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Xi Jinping revamps PLA ahead of his CPC Congress

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BEIJING (PTI): Chinese President Xi Jinping has reshuffled the top leadership of the powerful PLA, packing it with a new set of generals, vastly strengthening his power base in the world's largest military ahead of the Congress of the ruling Communist party.

The reshuffle comes prior to the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) which will open in Beijing from October 18. The meeting is widely expected to confer a second five-year term to Xi as General Secretary.

Two top officials, Gen. Fang Fenghui, head of the Joint Staff Department Central Military Commission (CMC), and Gen. Zhang Yang, head of its Political Work Department have been removed in the latest shake up of the 2.3 million strong PLA, increasing Xi's dominance over the military.

Xi heads the all-powerful CMC, the overall high command of the PLA, and he is the only civilian in the 11-member body.

The "ousting" of Fang and Zhang is further proof that Xi is "cementing his control over the military", the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported Tuesday.

Fang has been replaced by Gen. Li Zuocheng, a decorated veteran of the Sino-Vietnamese war and Admiral Miao Hua, formerly the PLA Navy's political commissar, has been appointed as head of the Political Work Department in the place of Gen. Zhang.

Xi promoted Li to full general and Miao to the equivalent naval rank in 2015 and both men are seen as being firmly in his camp, the Post report said.

Xi Jinping heads the Presidency and the military, which makes him far more powerful compared to his predecessor, Hu Jintao.

In his first term, Xi has carried out a massive anti-graft campaign in the party and the military in which thousands of officials from top to bottom were either punished or purged.

"Whatever option will be chosen, the first thing Xi will do is to root out the harmful influence left by the two disgraced CMC vice-chairmen, Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou," the Post quoted an official as saying.

Guo and Xu became the most senior military officers probed for buying and selling military ranks and other forms of corruption in the sweeping anti-graft campaign launched by Xi soon after he became party general secretary in November 2012.

Since then, at least 13,000 military officers involved in corruption have been punished, the Post quoted a report by the PLA Daily, official organ of the Chinese military as saying.

Guo, 75, was sentenced to life imprisonment in July last year and Xu died of cancer at the age of 72 in 2015 while in custody and under investigation for graft.

Since he took over, Xi's focus remained on revamping the military. In an unprecedented overhaul, he had announced that PLA would shed three lakh troops, taking their number down to two million.

He has also cut the size of the PLA Army to a million and vastly increased the role of the PLA Navy and the Air Force to assist China’s global push for influence.

He had also scrapped the PLA’s four former headquarters General Staff, General Political, General Logistics and General Armaments and established 15 functional departments to divide their powers.

The PLA’s seven military commands were also reshaped into five theatre commands.

Xi will use the party congress to restructure the CMC, the Post quoted officials as saying.

He may either trim the size of the 11-member CMC to just the chairman and four vice-chairmen or induct heads of the five theatre commands into the high power body.

The current CMC comprises one chairman, two vice-chairmen, and eight regular members: the defence minister, the heads of the four former headquarters, and the commanders of the Air Force, Navy and Rocket Force.

"Rooting out the harmful influence of Guo and Xu is one of the key reasons Xi needs to reform the CMC," Beijing-based military expert Li Jie told the Post.

The structure of the commission also needs to fit the ongoing military overhaul, with thousands of senior officers being laid off, he said.

Shanghai-based political commentator Chen Daoyin said Xi was intent on reforming the CMC to strengthen his hand against those in the party opposed to his new political thinking.

Xi hoped his political ideas would to be included in the party constitution at the upcoming congress, like those of his predecessors Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, and become part of the party’s political guidelines.

"But it seems there are some different voices inside the party against him," Chen told Post.

"The removal of Fang and Zhang and reform of the CMC could remind his opponents that Xi has absolute dominance in the army, which helped put the Communist Party in power," he said.

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