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Chinese President Xi Jinping (Photo Credit: Reuters)
Chinese President Xi Jinping (Photo Credit: Reuters)

Xi refines China's military leadership for tasks ahead

ANI | Updated: Nov 01, 2022 14:12 IST

Hong Kong, November 1 (ANI): Although the attention at the recent 20th National Congress might have been principally on the "unanimous re-election" of Chairman Xi Jinping for a third five-year term, and the ignominious removal of former leader Hu Jintao, another important milestone was a new line-up of the high-powered Central Military Commission (CMC).
The CMC, headed by Xi, is the organ of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that supervises, directs and commands the People's Liberation Army (PLA), People's Armed Police (PAP), China Coast Guard and People's Armed Forces Maritime Militia.
Headquartered in a well-guarded building in western Beijing, the CMC is nominally under the Central Committee of the CCP; however, it actually works more under the Politburo Standing Committee in practice.
Both these aforementioned bodies are headed by Xi, ensuring he has total control over every aspect of the PLA.
Xi has already had ten years in charge of the PLA, and he has subjected it to the greatest restructuring and modernization in its existence. In the course of an anti-corruption drive and reorganization, Xi has stamped his authority, demanded loyalty to the CCP and to himself.
This was most evident in the reconstituted CMC announced at the close of the 20th National Congress, which saw three new members added and three retained.
Xi, of course, is Chairman of the CMC, a position he assumed in late 2012 even before he became leader of China the following year. Xi is supported by two vice-chairmen, Generals Zhang Youxia and He Weidong.
Zhang Youxia is from the PLA ground force and a close ally of Xi, given that Zhang's and Xi's fathers served alongside each other in a bygone era. Participating in the 1979 war with Vietnam, Zhang was appointed to the CMC in 2012 and became a vice chairman in 2017. What is remarkable is that he has not retired, despite his is 72-year age. PLA personnel usually retire at 68.
As for He Weidong, he was startlingly elevated to vice-chairman status without previously having served on the CMC at all, or having been in Jumping two grades of rank in one fell swoop, He has considerable experience in the Eastern Theater Command (latterly as its commander until January 2022), this command being the one responsible for Taiwan contingencies. This in itself is hugely significant, showing Xi's obsession with that area.
He is also an ally of Xi, having overlapped with Xi's tenures in Fujian and Zhejiang at different times. At some point this year, He Weidong joined the CMC's Joint Operations Command Center. He was also reportedly involved in China's response to the Indian border skirmishes at Doklam, though it is unclear to what extent this was.
Under these two vice chairmen and Chairman Xi are four CMC regular members: General Li Shangfu, General Liu Zhenli, Admiral Miao Hua and General Zhang Shengmin. Li Shangfu, a technocrat general, is likely to become the next national defense minister.
He served mostly as an aerospace engineer, including supervising space launches, and is one of three newcomers on the CMC. His most recent post was as Director of the CMC Equipment Development Department. Before that, he was deputy commander of the newly established PLA Strategic Support Force in 2016.
Ironically, Li was placed on the USA's Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) blacklist for buying Su-35 fighters and S-400 air defense missiles from Russia. That means he is not allowed to travel to the USA, which could create a unique challenge for him as minister of defense!
Moving on in order of status, the next new arrival is 58-year-old Liu Zhenli, who will be chief of the CMC's Joint Staff Department. As the youngest CMC member, Liu's most recent post was as commander of the PLA ground forces, one he had occupied since June 2021. He also briefly served in the PAP.
Interestingly, Liu Zhenli and Zhang Youxia are the only two CMC members to possess any combat experience, this having been gained in China's campaign against Vietnam from 1979 onwards.
The third regular member of the CMC is Admiral Miao Hua of the PLA Navy. This incumbent continues as head of the CMC Political Work Department, a position held since 2017. This means he has direct oversight of all party and cultural work within the PLA, but has no operational or combat experience.
Miao has early links to Xi, for both were posted in coastal Fujian Province at one time.His political reliability made him a logical candidate to continue on in the CMC, but so much for diversity, for he is the CMC's only non-army member.
Indeed, the CMC is very army-centric. Even though Xi and the PLA pay lip service to jointness, it is proving very difficult to break free from the shackles of the past, and so five of the six uniformed members of the commission all wear army green.
Finally, General Zhang Shengmin continues to lead the CMC Discipline Inspection Commission. As its name suggests, this organization conducts all anti-corruption investigations, so Xi is obviously pleased with his ruthless cleansing of the PLA. Since 2012, at least 48 senior officers (of lieutenant general to major general rank) and nine generals have been prosecuted for corruption. More similar work undoubtedly lies ahead for Zhang.
It is notable that Xi personally handpicked this CMC. He put in and took out whoever he wished. The fact that no civilian is serving as a vice chairman is important too. Both Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin once occupied those seats, but since Xi has no successor in waiting, he certainly felt no compunction to appoint a civilian to this post. There is continuity in the new CMC though - it is the same size and half its members are retained.
However, Joel Wuthnow, a senior research fellow in the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University in the USA, rejected the idea that this was a war council. For example, Li Shangfu comes from an insular part of the PLA, while both Miao Hua and Zhang Shengmin have no experience in operational command positions.

