In a new embarrassment for China, the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, has purged his military’s upper ranks of many generals in response to apparent corruption. Ian Williams explains in The Spectator, writing:
The Chinese Communist Party will no doubt throw a militarized tantrum should Saturday’s election in Taiwan be won by Lai Ching-te, the more independence-minded of the candidates. Yet behind these histrionics lies an army in turmoil, with a purge of top generals raising serious doubts as to whether it is up to the task of fighting a war.
The CCP has spent billions of dollars expanding and modernizing its armed forces at a pace rarely seen in peacetime, with the aim of creating a cutting edge force. But the money thrown at the generals and their hunger to acquire shiny new kit has fueled increasingly deep-seated corruption in its rapacious ranks. According to US intelligence assessments, Xi observed that some of the People Liberation Army Rocket Force’s missiles were filled with water instead of fuel and silos in western China had lids that could not properly open. The Rocket Force oversees China’s land-based missiles, including nuclear weapons, and would play a key role in any battle for Taiwan. The US assessments, reported by Bloomberg, suggest that military corruption is so extensive that President Xi Jinping is less likely to contemplate major military action over the coming years than had been assumed.
Shortly before new year, nine senior officers were ousted from the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislative body, a move that typically precedes more serious action. Three were former commanders or vice commanders of the Rocket Force, one a former Air Force chief and another a Navy commander responsible for the South China Sea, where the CCP is aggressively asserting extensive territorial claims. Four were in charge of procuring equipment. Three of those purged were members of the Central Military Commission, the country’s top military decision-making body, which is chaired by Xi.
Their removal follows the disappearance early last summer of Li Yuchao, the last Rocket Force commander and his deputy. Defense minister Li Shangfu also vanished without explanation last August after just six months in the job. During his last public appearance, at a security forum in Beijing, Li said the world was entering a period of “instability” — though that would seem to apply more aptly to the top echelons of the PLA. These are likely to be just the more visible tip of a purge that goes far deeper and broader.
Inevitably most attention has been on the Rocket Force, the most secretive and sensitive branch of China’s military. “The strategic nuclear force is what China relies on as the bottom line of its national security, and the last resort on Taiwan,” according to Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, a Washington DC-based think tank. “It will take some time for China to clean up the mess and restore confidence in the Rocket Force’s competence and trustworthiness.”
When Xi came to power in 2012, he pledged to clean up the PLA, which ran a business empire so big that preparing for war appeared to play second fiddle to money-making. The PLA is also a party organization, which means its loyalty is supposed to be first and foremost to the CCP, enforced through a system of political commissars, which Xi sought to bolster. It is a system that has been criticized for undermining military professionalism, and in spite (or possibly because of) Xi’s efforts, the graft only seems to have got worse. Many among those now being purged are his own hand-picked officials, including defense minister Li, which will inevitably be seen as an indictment of Xi’s abilities and judgment. That said, suggestions that it is all down to graft should be treated with caution. “Corruption” is a catch-all used by the party as a cloak for all manner of misdemeanors, real or imagined, and is frequently a veil for the purge of political opponents.
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