On June 5th 2020, it was announced that Lieutenant General Xu Qiling (徐起零), of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), will oversee the Western Theatre Command ground forces which are currently responsible for handling the Sino-India border. This new commander enters into a situation where tensions at the Sino-India border are rising over border disputes. Tensions at the border are high, with 20 Indian soldiers recently killed in hand to hand combat by Chinese soldiers.
Gen Xu’s career experience is far-reaching and has earned him the nickname of a ‘rising star’ in the PLA. Xu was part of an ace division of the People's Liberation Army which played a critical role in crushing the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.
Xu was born into a peasant family in Shandong province where at 16 he joined the air force as a trainee. By his mid-teens, he was demonstrating potential as an outstanding aviator and continued to climb the military ladder. Xu attended the National Defence University’s (NDU) elite cultivation class in the mid-1980s. He was selected after making an impression on the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, as he flew a fighter jet over Tiananmen Square during a National Day inspection of troops in 1984. Xu’s classmates, at NDU, include former air force chief General Ma Xiaotian, former deputy chief of the PLA’s General Staff Department, General Zhang Qinsheng and many other noteworthy military names. Xu’s high-flying career has been suggested to be linked to Zhang Zhen (first president of NDU) and President Xi.
At 41, Xu was promoted to major general; in 1992, he was selected as a member of the party’s Central Committee. Xu later became the Chief of Staff of former 54th Army Corps, which was an elite PLA fighting force that was involved in supressing the Tibetan uprising in 1959 and the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. In 2015, this group merged into the 83rd Army Corps during Xi’s military overhaul. During the military overhaul, Xu was one of the youngest generals promoted by Xi. Jumping forward to 2017, Xu became the top-ranked vice-chairman of China’s powerful Central Military Commission (CMC), chaired by Xi Jinping.
Today, Xu has an extensive history in the PLA with experience in four of the Chinese military’s five theatre commands. He has experience overseeing the group forces in the Eastern Theatre Command, which oversees the security of Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Fujian and Jiangxi provinces, as well as the East China Sea. In 2019 Xu was promoted to Lieutenant General.
A Hong Kong-based military commentator, Song Zhongping, reports that Xu’s new appointment as head of the Western Theatre Command is no surprise. At 57 years old, he is five years younger than his predecessor (He Weidong), which is an advantage as the high altitudes creates challenging working conditions. Additionally, the latest border tensions require someone familiar with joint operations between ground and air forces and Xu’s experience aligns with this criterion.
Handpicked by Chinese President Xi Jinping to oversee the border, this new position is suggested to be a test. It is expected that if Xu handles the China-India border disputes to President Xi’s satisfaction, he will once again be promoted; a promotion that may lead to a seat in the PLA ground force headquarters or an even more senior position in the future.
(Ashley Eadon is a New Colombo Plan Scholar which is an initiative of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs. Ashley has previously held the role of ‘Youth Advocate for the United Nations’ in Bangkok, Thailand. She is a Youth Citizen of the Year (Macedon Rangers Shire), co-founder of community education project ‘Dear CRIS’ and studies a Bachelor of Laws and Psychological Science at La Trobe University. As a youth leader, she has spoken at the United Nations Conference Centre in Thailand, Australian Parliament House and the Australian-Indian High Commission).