BEIJING (AP) — The only grandson of China's former leader Mao Zedong has been promoted to the rank of major general in the People's Liberation Army, state media confirmed Monday.

Reports have been circulating for months that military historian Mao Xinyu had gained the rank, but officials had refused to confirm them, apparently to avoid suspicion of favoritism.

As reported last September, Mao, then 39, had become the youngest officer to reach major general rank in the army that was co-founded by his grandfather in 1927.

The newspaper Global Times, published by the Communist Party flagship People's Daily, quoted Bao Guojun, a spokesman for the Academy of Military Sciences where Mao works, as confirming the promotion.

"This is a natural elevation. Mao's many achievements earned him the right to be promoted," Bao said. The report did not say exactly when the promotion took place.

The academy's phone number is not listed in keeping with the deep secrecy surrounding the PLA, and requests for comment from the Defense Ministry were not immediately returned.

The Global Times report followed the appearance on the Internet of photos showing the portly Mao wearing a major general's single star on his shoulder boards during a visit last week to the southwestern province of Sichuan.

Mao Xinyu is the son of Mao's second son Mao Anqing, who died in 2007 at the age of 84. The younger Mao is a member of the main advisory body to the country's rubber stamp parliament and a fierce defender of his grandfather's legacy.

Known around the world as Chairman Mao, Mao Zedong led the bloody two decade-long revolution that overthrew Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists and established the People's Republic of China in 1949. Mao held total power right up to his death in 1976, and his embalmed body continues to lie in state in a mausoleum on Tiananmen Square in the heart of the capital, Beijing.

Mao Zedong had a notoriously chaotic personal life, marrying four times and siring nine children, including a daughter by his last wife, Jiang Qing. His second wife, Mao Xinyu's grandmother, was executed by the Nationalists in 1930.

While Mao Zedong remains venerated in China, his offspring have played little role in affairs of state. First son Mao Anying was killed in action during the Korean War and Mao Anqing is believed to have suffered from mental illness for most of his adult life.

In recent years, Mao Xinyu has become best known for his considerable girth and striking resemblance to his famously pudgy grandfather.

Son Mao Dongdong, Mao Zedong's only great-grandson, was born on the 110th anniversary of Mao Zedong's birthday in 2003.