Xi Jinping Consolidates Power by Promoting Alumni of the Nanjing Military Region

Commander General Cai Yingting, who has ties to the Nanjing military region. (Credit: South China Morning Post)

President Xi Jinping has marked his two years in office by masterminding a thorough loyalty drive among the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which is deemed the princeling’s primary power base. On the ideological front, Xi and his lieutenants have played up the imperative of the generals’ “absolute obedience” to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its leadership. A series of year-end reshuffles of the top brass was geared toward not only promoting rejuvenation and professional standards but also enhancing the political fortunes of officers close to Xi, who is Chairman of the policy-setting Central Military Commission (CMC). Xi has also increased anti-corruption operations within the PLA in the wake of the scandal surrounding former CMC vice-chairman and Politburo member General Xu Caihou, who is believed to have pocketed billions of yuan in ill-gotten gains (Liberation Army Daily, July 4, 2014; People’s Daily, July 2, 2014).

Compared to predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, President Xi has been significantly more assiduous in inspecting different military regions as well as units from the Air Force, Navy and Second Artillery (China News Service, December 23, 2014). Particularly after the detention of General Xu, the highest-ranked officer to have been incriminated since the Cultural Revolution, Xi has redoubled the fealty campaign to ensure that, in the words of the Liberation Army Daily, officers must “in their thoughts and actions maintain a high degree of unison with the Party leadership and with comrade Xi Jinping as General Secretary” (Liberation Army Daily, July 23, 2014; Liberation Army Daily, July 2, 2014). Xi’s loyalty drive reached an apogee when he gave a lecture to a few hundred members of the top brass in the town of Gutian, Fujian Province last October. It was during the famous Gutian Conference 85 years ago that Mao Zedong established his unrivalled authority among the Red Army, the forerunner of the PLA. “Upholding the principle of the Party’s absolute leadership over the army is the soul of a strong army,” Xi said at Gutian. The commander-in-chief instructed that Party committees in all branches and units of the PLA “take as their foremost task the implementation of the principle of the Party’s absolute leadership.” “We must ensure that the principle of the Party’s command over the gun will take root,” he added (People’s Daily, November 2, 2014; Xinhua, November 1, 2014).

Building the “Nanjing MR Faction”

Two fast-rising stars have stood out in the latest round of musical chairs at the army’s top echelons. Lieutenant-General Gao Jin (born 1959) was promoted last December to Commandant of the Chinese Military Academy (MR leader grade), making him the youngest officer to have attained the rank of head of a military region or equivalent. Gao, a much-decorated officer from the Second Artillery Force (or missile forces) who has authored numerous papers in military journals, was named Assistant Chief of the General Staff (MR deputy leader grade) just six months earlier. Another notable officer who was reshuffled twice within half a year—Lieutenant-General Miao Hua (born 1955)—served in the Fujian-based 31st Group Army (which is within the Nanjing Military Region) when Xi was a senior cadre in the province. Miao was named Political Commissar (PC) of the Lanzhou Military Region (MR) (MR leader grade) last July, and Navy PC at year-end (MR leader grade) (People’s Daily, December 25, 2014; Caixin, December 24, 2014; Southern Metropolitan News, July 8, 2014).

Several recent personnel changes have favored officers who have distinguished themselves in the Nanjing MR, which covers Shanghai as well as the provinces of Fujian, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui and Jiangxi. Owing to the fact that President Xi has served in Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai, he is on friendly terms with personnel from this MR, which is often thrust into the media limelight due to its responsibilities for the reabsorption of Taiwan into the motherland. By contrast, Xi views with suspicion senior officers associated with the Shenyang MR, which was the power base of General Xu, and those with links to the Lanzhou MR, which is deemed a bastion of the influence of another former CMC vice-chairman and Politburo member, General Guo Boxiong. The rise of the so-called “Nanjing MR Faction” in the PLA reflects Xi’s eagerness to consolidate his power in the defense establishment (Want China Times [Taipei], December 18, 2014; Ming Pao [Hong Kong], December 16, 2014).

When President Xi first came to power at the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, there were relatively few senior military staff with a Nanjing MR connection. They included Director of the General Logistics Department General Zhao Keshi (born 1947) and Shenyang MR Commander Wang Jiaocheng (born 1952) (MR leader grade). Apart from General Miao, four alumni from the Nanjing MR have recently won eye-catching appointments. Lieutenant-General Yi Xiaoguang (born 1958), a former Deputy Commander from Nanjing (MR deputy leader grade), was promoted Deputy Chief of the General Staff (MR leader grade) after being Assistant Chief of General Staff (MR deputy leader grade) for just two years. Deputy Chief of General Staff Lieutenant-General Wang Ning (born 1955) (MR leader grade), who led the 31st Group Army (corps leader grade) from 2007 to 2010, was appointed Commander of the quasi-military People’s Armed Police (PAP) (MR leader grade). Commandant of the National Defense University Lieutenant-General Song Puxuan (born 1954) (MR leader grade), became Commander of the strategic Beijing MR (MR leader grade). Last July, the PC of the 31st Group Army Major-General Jiang Yong (born 1956) (corps leader grade) was promoted Head of the Political Department of the Jinan MR (MR deputy leader grade). Early this year, Jiang was named PC of the Beijing Garrison Command (MR deputy leader grade) (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], January 4; Ta Kung Pao [Hong Kong], December 31, 2014; The Diplomat, December 30, 2014; Legal Evening News [Beijing], December 26, 2014).

