China recently confirmed 26 new commanders in the People’s Liberation Army’s 13 group armies that saw not a single leader staying with his old unit, with most receiving postings to far away regions from their theater of command.
Why the shake up in its armed forces, the world’s largest with 2.3 million personnel, when there are conflicts brewing on China’s left and right flanks?
In April, the PLA eliminated five group armies, in keeping with its modernization plan to prune the ground force to make it a more versatile and combat-capable organization.
At present, each of China’s five theaters of command control two to three group armies.
Each has combat and non-combat units divided into the following: infantry, armor, artillery, anti-aircraft warfare, anti-chemical warfare, cyber warfare, army aviation, engineer, communications, transportation, pontoon bridge construction, education and training, military hospitals, and arts troupe.
The size of a group army varies from 30,000 to 80,000 men. We know little about the new commanders besides their brief biographies, but some of the transfers are quite baffling.
For example, Major General Fan Chengcai, the new commander of the 76th group army responsible for Tibet, previously had a long career in the 14th group army of Yunnan Province, a subtropical region very different from the Roof of the World.
His comrade-in-arms, the political commissar Major General Zhang Hongbing served mostly in Henan Province, famous for its open plains. They could be experts in high-altitude, cold-weather warfare, but their background doesn’t indicate that.
There is an alternative explanation to how these decisions were made. While increasing combat effectiveness may be the long-term goal, the immediate concern of the PLA’s commander-in-chief Xi Jinping is about domestic politics.
The personnel reorganization is Xi’s attempt to curb military factionalism, better rendered in Chinese as “mountaintopism” or shantou zhuyi.
Influential Chinese military chiefs tend to build their leadership team based on personal loyalty. Turning the party’s army into their personal army, these commanders become in the words of Mao Zedong “mountaintops” that pose a challenge to the PLA’s cohesion as well as the supreme leader’s authority.
The Qing dynasty fell because a powerful general acquired total control of the New Army. Similarly, Chiang Kai-shek’s defeat on the mainland has been blamed on his failure in containing military factionalism.
The last thing Xi wants to see is collusion between generals and political opponents to derail November’s 19th party congress, when Xi will be crowned China’s paramount leader.
The last thing Xi wants to see is collusion between generals and political opponents in derailing November’s 19th party congress, when Xi will be crowned China’s paramount leader.
Since early this year, Xi has accelerated the promotion of his own generals to the PLA’s highest echelons. In July and August, Xi promoted several dozens of generals, lieutenant generals and major generals to add weight to his control.
Then, to reduce the threat from regional commanders, Xi employed Mao’s old trick of removing them from their familiar environment and away from confidants.
The brand-new unit designations for the 13 group armies, numbering from 71 to 84, also shows Xi’s ambition in tearing down existing loyalty networks and rebuilding the army entirely as his own.
Like all other armed forces, the PLA’s unit designations carry history and esprit de corps. But fresh designations convey new allegiance.
According to the PLA Daily, the number 71 represents July 1st or the Chinese Communist Party’s founding day. The message is clear here — the party leader is the PLA’s nucleus, not the regional commandants.
Although expanding combat effectiveness is the group army reform’s premier goal, the assurance of loyalty is equally important.
The great army personnel overhaul reveals Xi is taking another step towards absolute control over the PLA top brass as he prepares to strengthen his power at the 19th congress.
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