Big changes are coming to senior Chinese military leadership that are likely to result in a consolidation of power, and at the most convenient time.
As Xi and China prepare for a key party congress that begins on Oct 18, a list of 303 military delegates to the Communist Party Congress, published by the army’s official newspaper on Wednesday, excluded Fang Fenghui and Zhang Yang, both of whom are members of the Central Military Commission, which is China’s top military decision-making body:
Reuters reported this week that the 66-year-old Fang, who accompanied Xi to his first meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in April, is being questioned on suspicion of corruption.
Three sources familiar with the matter said Zhang, the director of the military’s Political Work Department, is also the subject of a probe. China’s Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
The personnel changes herald a clean sweep of the top-ranking generals heading up the department. All three of Zhang’s deputies – Jia Tingan, Du Hengyan and Wu Changde – were also missing from the list of congress delegates.
“This is a very clear message: they’re out,” said Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese elite politics at the Brookings Institution. “Their political careers have come to an end.”
On Friday, news reports carried by the People’s Liberation Army Daily and the official news agency Xinhua abruptly referred to the navy’s political commissar, Miao Hua, as the Political Work Department director, despite no official announcement of Zhang being replaced in his role.
Analyst comment: In addition to expected retirements, as many as seven of the 11 positions on the military commission may be vacated. This will give Xi, who is commander-in-chief of all Chinese military forces, an unprecedented opportunity to reshape the powerful commission with loyalists. Indeed, Xi — who chairs the commission – may even reduce its size to just himself and four vice chairman. “This is really a major step from Xi Jinping to consolidate his authority to promote the young, those who have some professional experience,” but are “not corrupted, and certainly not belonging to the factions of Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou,” said Li.
Xi has embarked on a multi-year effort to modernize China’s military and make it more combat-ready. This represents a golden opportunity for him to dramatically advance that agenda and take over more direct control of his military.