Chinese PLA soldiers attend a grand rally to mark the 90th founding anniversary of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, 1 August 2017. Photo: AFP
Chinese PLA soldiers attend a grand rally to mark the 90th founding anniversary of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, 1 August 2017. Photo: AFP

As China’s 19th Communist Party Congress approaches, the armed forces are preparing for a wide-reaching leadership reshuffle as President Xi Jinping consolidates his power. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the People’s Armed Police announced this week that a total of 303 delegates would be attendance at the congress, scheduled to open on October 18.

Three early trends are apparent from the designated armed forces’ delegation. First, 90% of those selected will be first time attendees, representing a new generation of officers who will owe their rise to Xi, who serves concurrently as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Second, several prominent old guard and so-called PLA ‘red princelings’ will be excluded from the power powwow. Among the missing are ex-chief of joint staff Fang Fenghui, now under investigation for corruption, and Political Work Department director Zhang Yang, who likewise apparently faces a probe. Zhang’s department helps to make military personnel decisions, but has come under fire in recent years for taking bribes for promotions.

Lastly, there will be a slight rise in the number of ethnic minority delegates. Six percent of armed forces delegates will be ethnic minority officers, up from the 18th Communist Party Congress’s 4.6%, with an estimated 11 ethnic groups represented.

The Manchus and Tibetans will each send three delegates, while the Uyghur, Hui and Tujia will each put forward two. The Zhuang, Xibe, Korean, Qiang, Bai and Naxi ethnicities will each send one delegate to the Congress.

An examination of the PLA’s ethnic officers shows two outstanding patterns. Ethnic representation is most visible among junior ranking officers, but thins out considerably at higher levels. There are comparatively few generals of ethnic minority backgrounds.

Ethnic minority officers usually play a secondary role to their ethnic majority Han comrades, especially at the mid and senior echelons. Ethnic Hans represent an estimated 92% of China’s 1.39 billion population.

For instance, there have never been ethnic Uyghur or Tibetan chief commanders in their home military districts, although currently they are represented by deputy commanders serving under a Han superior.

An institutional lack of trust impedes the rise of exceptional officers of ethnic minority origins. While the Han high command has less qualms about sharing power with members of highly Sinicized groups – the Zhuang or Manchus, for example – it remains skeptical about the less Sinicized peoples of China’s far west, where separatist ideologies have a strong pull.

That mentality is rooted in history. Margub Iskhakov was the PLA’s youngest ever general. Born in Yining to a Tatar family in 1923, Iskhakov fought alongside the Soviet-backed Yili National Army against Sheng Shicai, the Kuomintang-allied governor of Xinjiang.

After the PLA absorbed the Yili National Army in December 1949, Iskhakov joined the Chinese Communist Party and was made a general at the young age of 32 in 1955. In 1960, he became Xinjiang military district’s deputy chief of staff.

As Mao’s Great Leap Forward famine began to shake Xinjiang in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Iskhakov petitioned the Central Military Commission expressing his wishes to leave China. In 1962, he successfully defected to the Soviet Union. Following his lead were some 40 ethnic officers, among them the Uyghur general Zunun Taipov, who later tried to raise an army in the Soviet Union to unseat Chinese power in Xinjiang.

Fifty years later the case is still shrouded in mystery, with questions about whether Iskhakov and Taipov were Soviet KGB assets or genuinely disillusioned with Chinese communism and a policy failure that resulted in widespread famine. One thing is certain, however: the Iskhakov incident, marking the worst case of mass defection in the PLA’s history, still casts a long shadow over PLA officers from less Sinicized ethnic groups, particularly those associated with separatism.

To be sure, mistrust of ethnic minority officers loosely affiliated with perceived “hostile elements” is not only a PLA phenomenon. It’s a common trait of several insecure authoritarian or weak democratic regimes worldwide. Although there have been some improvements in PLA minority representation, including a larger delegation at this year’s Congress, it will be a long time before ethnic officers are promoted to play a role in reshaping the highly centralized, ethnic Han-dominated armed forces in more localized ways.

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