China's military is flashing clues about the country's complex politics

Key Points
  • An overwhelming majority of military delegates at China's upcoming Party Congress will be first-time attendees, according to Brookings
  • That's a likely sign of President Xi Jinping consolidating power, experts say
  • Xi has been purging senior generals as part of a corruption crackdown

The list of delegates attending China's upcoming 19th Party Congress offers tell-tale signs of which way political winds are blowing in the world's second-largest economy. Attendees from the military are particularly notable.

Out of the 300 People's Liberation Army delegates expected to appear at the milestone event, which decides the future of Chinese leadership, a whopping 90 percent will be first-time attendees, Cheng Li, director of the John L. Thornton China Center and a senior fellow in the foreign policy program at Brookings, said in a note this week.

A military parade in China
Damir Sagolj | Reuters

"This would constitute the largest-ever turnover of military elite in the history of the People's Republic of China," he said.

Under Chinese President Xi Jinping's watch, the world's largest military has undergone drastic reforms such as the introduction of a Western-style joint command system and high-profile purges of top generals. The dismissal of several military elites in recent months was conducted under the umbrella of Xi's anti-corruption crackdown, but many see it as a means for the president, who is set to be confirmed for a second five-year term at the Congress, to strengthen control.

"The degree of military reshuffling offers a clue to broader leadership changes, particularly the likelihood of Mr. Xi further consolidating power," said Li. The new military leadership will likely consist of Xi's longtime friends General Zhang Youxia, General Li Zuocheng, and Admiral Miao Hua, who are known for their perceived loyalty to the president, Li explained.

Among the defense brass recently booted from senior positions is General Fang Fenghui, the army's former chief of the joint staff department and a former leading contender for the vice chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC), a body supervising administration of the armed forces. He was replaced in August and questioned on suspicion of graft, Reuters reported last month.

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Admiral Wu Shengli, who was commander of the PLA navy for more than a decade, was replaced in January while General Du Jincai, who was secretary of the CMC's disciplinary inspection group for five years, was removed in February. Du allegedly boasted close ties to two former CMC vice chairmen, Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, who were implicated in corruption.

Fang, Wu and Du are all believed to be under investigation related to graft claims, according to media reports. The same goes for General Zhang Yang, former director of the CMC's general political department.

"These investigations have focused notably on personnel who were allegedly appointed by former vice chairmen and not by Xi's allies, leading many to believe the crackdown is intended to target the power networks of [Xi's] potential political rivals," intelligence firm Stratfor said in a recent note.

"The investigations, along with scheduled vacancies in the senior military ranks, will allow Xi to promote his associates to top military positions and tighten his grip on power," it added.