TOP COMMANDER RESHAPING THE MILITARY
Xi Jinping reviews an honor guard on the aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, in northeast China's Liaoning Province, Aug. 28, 2013. (Xinhua/Li Gang)
As chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), Xi is tasked with ensuring the world's largest military take a "crucial leap" in the new era from being simply large to being strong.
To achieve this, the commander-in-chief of an armed force of two million servicemen and women has outlined a two-step approach.
"We will make it our mission to see that by 2035, the modernization of our national defense and our forces is basically complete; and that by the mid-21st century our people' s armed forces have been fully transformed into world-class forces," Xi said in the report to the 19th CPC National Congress.
Neither of these two goals is easy, and Xi has turned to reviving the army's revolutionary spirit of wartime to seek momentum.
At Xi's behest, a conference on the army's political work convened in 2014 in Gutian Township, Fujian Province, the very place where Mao Zedong presided over the gathering in 1929 which established the principle of the Party's absolute leadership of the army.
One of Mao's most famous dictums back then was that "political power comes from the barrel of a gun." In the new era, the army faces much different tasks and missions: from safeguarding the territorial sovereignty of a vast land, sea and airspace, to facilitating national unification; from protecting China's ever-increasing overseas interests, to counter-terrorism and disaster relief.
But for Xi, the top priority remains the same as it was eight decades ago -- putting the entire military under unified and absolute command, and ensuring that the armed forces follow the orders of the Party.
In the new Gutian conference, Xi reaffirmed the People's Liberation Army (PLA)' s fine traditions and principles of political loyalty and leadership by the Party. He also indicated some outstanding problems which had to be resolved "right away," or the PLA risked degradation and deviation.
Since the 18th CPC National Congress, more than 100 PLA officers at or above the corps-level, including two former CMC vice chairmen, have been investigated and punished. The number is even greater than that of army generals who died in the battlefield during revolutionary times.
A new disciplinary commission and a commission for political and legal affairs were set up under the CMC on the orders of Xi, and more than 40 military statutes and regulations were adopted in a bid to preserve exemplary PLA conduct, strict discipline and high morale.
Xi also ordered the military to relinquish all business activities, a move that touched upon considerable vested interests. Some had expressed reservations, but Xi went through with it.
"The army shall act like an army," he said.
All these have pressed the PLA to focus on the improvement of its combat capability which, according to Xi, should be the "only and fundamental" benchmark of the military.
Xi is well aware of the need to improve PLA combat capability. Back in 2012, he pointed out that the military was lacking in its capacity to win in modern warfare.
Lagging behind on the military front is lethal to the security of the country, Xi said. "I have read a lot on China's modern history, and it gives me great pain whenever I come across a time when we dropped back (in military building) and fell victim to invasions," he said.
Xi Jinping talks with soldiers onboard the Navy destroyer Haikou during his inspection at the Guangzhou military theater of operations of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), Dec. 8, 2012. (Xinhua/Wang Jianmin)
To make sure that painful history does not repeat itself, Xi has spearheaded national defense and military reform since 2015.
Military organizations were revamped and the joint combat command mechanism was improved. The four military headquarters -- staff, politics, logistics and armaments -- were reorganized into 15 agencies, while the seven military area commands were regrouped into five theater commands.
In the meantime, the percentage of land forces' personnel among the entire PLA was cut to less than half for the first time, and the new Rocket Force and the Strategic Support Force were established.
The number of PLA officers was also reduced by 30 percent, and hundreds of generals switched posts.
Xi's uncompromising resolve yielded solid results. The past five years were witness to the greatest strides the PLA has ever made towards modernization.
A tiered combat command system including the CMC, theater commands and the troops was set up. In addition, a management system links the CMC to services and then to the troops.
Civil-military integration is now a national strategy, and science and innovation have been given greater gravitas.
In the past five years, China's first domestically built aircraft carrier was launched; new transport aircraft and stealth jets were commissioned; and the latest missiles were unveiled. Military hardware research made various breakthroughs.
The PLA is now a much leaner force with an optimized structure and more balanced services, one that takes strength less from its size, but more from its fighting capacity and efficacy.
Military experts believe the latest round of reform launched by Xi was the biggest change ever to the PLA.
Xi's affinity to the PLA dates back to his early days. Indeed, Xi is a PLA "veteran."
In 1979, straight after graduating from Tsinghua University, Xi joined the military, serving as secretary to the minister of national defense in the General Office of the CMC.
He was still often seen wearing his faded military uniform, sometimes with a matching kit bag, three years later when he became deputy Party chief of Zhengding County in Hebei Province. As his work took him across the country in the following decades, Xi also held concurrent posts in the military. Even now, he still has a photo of himself in military uniform on his desk in the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in downtown Beijing.
"Ever since I was young, I have learned much about PLA history and have admired the charm and charisma of the army's older generation of leaders," Xi once said. "My earnest attachment to the army dates back to my boyhood."
But Xi does not just command the PLA from behind a desk.
Over the past five years, he had sat in the cockpit of the air force's latest aircraft, boarded the navy's newest submarine, and watched the training programs of ship-borne PLA aircraft.
His domestic inspection tours have taken him to islands, remote border passes, as well as the harsh Gobi Desert, and everywhere he went, he paid his respects to local troops.
Xi Jinping visits soldiers on duty at a border post in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Jan. 26, 2014. "Today, I shall keep watch together with you," Xi told the soldiers. (Xinhua/Li Gang)
He dined with young soldiers, checked the temperature of their dormitory showers, and pressed them to get on with their delayed weddings.
In early 2014, Xi visited soldiers stationed in Inner Mongolia ahead of Chinese New Year. Against chilling winds and raging snow, he climbed the steep stairs to a sentry post and signed his name on the post's registration record.
"Today, I shall keep watch together with you," Xi told the soldiers.
Xi Jinping reviews the armed forces as part of the commemorations to mark the 90th founding anniversary of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) at Zhurihe military training base in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, July 30, 2017. (Xinhua/Li Gang)
Within five years, Xi had overseen two military parades. Late this July, clad in green military fatigues, he mounted an open-top camouflage jeep and drove past ranks of soldiers standing to attention in the Zhurihe military training base, just days before the 90th anniversary of the PLA.
The PLA rarely held field parades of this kind in the past.
The other parade was in 2015 when China commemorated the 70th anniversary of victory in the Chinese People's War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War.
Under his orders, more than 50 PLA generals made a rare appearance to lead foot formations and air echelons. Nearly 1,000 foreign troops from 17 countries, including Russia, also marched in the parade.
Before the parade, Xi announced a reduction in the number of military troops by 300,000, and highlighted China's aspirations for peace.
The announcement was the crystallization of China's national defense policy, which is defensive in nature. Behind the increase of PLA strength in both combat capability and command lies China's dedication to lasting peace across the globe.
In Xi's own words: "The only one who can end war is the one capable of war. The only one who can prevent war is the one ready for war. Those who cannot fight only leave themselves vulnerable to aggression."