THERE has been apparent disarray in the upper echelons of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) since the middle of last year. The unexplained long absences of the senior Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), Gen Zhang Youxia — who surfaced on January 29 at the New Year’s performance organised by the CMC — and the sudden removal of Defence Minister Gen Li Shangfu, both with close family ties to Chinese President Xi Jinping, have added to the uncertainty. Many senior officers have been removed in recent months on the charges of corruption or violation of political discipline. A Canadian think tank claims that it has identified at least 70 PLA officers who have been placed under investigation for alleged corruption. In addition, a report claimed that PLA officers have conveyed to Xi that the PLA is not ready for an invasion of Taiwan. It is almost certain that the PLA will be subjected to a thorough ‘cleansing’ or rectification with the focus on eradicating corruption and ensuring political discipline and reliability.
Ever since Gen Li Shangfu suddenly disappeared from public view in September last year, there has been persistent speculation about why it happened and who would replace him. Speculation was heightened by the equally sudden and as yet unexplained disappearance in July of Foreign Minister Qin Gang — another protégé of Xi. There have subsequently been indications that they were probably guilty of corruption and violation of party discipline. Interestingly, both have retained their position as members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee.
Gen Li Shangfu was formally divested of the post of Defence Minister in October 2023, but it took another three months before former PLA Navy Commander Gen Dong Jun was appointed as his successor. The appointment, for the first time, of a former PLA Navy Commander as Defence Minister has raised fresh questions about the PLA Ground Force and PLA Rocket Force (PLARF). At the same time, because of the long absence of General Zhang from April to September and again intermittently for long stretches, there is speculation that his relations with Xi have come under strain. Coverage of the study session on promoting high-quality financial development at the Central Party School in Beijing on January 16 by the state-owned CCTV also showed General Zhang sitting in the third and last row behind Gen He Weidong — quite unusual for the hierarchy-conscious PLA.
Corruption is known to have been rampant in the PLA for decades. Immediately after taking over as Chairman of the CMC in November 2012, Xi brought the PLA within the purview of the CCP’s anti-corruption watchdog body, the Central Discipline Inspection Commission. He also subjected it to successive year-long ideological and anti-corruption campaigns. The new, major emphasis on modernisation and all-round technological upgrade of the PLA meant that huge sums of money would have been made available to it. The PLARF particularly has been the recipient of large sums because of the effort to increase its inventory of missiles, induct new types of missiles and build numerous underground silos. The removal of officers in defence scientific establishments associated with the PLA Equipment Development Department confirms that they, too, have been involved in corruption.
Xi would have been angered that corruption on such a large scale persists in the PLA despite his unprecedented anti-corruption campaign, which by 2017 had resulted in the dismissal of over 40 per cent of its officer corps on the charges of corruption. It implies that the reporting and supervision mechanism put in place has not functioned and the PLA has resisted the party’s efforts to supervise it. Pertinently, the PLA daily editorial of January 1, 2024, gave priority to fighting corruption and mentioned ‘corruption’ three times! Since then, there have been nearly half a dozen articles stressing the need to stamp out corruption in the PLA.
Meanwhile, the Commander and Political Commissar of the secretive PLARF, Gen Li Yuchao and Gen Xu Zhongbo, respectively, were removed from their posts and placed under investigation for alleged corruption. Reliable reports said the amount involved was an estimated $2 billion. On December 29, China’s version of a parliament, the National People’s Congress, removed nine senior PLA officers from their posts. In June 2023, Gen Li Yuchao, who had earlier overseen exercises for launching a nuclear counter-strike, General Xu and his deputies Liu Guangbin and Zhang Zhenzhong were all removed from their positions. Interesting was the dismissal of PLA Equipment Development Department officials Zhang Yulin and Rao Wenmin. By early last month, nearly 15 senior PLARF officers had been removed and placed under investigation. Five of them were past or current commanders of the PLARF.
Despite persistent efforts since 2013, Xi has been unable to eliminate corruption from the PLA and the supervision system put in place does not seem to have worked. More troubling for Xi would be that all senior officers were promoted by him and even persons close to him, like Gen Li Shangfu, are among the officers removed from their positions. It is imminent that a rigorous campaign will be conducted to reinforce the PLA’s political reliability and ideological commitment.
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