China's communist leadership is in the final stages of a massive transition of power. In addition to the huge reshuffles among political cadres underway across all but the highest levels of the government, changes in the top military ranks have quietly been taking shape. At least five of the 11 members of the Central Military Commission — which oversees military affairs — will step down, including one of the committee's two vice chairmen. As China is undergoing substantial military reform aimed at modernization, President Xi Jinping is engaged in the broadest effort to consolidate power over the military since the days of Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong.
Sweeping anti-corruption crackdowns against senior military officials are underway. On Sept. 4, Reuters reported that Gen. Fang Fenghui, chief of the Joint Staff Department in the People's Liberation Army and a strong contender for vice chairman, had been questioned on suspicion of corruption. Chinese state media made no mention of this but did confirm in late August that Fang had been replaced. If true, the investigation will certainly deprive Fang of his chances for a vice chairmanship. Two other members of the committee, Adm. Wu Shengli and Gen. Zhang Yang, are reportedly also under investigation. 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 his potential political rivals, including two former vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission, Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou.
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. Reports have trickled in of Xi's aides and allies receiving quick promotions and high-ranking appointments. Also, discussion has surfaced about doubling the number of vice chairmen from two to four, reducing the authority held by any one of the vice chairmen and consolidating it in the hands of the committee's chairman, who would be Xi.
The reshuffling of staff within China's military ranks is by no means finished. The coming months will see continued crackdowns and an extended push for power consolidation by Xi. So far, his drive toward consolidation has been met with little resistance, at least on a public level. Still, Xi's push comes at a crucial time and with considerable risk.