Chinese President and Military Commission Chairman Xi Jinping’s imprint is clearly visible on the list of the 253 delegates selected by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to represent it at the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) scheduled to open in Beijing on 18 October 2017.
Coinciding with the release of the list of PLA delegates on 6 September 2017, China’s authoritative official news agency Xinhua clarified that the candidates from among whom the delegates were selected by members of the CCP in the PLA had been approved by Xi Jinping in May 2017, or more than three months earlier and well before the face-off with India on the Doklam plateau began. This confirms that Xi Jinping had decided to replace General Fang Fenghui as Chief of the Joint Staff Department under the Central Military Commission (CMC) and General Zhang Yang, former Director of the PLA’s General Political Department, with his nominees much earlier. It also confirms that reports claiming that Fang Fenghui had been removed because he was opposed to the withdrawal of troops from the over 70-day long face-off with India on the Doklam Plateau are without basis.
Of interest to India is that of the PLA’s five Theatre Commands, General Zhao Zongqi, Commander of the Western Theatre Command deployed opposite India’s border with China, is a delegate along with the Commanders of the Northern, Eastern and Southern Theatre Commands.
Similarly interesting is the inclusion among the delegates of Major General Liu Geping, Commander of the PLA Ali Military Sub-District under the Western Theatre Command. Liu Geping was Commander of the Ali Military Sub-District in April 2013 and again in September 2014, when PLA troops carried out extended intrusions into the Depsang plains and Chumar, both in Ladakh. In April 2013, the intrusion, and ensuing stand-off, was called off just days before the arrival of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in India. The intrusion by PLA troops at Chumar in Ladakh coincided and continued till well after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in September 2014. Liu Geping’s promotion as Major General and listing as a delegate suggest his career is on track and dismiss reports that these and similar intrusions do not have the approval of Xi Jinping and the CMC.
The list of the PLA and People’s Armed Police Force (PAP)’s delegates was released two months after the CCP released its own list of delegates to the 19th Congress. Unlike at the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, when there was only one Tibetan in the PLA’s list, this time there are three Tibetans including Tidan Dan, a Deputy Commander in the Tibet Military Region.
Ninety per cent of the PLA and PAP delegates are new, including the astronaut Jing Haipeng, the CMC Political Work Department song and dance troupe member Lei Jia, who is a student of Xi Jinping’s wife Peng Liyuan, and the Chinese Navy’s first female Vice Captain Wei Huixiao. Officers promoted earlier this August like the new PLA Army Commander Han Weiguo, PLA Army Political Commissar Liu Lei, PLA Air Force Commander Ding Laihang and PLA Air Force Political Commissar Yu Zhongfu, who have all known Xi Jinping since his days as provincial Party Secretary, are also listed among the delegates, further confirming that their elevations had been decided months ago. The failure of Fang Fenghui and Zhang Yang to make the list of the PLA delegates when other CMC members due to retire at the upcoming 19th Congress, like Chang Wanquan, Wu Shengli, Ma Xiaotian and Fan Changlong are included, lends credence to reports circulating since mid-August that the two are under investigation on charges of corruption. Four of the senior PLA officers listed among the 253 delegates have participated in the Sino-Vietnamese war, including the new head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under the CMC, Li Zuocheng, the CMC Director of Equipment Development Department Zhang Youxia, and Liu Yuejun and Zhao Zongqi.
Among the new delegates is Zhong Shaojun, who was born in 1968 and is a long-time personal secretary of Xi Jinping. In 2013, he was seen wearing a PLA uniform with a colonel’s badges of rank. He is presently Deputy Director of the General Office for the Central Military Commission and Director of the Office for Xi Jinping, Chairman of the Central Military Commission. Zhong Shaojun is now a Major General in the PLA.
Indicative of Xi Jinping’s stated emphasis on promoting officers who are politically reliable, professionally competent, or experienced in battle or Military Operations Other than War (MOOTW), Xinhua on 23 May 2017, reported that more than 72% of candidates are aged under 55, almost 99% have a college degree or above and 98% have been awarded third-class or above merit citations.
Jayadeva Ranade is a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.