China reshuffled its top military ranks on Tuesday, weeks before a once-in-a-decade generational leadership change which sources said would see the outgoing air force commander promoted to vice chairman of the military’s top decisionmaking body.
General Ma Xiaotian (馬曉天), 63, was named air force commander, replacing General Xu Qiliang (許其亮), 62, state broadcaster CCTV said.
Ma has been one of the secretive military’s most visible faces, speaking at forums overseas and leading talks with US defense officials aimed at building trust between the world’s two largest economies.
The report did not say what would happen to Xu, but three independent sources with ties to the top leadership and the People’s Liberation Army said Xu was tipped to be named one of two vice chairmen of the powerful Central Military Commission.
The government generally does not comment on elite politics and personnel changes before an official announcement.
Xu’s air force background means he can be expected to champion the interests of the force at the center of power, including the development of China’s first indigenous stealth fighter.
Xu is one of eight members of the military commission, which is headed by Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤).
Hu is widely expected to step down as party chief during a congress which opens on Nov. 8 and as president during the annual session of parliament in March next year. Anointed successor Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) will almost certainly take over both posts.
However, sources and analysts are divided over whether Hu will follow in the footsteps of his predecessor Jiang Zemin (江澤民), who hung on to the military chairmanship for two years after stepping down as president.
Hu, 69, has not made public his plans for retirement, but unlike in the West where former presidents and prime ministers tend to fade from the public eye, Chinese leaders seek to maintain influence to avoid possible adverse political repercussions down the road and to preserve their legacy.
Hu’s most noticeable legacy was mending fences with Taiwan after bilateral ties plunged as a result of menacing Chinese war games ahead of the first direct presidential election in 1996.
The 2.3 million-strong People’s Liberation Army, the world’s biggest armed forces, has rattled the region with an ambitious buildup overseen by Hu, including the launch of the country’s first aircraft carrier.