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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Abrupt dismissals point to Xi’s quiet shake-up of the military

President Xi Jinping of China with his staff during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco, Nov. 17, 2023. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

By Chris Buckley

The expelled officials included some of the brightest rising stars in President Xi Jinping’s military: two generals who oversaw satellite launches and manned space missions, an admiral who helped entrench Beijing’s presence in the disputed South China Sea, and a missile commander who had honed China’s ability to respond to a possible nuclear war.

They were among nine high-ranking Chinese military figures who were recently removed as delegates to the country’s Communist Party-run legislature, abruptly and without official explanation.

Experts say the move indicates that Xi’s latest offensive to root out alleged corruption and other misconduct in the People’s Liberation Army has been gaining momentum and is focused on the politically sensitive agencies responsible for developing weapons and military installations. In October, China suddenly dismissed the defense minister, who had worked for years in the military’s arms acquisition system. Months earlier, two commanders of the Rocket Force, which controls China’s nuclear missiles, were replaced.

Since coming to power in 2012, Xi has launched scorching, high-decibel crackdowns on Communist Party officials and generals. This latest campaign in the military, however, has been conducted mostly in the quiet, with no official acknowledgment that it is even underway.

Experts who track China’s military said Xi’s strategy appeared to be a surgical attack designed to assert his control over the arms sector. They noted that dismissals apparently excluded long-standing allies of Xi, at least for now.

The pattern suggested a “targeted crackdown” that “serves notice that even in the most critical technological sectors, the party is willing to crack down to ensure the long-term healthy development of these sectors,” said Tai Ming Cheung, a professor at the University of California, San Diego who has long studied China’s weapons development programs.

Cheung noted that China’s arms development programs are some of the “most secretive” aspects of its military, into which vast funds have been poured over the past several decades. “It is ripe for corruption on a grand scale,” he wrote in an email.

China announced the dismissals from the legislature, called the National People’s Congress, in a terse statement late Friday. Two days earlier, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference — a top political advisory body — said it had expelled three executives from military-related state-owned companies: one from the China North Industries Group Corp, or Norinco, a weapons conglomerate; and the others from the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.

The anti-corruption drive may tarnish Xi’s image of political invulnerability, because the officers who have been removed all owed their advancement to him.

On the other hand, Xi’s bold moves against serving military officers are a sign that he retains unrivaled control despite China’s economic woes, said Christopher K. Johnson, a former CIA analyst of Chinese politics.

“Xi’s willingness to take on the embarrassment of such a massive purge shows how determined he is to ensure that his military can carry out his mandate to ‘fight and win wars,’” Johnson said.

Not long after Xi came to power, he launched a crackdown on graft in the military, warning that such abuses would endanger China’s security as the country’s rivalry with the West intensified. Dozens of commanders and generals were convicted of corruption in the form of selling military assets, contracts or promotions.

But at the time, he was still consolidating his power as China’s leader, and that crackdown focused mostly on retired officials. “Now, his power is sufficiently incontestable that he can go at the roots of the problem with relative abandon,” Johnson said.

Military investigators “have long identified armament procurement as one of the top areas for corruption in the PLA,” according to Cheung. But in earlier anti-corruption campaigns, few of the officials known to have been arrested had worked in this sector. “This time around, the weapons acquisition and defense industries appear to be among the prime areas to be targeted,” he said.

Why Xi chose to act now is less clear. The first visible signs of the crackdown were the removal last year of the two rocket force commanders, followed by Gen. Li Shangfu, the defense minister. It’s possible that problems found in the rocket force have snowballed into a broader investigation, experts say.

Some of the officers ousted in recent days had crossed paths with Li when he was in the General Armaments Department, which oversaw procurement, or the agency that succeeded it after Xi moved to reorganize the military in 2015. But others did not, suggesting that the investigations extend beyond Li’s circle, said Yao Cheng, a former Chinese naval officer now living in the United States.

The dismissed officers included Dai Laihang, a retired air force commander who has pushed for pilots to get more realistic training. Another was Jin Xinchun, a naval commander who was formerly deputy chief of the South Sea fleet, which encompasses the South China Sea. He earlier served as the head of the fleet’s equipment department. Another was Li Yuchao, a general in China’s missile force who had earlier overseen exercises for launching a nuclear counter-strike after coming under nuclear attack. He was removed from his post in 2023.

In the short term, the high-level shake-up could slow the rollout of some weapons or facilities, as they are more closely studied for potential defects and contracts are pored over for problems, said Ou Si-fu, an expert on the Chinese military at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taiwan. But such potential delays were likely to be limited, he said.

It also remains uncertain if the scrutiny has extended to officials and commanders whom Xi appointed to the top leadership team for his third term as Communist Party leader in 2022.

They include Gen. Zhang Youxia, who is second only to Xi in the military hierarchy and has long-standing personal ties to him. Zhang was earlier a director of the PLA General Equipment Department and its revamped successor. At least three Communist Party officials in the Politburo — the party’s council of 24 top cadres — rose through the ranks in the armaments or aerospace sector.

“Xi Jinping already basically has in hand all the detrimental material that could be used against all military officers and party-government officials, so he could find a reason to move against anyone at anytime,” Ou said. As for the fate of Zhang and the other top Politburo officials, Ou said, “To date, the signs are that they can survive.”

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