Xi presses overhaul, two Generals removed

Xi wants to exert greater control over the military to make it worthy of China's global status.

Xi presses overhaul, two Generals removed

He was one of China’s most prominent commanders, with hopes of rising higher. So when Gen. Fang Fenghui disappeared from public view, it sent a clear warning to the top leaders of the People’s Liberation Army: President Xi Jinping was not done shaking up their once-unassailable ranks.

Fang, the chief of the army’s Joint Staff Department, was not the only military leader to fall ahead of next week’s Communist Party Congress. Gen. Zhang Yang, the director of the military’s political department, also vanished from sight. Their names have not appeared in the Chinese news media for more than a month, when their successors were announced with no fanfare.

Removing the two generals was the latest step by Xi to strengthen his grip on the military, a pillar of Communist Party power. On the eve of the party Congress, which will kick off his second five-year term as the nation’s leader, he seems to have concluded that he must exert greater control to remake the country’s armed forces into a power worthy of China’s global standing.

Xi’s reorganization of the military has already gone further than seemed possible under his recent predecessors, but as the overhaul and its attendant personnel cuts have begun to take shape, Xi has confronted poor coordination among branches of the armed forces and foot-dragging from senior officers whose positions have been threatened.

“The removal of those top leaders, senior elderly generals and admirals, is part of a broader drive to promote and advance younger, more professionally minded officers,” said Timothy R. Heath, an expert on the Chinese military at the RAND Corp. “There are huge numbers of top brass in the PLA; it’s top-heavy, and huge numbers of these guys are going to lose their jobs.”

Since coming to power in 2012, Xi has used a crackdown on corruption to purge commanders deemed corrupt or disloyal. The moves have given Xi, whose father was an important figure in China’s revolutionary army, a degree of authority over the People’s Liberation Army that had eluded previous civilian leaders.

Xi “has been able to take political control of the military to an extent that exceeds what Mao and Deng have done,” said Tai Ming Cheung, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, who studies China’s defense forces. “He has already demonstrated ahead of the Congress his ability to elevate key commanders that are close to him.”

The abrupt disappearance of the two generals before the Congress underlined how ruthlessly Xi was willing to act. He is now poised to cement his control by installing a new cohort of civilian and military leaders loyal to him and his vision for the Chinese military.

Before his abrupt removal, Fang, 66, had seemed positioned for promotion at the Congress. He had recently laid out China’s stance on North Korea to his visiting American counterpart and was enforcing Xi’s overhaul. He even accompanied Xi to Florida in April for a summit meeting with President Donald Trump at his golf resort in Palm Beach.

Fang, however, seems to have fallen afoul of Xi, for reasons that are not fully apparent. He has been put under investigation on suspicion of abuses of office, two former officials in Beijing said, confirming reports that first appeared in several overseas news outlets. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing recrimination for discussing internal affairs. One said Zhang, 66, was also under investigation.

They are not the first commanders purged under Xi. There have been trials of dozens of high-ranking officers, including the two highest-ranking generals ever toppled for corruption in modern China: Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, two former vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission, the party committee that commands China’s armed forces.

“Strong Military,” an eight-part documentary series shown on Chinese television in recent weeks, said that Xi had to act urgently because bribery and embezzlement in the top ranks had corroded morale and threatened battle-readiness in the armed forces.

One episode showed the confessions of Guo and Xu as well as a luxurious compound that another fallen general had turned into his private playground.

Problems of corruption

“The problems of corruption and work style in the armed forces weren’t just harming the image of the military, they were badly damaging morale in the ranks,” Wan Minggui, a commissar in the Chinese military, says in the documentary. “It really had reached the point where something had to be done.”

For Xi, gaining firmer control of the military could help ensure his grip on power during his second terms as party leader and president, which he is all but certain to receive at this month’s party Congress and a session of China’s legislature next year.

It could also be a way for Xi to extend his influence beyond a second term. Two predecessors, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, wielded influence after retiring from other official posts by staying in charge of the Central Military Commission, which Xi now leads.

The party Congress, scheduled to open Oct. 18, could fill the 11-member commission with younger commanders loyal to Xi or shrink the size of the commission to enhance his say. Separately, dozens of other rising military officers are likely to be promoted to the Central Committee, the party’s highest organ, whose some 200 voting members oversee governance of the entire nation, not just the military.

“The control of the military is an ironclad insurance policy for Xi,” said Minxin Pei, a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California who studies Chinese politics. “If Xi has complete control of the military, nobody dares lift a finger.”

Xi’s reshuffling of the military leadership is also aimed at accelerating the changes he has sought in the People’s Liberation Army, which, for all its size and influence, had become sclerotic and inward-looking.

Since late 2015, Xi has reorganized the army to weaken the traditional land forces and shift more resources to the technology-dependent naval, air and missile forces. Seven military regions — the heart of the old arm-focused system — were replaced with five new theater commands, and the army is cutting 300,000 enlisted soldiers and officers, paring the military to 2 million personnel.

Xi wants to create an integrated armed forces that can enforce China’s claims to disputed islands in the East and South China Seas, offset American influence and protect China’s growing interests as far away as Africa, Latin America and the polar regions.

It is a military that, while not yet a rival to the United States, could soon be one.

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