The recent round of promotions in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by China’s President and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) Xi Jinping, on the occasion of PLA Day on August 1, 2015, appears to continue the emphasis on professionalism and preference for either battle-field or other operational experience for elevation to the higher ranks of the PLA. Included in the list are some officers whose affiliations to Xi Jinping are identified. The promotions are also indicative of Xi Jinping having begun to prepare for the 19th Party Congress in 2017. The criteria of professionalism and preference for battle-field experience in higher echelon PLA appointments was evident in the composition of the new Central Military Commission (CMC) announced at the 18th Party Congress in 2012.
The main features of China’s new Military leadership were clearly these: professional background of all the Members and both Vice Chairmen of the Military Commission; the increased number of ‘princelings’, or members of the ‘Red Nobility’ led by the Chairman of the CMC Xi Jinping; and the implicit emphasis on Integrated Joint Operations (IJO), especially an enhanced operational role for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force (PLAAF). It was at this CMC that the PLAAF for the first time ever had two representatives namely, Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Xu Qiliang and PLAAF Commander and concurrent Military Commission Member General Ma Xiaotian.
The ten officers now promoted to the highest rank of General are: PLA Deputy Chief of Staff Wang Guanzhong; Deputy Head of the PLA’s General Political Department Yin Fanglong; PLA Navy Political Commissar Miao Hua; Commander of the Beijing Military Region Song Puxuan; Commander of the Lanzhou Military Region Liu Yuejun; Commander of the Jinan Military Region Zhao Zongqi; Commander of the Chengdu Military Region Li Zuocheng; and Political Commissar of the Nanjing Military Area Command Zheng Weiping. The others promoted were Zhang Shibo, President of the PLA National Defence University (NDU) and Wang Ning, Commander of the People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF).
Of the ten officers promoted at least four are veterans with battle experience. Zhao Zongqi participated in the Sino-Vietnam War in 1979 when he is reported to have often disguised himself as a Vietnamese to gather information. Born in 1955, Gen Zhao Zongqi has experience of foreign service having been posted to Tanzania as a defence attaché. He has even served as a military consultant for a drama serial on the PLA in 2006.
PAPF Commander Wang Ning, who has worked with Xi Jinping in Nanjing, participated in the Sino-Vietnam War on the Yunnan border. He has been promoted as General after only three years as Lieutenant General instead of the normal four. PLA Navy Political Commissar Miao Hua, who also worked with Xi Jinping in Fujian (Xiamen), has similarly been promoted after only three years as Lieutenant General and could succeed 70-year old Admiral Wu Shengli as Commander of the PLA Navy when the latter retires. He is the son of a communist cadre. While Song Puxuan does not have battle experience, he acquired experience of Military Operations Other than War (MOOTW) when, as Commander of the 54th Group Army, he participated in the relief operations for the Sichuan earthquake.
Particularly important to India among these latest promotions to the rank of General, is the elevation of the Commanders of the Lanzhou and Chengdu Military Regions, both exercising operational jurisdiction across India’s borders. While the Lanzhou Military Region’s jurisdiction includes the Ladakh sector, the Chengdu Military Region covers the rest of the Sino-Indian border.
Interestingly, both the Commanders were in position at the time of the intrusions in the Depsang Plains and the Chumar area in Ladakh in April 2013 and September 2014 respectively, and their promotions confirm the assessment at the time that the intrusions were deliberate, planned and pre-mediated actions.
General Liu Yuejun, the 60-year-old Commander of the Lanzhou Military Region (MR), has a blemish-free political record confirmed by his membership of the 16th, 17th and now the 18th Central Committees of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). He is one of the few PLA officers at this rank with battle experience having fought in the Sino-Vietnam war (1979) and seen active duty in the Fakashan conflict. Liu Yuejun, was appointed to the present post in October 2012, and is significantly, like Xi Jinping, a “princeling”. He additionally has solid military credentials as his father Liu Yide, who was a Deputy Director of the Political Department of the 14th Group Army and mother was a soldier. Liu Yuejun was also born in a military camp of the communist people’s army. Consequent to his promotion as General, he will be a contender for elevation to a higher post at the next Party Congress in 2017.
The Commander of the Chengdu Military Region, General Li Zuocheng, was earlier Deputy Commander of the Military Region. Li Zuocheng, who is 60-years old, also has battle experience and was awarded a first-class merit when he was just 26-years-old for leading a PLA company to victory during the month-long Sino-Vietnamese war in 1979.
He suffered injuries to his right arm during the conflict. He too will be in the running for appointment to higher office at the next Party Congress. A possible disadvantage for Li Zuocheng, however, could be that he is neither a full nor alternate member of the Party’s 18th Central Committee.
The promotions additionally point to the attention being given by the Chinese leadership to the Sino-Indian border and to steadily enhancing and consolidating military preparedness in Tibet.
In addition to preserving peace and stability in its restive south-western autonomous region, Beijing is also ensuring adequate military presence against India. This is substantiated by the promotion and posting last year of Major General Zhang Jiansheng as a Deputy Commander of the Lanzhou Military Region.
He was the first officer from the South Xinjiang Military District in the last 22 years to be promoted directly to Lanzhou and was Commander of Ali Military Sub District (MSD) a decade ago. He brings to the Lanzhou Military Region Headquarters first-hand knowledge of the Tibetan plateau and the western areas of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).
The promotions indicate that Xi Jinping is filling the top PLA posts with persons of his choice and also of professional merit. The preference for officers with battle experience and strong views on issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity will add push to fulfillment of ‘China’s Dream’. Some of these officers will move to higher appointments at the next Party Congress three years later.