By Kathrin Hille in Beijing
China has set in motion a major reshuffle at the top of its armed forces with the appointment of a new air force chief and a new top military political officer, as part of the country’s broader leadership transition.
General Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the general staff, has been appointed commander of the air force, and Gen Zhang Yang has been promoted from political commissar of the Guangzhou Military Region to director of the General Political Department.
The appointments, which the Ministry of Defence confirmed to the Financial Times on Tuesday, signal that both men are set to gain seats on the Central Military Commission, the 12-member body which leads the People’s Liberation Army.
Gen Zhang’s promotion to be the PLA’s most senior political officer spells an abrupt end to the career hopes for some high-profile officers who had once been seen as CMC contenders.
As the FT reported earlier this year, the prospects of Gen Liu Yuan and Gen Zhang Haiyang, two senior political commissars, had been hit by their close ties to Bo Xilai, the ambitious former party secretary of Chongqing who was purged in March.
Mr Bo is expected to be stripped of his post as a delegate of the National People’s Congress, the rubber stamp parliament, this week, the final procedural step opening the way for his formal indictment.
Chinese military analysts said the entry of Gen Zhang into the CMC would squeeze out both the two other candidates. “He will be taking the only available political work spot,” said Major General Qiao Liang, a military analyst who teaches at an air force academy.
The changes also provide an outline of one of the largest military leadership turnovers in decades. China’s armed forces, following a decade of double-digit growth in military spending, are beginning to make their influence felt in the region, while Beijing is increasingly perceived as challenging the US’s place as sole superpower.
As many as eight of the 10 PLA officers in the 12-member CMC are to step down following the Communist party’s 18th congress early next month as they reach retirement age.
Since the commanders of the air force and the director of the military’s general political department are among those who have a seat on the CMC by default, Gen Ma and Gen Zhang are all but confirmed to join.
The commission is headed by Hu Jintao, China’s current president who is to retire from his party chief post next month, but expected to hold on to his CMC chairman post for another four years. Xi Jinping, Mr Hu’s likely successor as party chief and president, is another CMC vice-chairman.
Gen Chang Wanquan, already a CMC member as director of the General Armaments Department, could be appointed minister of defence. This leaves Beijing to decide on up to five more promotions, including a new chief of the general staff.
Additional reporting by Zhao Tianqi