NPC 2018: Ex-chief of strategic missile force named China's defence minister

General Wei Fenghe's appointment underscores the firm grip that President Xi Jinping now has over the People's Liberation Army, said analysts. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BEIJING - China has named its former strategic missile force chief as defence minister, completing a shake-up of its top military brass that began in October last year.

General Wei Fenghe's appointment on Monday (March 19) underscored the firm grip that President Xi Jinping now has over the People's Liberation Army (PLA), said analysts.

Gen Wei, 63, was the first officer to be promoted to full general when Mr Xi took office in 2012 and also the youngest to hold the rank at the time.

A career artillery officer, he rose through the ranks of the Second Artillery Force, which oversees China's land-based nuclear arsenal, and became its commander in 2012.

That year, Gen Wei was among the first in the PLA's senior leadership to both pledge allegiance to Mr Xi and actively execute his military reform agenda, which included a sweeping reorganisation of the PLA and its command structure.

Under his watch, the Second Artillery Corps was split into the Strategic Support Force and the PLA Rocket Force, with Gen Wei becoming the commander of the latter.

"Wei actually provided Xi with the plan to reorganise the Second Artillery Corps in an innovative way, even though it wasn't in his personal interests," a source told the South China Morning Post.

"That sacrifice did not go unnoticed by Xi, and it also convinced other senior officials in the strategic missile force to make similar concessions."

At the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) national congress last October, Gen Wei was among six generals and an admiral named to a smaller, seven-member Central Military Commission (CMC), the top body overseeing the PLA and headed by Mr Xi.

"The downsizing of the CMC (from 11 members) and its appointment of Xi's favoured generals endorsed his status as China's new strongman," said China expert James Char of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Mr Char noted that Gen Xu Qiliang and Gen Zhang Youxia, who were confirmed as CMC vice-chairmen on Sunday, had shared a long history with Mr Xi. The remaining four had either served in the former Nanjing Military Region that covers Mr Xi's former Fujian and Zhejiang strongholds, or been groomed for higher office.

Gen Wei's appointment as defence minister on Monday puts him at No. 4 in the military hierarchy, after Mr Xi and the vice-chairs, and ahead of the other three CMC members, namely Chief of Joint Staff Li Zuocheng, head of political work Miao Hua, and head of the military discipline commission Zhang Shengmin.

The scaled-down CMC signals a group that has Mr Xi's trust and is expected to deepen his military modernisation efforts and tighten discipline, said PLA expert Arthur Ding of the Taipei-based Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies.

"The anti-corruption campaign in the previous five years and the removal of term limits to the State presidency have also sent a strong signal... that Xi will stay on longer and there is no way for corrupt bureaucrats to escape," he added.

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