Xi Jinping names combat veteran Li Zuochen to top military post: Reports

General Li Zuocheng's appointment underscores President Xi Jinping's desire to turn the 2.3 million-member PLA into a force 'able to fight and win wars'.
General Li Zuocheng's appointment underscores President Xi Jinping's desire to turn the 2.3 million-member PLA into a force 'able to fight and win wars'. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - President Xi Jinping has appointed one of China's few top generals with combat experience to a powerful military post, according to two people familiar with the matter.

General Li Zuocheng, 63, a veteran of the country's brief and bloody 1979 war with Vietnam, was this week named chief of the People Liberation Army's Joint Staff Department, said sources, who asked not to be identified because the announcement was internal. 

He replaces General Fang Fenghui, who last week hosted the United States' top uniformed officer, General Joseph Dunford.

Gen Fang is expected to receive another position, they said.

Gen Li's appointment to the post - created last year as part of the largest military overhaul in six decades - underscores Mr Xi's desire to turn the 2.3 million member PLA into force "able to fight and win wars".

China hasn't been involved in a major conflict since the border clash with Vietnam.

The promotion puts Gen Li directly under the 11-member Central Military Commission, which is led by Mr Xi and is due for a reshuffle after an upcoming Communist Party congress. Only one of the seven vice-chairmen of the elite CMC since 2002 has had combat experience on his service record.

The Joint Staff Department is a central component to Mr Xi's reform and oversees PLA's operations, intelligence and training. Gen Fang's recent meeting with Gen Dunford, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggests that Gen Li will occupy a top liaison role at a time of increasing tensions between the world's two largest economies.

China's Ministry of National Defence in Beijing did not respond to a faxed request for comment on Wednesday (Aug 23).

The move is among several promotions ahead of the party congress, at which Mr Xi will preside over the replacement of much of the country's leadership - from the military to provincial governments. The twice-a-decade gathering will shape the influence for years to come of a president already considered the country's most powerful leader in a generation.

Gen Li, who most recently led the PLA's ground forces, received China's highest military honour, a first-class merit for his leadership of an infantry company during the war. His unit was credited with killing 294 Vietnamese combatants in less than four weeks, earning him a reputation as China's "most feared war hero", according to a Beijing Daily story published after an earlier promotion.

Mr Xi's overhaul has focused on expanding China's ability to project force further from its shores, in part by adopting a joint command structure similar to the US.

The two-year-old effort has helped challenge more than 70 years of US military dominance in the Western Pacific.

President Xi is reducing the PLA's overall personnel numbers by 300,000 - mostly from the ground forces - while adding new missile, cyber warfare and outer-space capabilities. He has replaced the previous seven military regions with five "joint theatre commands" and clarified the CMC's leadership role.

Last month, Mr Xi told a gathering of troops marking the PLA's 90th anniversary that the country must accelerate its military modernisation drive because "the world isn't safe".