Moreover, at least two among the top echelon of the Nanjing MR are seen as potential members of the CMC. They are Commander General Cai Yingting (born 1954) (MR leader grade), who also earned his spurs at the 31st Group Army. A secretary of former CMC vice-chairman General Zhang Wannian, Cai is a former deputy director of the CMC General Office, the nerve center of the entire army. In 2012, Cai made a well-publicized visit to the United States, where he was treated as a future PLA leader. Deemed a ranking expert on the military configurations of the Taiwan Strait, Cai is considered a potential successor of Chief of the General Staff General Fang Fenghui (Jinan Times [Jinan], July 31, 2013; South China Morning Post, August 23, 2012). Also looking good is the career of the Chief of Staff of the Nanjing MR, Lieutenant-General Yang Hui (born 1963) (MR deputy leader grade), who also served in the 31st Group Army. A former head of military intelligence in the General Staff Department, Yang was attached to Chinese embassies in Yugoslavia, Russia and Kazakhstan. The multi-lingual Yang is an acknowledged expert on foreign military strategies as well as anti-terrorism (China News Service, August 6, 2013; Asia Times, January 23, 2013).

Owing to perceived corruption and other problems among the top brass, President Xi has reshuffled the PCs—who are responsible for ideological and disciplinary matters—of several major units. For the first time in recent memory, the newly appointed military commissars (MR leader grade) of the Navy, Air Force, Second Artillery and the PAP have all come from the ground forces. They are, respectively, Lieutenant-General Miao Hua; General Tian Xiusi (born 1950, a former PC of the Chengdu MR); Lieutenant-General Wang Jiasheng (born 1955, a former Deputy PC of the General Armaments Department); and General Sun Sijing (born 1951, a former PC of the Chinese Academy of Military Science). Generals Miao and Wang are members of the Central Commission for Disciplinary Commission (CCDI)—the Party’s top-level graft-buster—selected by the 18th Party Congress, while Sun was a CCDI member appointed at the 17th Party Congress of 2007 (Want China Times [Taipei], December 30, 2014; South China Morning Post, October 23, 2012)

Despite High-Profile Cases, PLA Largely Escapes Anti-Corruption Drive

Compared to the dozens of ministerial-level cadres that the Party’s CCDI nabbed in 2013 and 2014, only three senior PLA officers have been put under investigation: General Xu Caihou, Lieutenant General Gu Junshan and Lieutenant General Yang Jinshan. That relatively few “tigers” have been disciplined in the army probably reflects Commander-in-Chief Xi’s anxiety to preserve unity among the top brass. That Xi is eager to improve anti-graft mechanisms among the defense forces was evident from the speech he gave while visiting the Nanjing MR last December. “We must draw the painful lesson from the [corruption] case of Xu Caihou,” Xi told the officers. “We must thoroughly defuse the evil influence of the Xu case from the point of view of our thoughts, politics, organization and work style” (Xinhua, December 15, 2014; CCTV, December 15, 2014).

Changes have been made in the area of anti-graft institutions and mechanisms. The leadership of the PLA Disciplinary Inspection Commission (PDIC) has been reshuffled. For example, newly promoted Deputy Chief of the General Staff Lieutenant-General Yi Xiaoguang was given the concurrent appointment of Deputy Secretary of the PDIC. Another newly appointed PDIC Deputy Secretary is Lieutenant-General Chai Shaoliang (born 1954), who was transferred from the post of Deputy PC of the Chengdu MR (MR deputy leader grade) to that of Deputy PC of the General Armaments Department (MR deputy leader grade). Major-General Liu Shengjie (born 1956), who was promoted from Director of the General Logistics Department’s (GLD) Political Department (MR corps leader grade) to Deputy PC of the GLD (MR deputy leader grade) in July 2013, also concurrently became a PDIC deputy secretary (Ta Kung Pao, December 25, 2014; Caixin, July 14, 2013).

In light of the fact that the GLD—which handles infrastructure and housing projects in the military—is a disaster zone in terms of corruption in the military, General Liu, who is also a member of the CCDI, has been given extra responsibility in cleaning up procurement and other commercial procedures involved in military logistics. The PLA Auditing Office has been transferred from the GLD to the CMC, thus ensuring that the phenomenon of “the GLD investigating itself” will be a thing of the past. While announcing this change last November, CMC Vice-Chairman General Fan Changlong urged army auditors to “deeply appreciate the strategic intentions of Chairman Xi and the CMC … and to boost their sense of mission and responsibility in handling auditing work” (Xinhua, December 6, 2014; China News Service, November 6, 2014).

The PLA’s Empty Professions of Support to Xi

Partly as a result of Xi’s no-holds-barred efforts to woo the top brass, senior PLA personnel have since early 2013 frequently made ritualistic protestations of unqualified support for their commander-in-chief. The latest manifestation of what the Chinese call biaotai (“airing of support”) consisted of articles written by 37 generals in the journal Chinese Military Law. The top PLA officers unanimously avowed their backing for Xi’s ideas about “deepening the implementation of running the army according to law and running the army with severity” (People’s Daily, December 13, 2014). Questions, however, are being asked about whether Xi has secured fealty for himself through old-fashioned factionalism: grooming and propagating officers from congenial backgrounds such as generals who are fellow princelings or those who hail from the Nanjing MR. It is ironic that a year-end meeting of the full Politburo issued a warning to senior cadres that “the Party will not tolerate the formation of [special interest] groups, and activities relating to faction building” (Xinhua, December 30, 2014; Global Times, December 29, 2014). Until Xi has proven that he is capable of substantiating former patriarch Deng Xiaoping’s famous personnel principle of the “five lakes and four seas”—meaning that top-level officers in both civilian and military units must come from disparate backgrounds—serious doubts will still be cast on the sincerity and efficacy of Xi’s vaunted reforms of the PLA.