Xi arranges a clean sweep of the CMC
On 25 October when President Xi Jinping unveiled the new membership of the Central Military Commission (CMC), the leadership body that supervises the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), it threw up a couple of surprises.
One was a dramatic shrinking of the CMC from 11 members down to seven, and the other was to learn which PLA services and departments were or were not represented on the commission. The CMC is now the smallest size it has ever been in the history of the PLA.
The 204 members of the Central Committee had the important task of voting for CMC delegates during the 19th Party Congress in Beijing, although they were essentially rubber stamping what commander-in-chief Xi had already decreed.
Xi will continue to chair the CMC for the coming five years at least.
He is assisted by two vice chairmen, Gen Xu Qiliang (an incumbent vice chairman and former PLA Air Force commander) and Gen Zhang Youxia (until recently the director of the Equipment Development Department). Both are 67, an age that allowed them to serve another term in office.
The other four members of the CMC are: Gen Wei Fenghe (commander of the PLA Rocket Force until last month), Gen Li Zuocheng (director of the Joint Staff Department), Adm Miao Hua (director of the Political Work Department) and Lt Gen Zhang Shengmin (secretary of the CMC Commission for Discipline Inspection, or CMCCDI).
With five CMC members due to retire because they had reached the unofficial retirement age of 68, the way had been open for Xi to shake up the body’s structure. The president did exactly that, cutting four slots on the powerful CMC.
The greatest personnel surprise was the elevation of Zhang Shengmin, who leads the military’s anti-corruption unit that has already brought down more than 100 PLA generals. The fact that the CMCCDI is now represented on the commission indicates that Xi will not let up on his prosecution of corrupt figures and practices within China’s military.
As the third uniformed offer in protocol order, it is likely that Wei Fenghe will become China’s new minister of national defence, although this has not been formally announced yet.
Li Zuocheng assumed command of the PLA ground force in January 2016, before becoming the Chief of the Joint Staff in August this year, so he has been waiting some time to join the CMC.
With the membership cuts, the Logistics Support Department is no longer represented on the CMC. Xi has been particularly savage in his handling of the previously named General Logistics Department, which was a hotbed of graft and greed.
The CMC is now more centralised and its smaller size, while ostensibly making it more streamlined for decision-making, will be more easily dominated and directed by Xi.
Certainly, the political control is tighter than ever before and Xi has consolidated his power over the organ. The six members either pledged loyalty to Xi when he took up the post in 2012, or they have been directly promoted by him since then.
Those recently retired from the CMC are Chang Wanquan, the minister of national defence; Gen Fan Changlong, who had served as first vice chairman of the CMC since November 2012; Gen Ma Xiaotian who had been the PLA Air Force commander since 2012; Gen Zhao Keishi, director of the Logistics Support Department; and Adm Wu Shengli, the former PLA Navy commander until his retirement in January.
Two other CMC members, Gen Fang Fenghui (until recently Chief of the Joint Staff) and Zhang Yang (until recently director of the Political Work Department), were removed in August or September as part of a corruption probe, though their fate has not yet been disclosed.
Missing out on a seat on the CMC were Gen Han Weiguo, the new commander of the PLA ground force; Adm Shen Jinlong, the PLA Navy commander since January; and Lt Gen Ding Laihang, the new PLA Air Force commander.
The fact that no sitting PLA service chief is on the new CMC is very interesting, since three service chiefs were represented on the CMC from 2012-17.
In revealing the radical reshaping of the CMC in size and membership, Xi has shown the extent of his political power over the PLA. Yet at the same time he also exhibited a willingness to abide by norms such as retirement ages and the need to maintain both vice chairmen and regular members.
The PLA is in the midst of a massive reformation as Xi has sought to root out rampant corruption and drag it into the modern era of warfare. In 2015 he announced 300,000 troops would be cut, for example.
A Xinhua editorial noted, ‘With the announcement of a new Central Military Commission, the PLA is entering a new era under Xi Jinping’s leadership. The army is already the world’s biggest, and now it is aiming to become the best. Changes will continue to unfold, as the military improves its capabilities under the new command structure.’
On the day following the unveiling of the CMC, Xi met with PLA leaders and instilled upon them the need to meet several goals. First is to have achieved a major upgrade of capabilities, information technology and military mechanisation by 2020.
Moving forward, an interim goal is for the PLA to become a ‘modernised army’ by 2035, and then ‘one of the world’s greatest armies’ by 2050.
China now has the smallest CMC ever to manage the world’s largest military, and its military ambitions are growing instrumentally.
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