This latest CMC arrangement represents a return to how things were prior to 2004, with the army heavily dominant. Connections to Xi are shown to be important (three have them), but also important is Taiwan experience (possessed by two).
What about future directions of the PLA then? There were no major changes of trajectory signaled in Xi's report during the 20th National Congress, but there were intriguing tidbits nonetheless.
Xi devoted seven minutes to the topic of the PLA and national security. He claimed that national security is "the foundation of national rejuvenation, and social stability is the premise of national prosperity. We must unswervingly implement the overall national security concept, put the maintenance of national security throughout the entire process of party and state work, and ensure national security and social stability."
What stands out is how Xi is seeking to link CCP and state work as linchpins to ensure national security and social stability. Indeed, Xi is promulgating "comprehensive national security", whereby a widened security perspective goes beyond mere military force, and also includes political and economic security.
In Xi's view, his comprehensive security model is the foundation for China's future success.
Xi in his speech called for a "new situation for the modernization of national defense and the army". This suggests that further refinement of the PLA will occur, even though it has already endured a serious pruning in size and the creation of new geographical joint commands. The PLA is to continue modernizing - in terms of organization, personnel and weapons - but it remains very much a party animal.
What changes are in store? The report gave some hints of what lies ahead for the PLA over the coming five years, with some 30-40 tasks identified in Xi's report. Basically, he wants a PLA that is "redder", more joint and more expeditionary.
Organizationally, Xi demanded "perfecting" of the "system and mechanism of the chairman responsibility system" of the CMC. This suggests that the chairman - which coincidentally happens to be Xi - will take a greater role in decision-making. Wuthnow in fact believes that this "is one of Xi's most important reforms to the PLA". "It centralizes power much more in and through Xi as the chairman of the CMC.
Basically, all PLA policies, promotions, strategy, posture and actions are vetted and 'filtered' through Xi via the chairman responsibility system." The fact that Xi mentioned it in his speech shows its huge importance to the authoritarian leader.
The eradication of corruption was also of high importance. Despite previous claims that corruption had been effectively dealt with, this is obviously not the case. It is highly likely that this is more than just fighting corruption too, for there are plenty of allegations that Xi is using his anti-graft campaign to remove opponents and potential rivals.
Wuthnow also commented on the reference to "building a strong strategic deterrent force system", something absent in previous speeches. The joining of "strategic" and "deterrence" in the same sentence points toward China's ongoing nuclear expansion and diversification.
Within PLA strategy, nuclear deterrence has become far more prominent, and the USA is the primary target, according to Wuthnow. This helps explain the sudden appearance of massive silo fields for intercontinental ballistic missiles deep inside China.
Xi discussed "intelligentization", defined as "speeding up the development of unmanned intelligent systems". This reflects China's focus on technology and advanced concepts to help span and even leapfrog the US military.
In the same vein, Xi advocated the building of new domain forces featuring advanced combat equipment, drones, networked systems and joint command and control. These would enhance the PLA's reconnaissance, early warning, joint strikes, battlefield support and integrated logistics support.
At the end of this section of his speech, Xi called for improvements to the PLA's "ability to win, innovate military strategic guidelines, develop people's war strategies and tactics, build a strong strategic deterrent force system, increase the proportion of combat forces in new areas and new qualities, and further promote actual combat military training".
This mention by Xi of "military strategic guidelines for the new era" is important. Five years ago, these guidelines were only being drafted, but they have now already been formally adopted as PLA doctrine. It is still unclear what these new military strategic guidelines look like, whether they are a fundamental shift in the way that China is responding to changes in the strategic landscape or more guidelines.
Wuthnow believes: "Personally, I think it does represent a fundamental shift in strategy based on changes that Xi and the PLA have been saying about challenges from the US and changes to military technology, joint capabilities and informatized war that require fundamental reorientation."
Xi also reinserted the phrase "local wars", showing that he is focusing on regional contingencies such as wars over Taiwan.
Also of interest, for the first time in decades, ahead of the Ministry of State Security (MSS) - Chen Wenqing in this case - is appointed to the high-level Politburo. This shows how intelligence organs of the Chinese state are being totally centralized under the all-seeing eye of Sauron, otherwise known as Xi.
Traditionally, the head of the MSS has been relatively lightweight without strong factional alignment, but it seems this is no more. Chen's elevation to the Politburo opens the way for such people to play a heavier role in domestic politics than Xi loyalists.
According to Xi's work report, his ultimate goal remains to achieve a "world-class military" by 2049. This year's report focused a lot on the ensuing five years, whereas the preceding 2017 report majored in the 2049 goal, showing that the Chinese leader has his eyes fixed on both immediate and longer-term prizes. (ANI)