago.