BEIJING – China has appointed a new army chief of staff and other top officers in the run-up to next month's national leadership transition, amid efforts to further professionalize the world's largest standing military and ensure its loyalty to the ruling Communist Party.
The Defense Ministry announced Thursday that Fang Fenghui is taking over as chief administrator of the People's Liberation Army with responsibilities for supervising recruiting, training and other key functions.
The appointment puts Fang, a former head of the military region that includes Beijing, firmly on track for a position on the Central Military Commission overseeing the 2.3 million-member PLA. The new lineup of the 12-member body led by Communist Party leader Hu Jintao will be announced at the party's national congress, which begins Nov. 8.
The appointments were long anticipated as part of the transition to incoming party leader Xi Jinping, who, despite taking over the reins, is believed to have relatively little say in the naming of new military leaders. Instead, the selections reflect the choices of Hu, who oversaw the advancement of officers such as Fang during his decade in power.
Hu promoted Fang to full general in 2010, one year after commanding an elaborate and highly prestigious military parade celebrating the 60th anniversary of the communist state.
China's armed forces have undergone a massive upgrading in weapons and tactics in recent years, spurred by double-digit percentage increases in the defense budget and Beijing's increasing willingness to assert its maritime territorial claims.
The PLA's three other top army staff positions also received new directors. Zhao Keshi was named head of logistics, Zhang Youxia as head of armaments, and Zhang Yang as director of the political department, the ministry said. Following precedent, they too can expect seats on the Central Military Commission, along with the heads of the air force, navy, and missile force known as the Second Artillery.
Several other deputy positions were announced, and the ministry earlier named former fighter pilot Ma Xiaotian to lead China's air force, which has become increasingly vital to China's defense strategy.
While the PLA is increasingly seeking to model itself on the U.S. armed forces and other professional militaries, it remains ultimately loyal to the ruling communists under the oft-repeated slogan "the party controls the gun."
That has been especially emphasized this year following the ouster of formerly high-flying politician Bo Xilai, who shared a background as the child of a communist elder with many leading generals. Associations with Bo seem to have torpedoed the careers of at least two of the top brass once considered candidates for higher office, logistics department political commissar Liu Yuan and Second Artillery commissar Zhang Haiyang.
China's armed forces haven't fought a major engagement since a brief 1979 campaign against Vietnam and battlefield achievements are no longer a criteria for advancement, said Ni Lexiong, an expert in military affairs and director of the Institute of Marine Rights and National Defense at Shanghai's University of Political Science and Law.
Instead, political loyalty, training and management ability, education, and personal connections serve as the biggest factors, Ni said.
"Loyalty to party's leadership must have played an important role in all these promotions," Ni said.