Sweeping change in China's military points to more firepower for Xi

BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s military is preparing a sweeping leadership reshuffle, dropping top generals, including two that sources say are under investigation for corruption.

A Chinese paramilitary policeman climbs an obstacle during training in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, China, August 11, 2017. Picture taken August 11, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer

The changes would make room for President Xi Jinping to install trusted allies in key positions at 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 members of the Central Military Commission. The commission 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.”

Slideshow ( 2 images )

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.

The department is in charge of imbuing political thought and makes military personnel decisions in a similar vein to the Communist Party’s Organisation Department.

The Political Work Department used to be headed by Xu Caihou, who along with a fellow former vice-chairman of the military commission, Guo Boxiong, was accused of taking bribes in exchange for promotions. Guo was jailed for life last year, while Xu died of cancer in 2015 before he could face trial.

Also among the key omissions from the list published Wednesday were Du Jincai, who was replaced as the military’s anti-corruption chief in March, and Cai Yingting, who left his post as head of the PLA Academy of Military Science in January.

Taking into account officials who are likely to retire, as many as seven of the 11 spots on the military commission may be vacated, strengthening talk in Chinese political circles that the body may be streamlined.

Xi, who is commander-in-chief of China’s armed forces, currently chairs the commission, which also comprises two vice-chairmen and eight committee members.

Two sources familiar with the matter said the commission may be cut down to Xi and four vice-chairmen, doing away with committee members and streamlining reporting lines.

Li, the Brookings expert, said that among those likely to be central to the army’s refreshed leadership were Li Zuocheng, who took over from Fang as chief of the Joint Staff Department last month, Miao and the three commanders of the army’s ground, air and naval forces: Han Weiguo, Ding Laihang and Shen Jinlong.

The fact that all five were newly-appointed this year and none were members of the Communist Party’s 200-odd strong Central Committee, Li said, reflected the extent to which Xi was rejuvenating the leadership as part of his years-long drive to modernize the military and make it more ready for combat.

“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,” he said.

Reporting by Philip Wen and Benjamin Kang Lim; Editing by Philip McClellan