Xi's choice of new army chief 'serves several political goals'

People's Liberation Army soldiers at the site of a landslide in Shenzhen on Dec 21, 2015.
People's Liberation Army soldiers at the site of a landslide in Shenzhen on Dec 21, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

The appointment of General Li Zuocheng as the inaugural commander of China's new army unit is aimed at achieving several political goals for President Xi Jinping, said some observers.

Gen Li, 62, is one of only seven full-fledged generals with actual battlefield experience, having fought in the 1979 Vietnam border war. His appointment embodies Mr Xi's vision of turning the People's Liberation Army (PLA) into a more combat-ready military.

Also, the rise of Gen Li, who has worked his way up the ranks since joining the army in 1970, could be used to exemplify how hard work can pay off - instead of buying ranks - and this could boost Mr Xi's anti-graft drive in the military.

Despite being named a combat hero at age 26, Gen Li's career reportedly stalled for more than a decade from around 2000 because he had offended then President Jiang Zemin by removing a calligraphy work penned by the latter at a military facility.

Observers said Gen Li's appointment would signal that Mr Xi is in charge of the military and would reward those loyal to him, including those once sidelined by others.

The appointment of Major-General Qin Tian as the chief of staff in the paramilitary People's Armed Police last month appears to serve the same purpose as his family was reportedly not favoured by Mr Jiang.

Hong Kong-based political observer Willy Lam said Gen Li's background makes him a popular and respected figure within the PLA, which would be valuable in helping Mr Xi maintain morale amid the military reforms.

"The reforms have hurt the ground-force troops as they are no longer on top of the airforce and navy, but one of the armed services like them. This means army personnel could lose the privileges and benefits they have been enjoying.

"Xi needs someone like Li Zuocheng to hold the ground together," he told The Straits Times.

Shanghai-based military expert Ni Lexiong told The Straits Times that Gen Li could also have been rewarded for his loyalty to Mr Xi amid the political fallout of disgraced Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai in early 2012.

Bo, serving life imprisonment since 2013 for bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power, had reportedly courted support within the Chengdu Military Region in his bid to enter the apex Politburo Standing Committee during the leadership handover in late 2012.

Gen Li had served as deputy commander of the Chengdu Military Region - which oversees Chongqing municipality - from January 2008 to July 2013, when he was appointed its commander, a role he served till his latest appointment.

Other contenders for the job of army chief had reportedly included General Cai Yingting, commander of the Nanjing Military Region. It is known to be a power base for Mr Xi as it oversees the three provinces he had served in: the Fujian and Zhejiang provinces and Shanghai municipality.

Prof Lam said a possible reason that Gen Cai did not get the job was Mr Xi's desire to show he enjoys support beyond the Nanjing stronghold.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 05, 2016, with the headline 'Xi's choice of new army chief 'serves several political goals''. Print Edition | Subscribe