China’s military has undergone its biggest leadership shake-up in a decade after two top generals overseeing the country’s nuclear arsenal vanished from public view and, with little explanation, were removed from their posts.
Cercius, a Canada-based consultancy that monitors elite Chinese politics, reported last month that the status of around 10 current and retired officials from the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) — including its former commander Li Yuchao and his deputy Liu Guangbin — remained unclear.
The Hong-Kong based English-language South China Morning Post reported that Li and his current and former deputies were being investigated by the the anti-corruption unit of the Central Military Commission (CMC). China’s top defense body is chaired by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
In late July, ahead of the August 1 anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Xi spoke at different high-level military meetings, stressing “strict discipline” and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) “absolute leadership” over the military, according to the Communist Party’s English-language newspaper, China Daily .
What does it mean for Xi’s power?
The CMC has issued guidelines, urging the army to “deter, eliminate, and prevent corruption” for greater combat readiness.
This move, along with the uncommon leadership overhaul, has sparked widespread speculation over the implications, and the prospects of China’s military.
According to China’s official Xinhua news agency, Wang Houbin, the navy’s former deputy commander, will become the PLARF’s new head , while Xu Xisheng from the Southern Theater Command will become its new political commissar.
Lyle Morris, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis, told DW that it was “pretty rare” for Beijing to replace both top positions at once and appoint officials who “have very little experience in the rocket force itself.”
“It’s more of a political move than an operational move, a stopgap measure to fill the ranks with people that Xi trusts,” he added.
The removal of PLARF’s top leaders shares similarities with that of former Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who abruptly disappeared from public sight for almost a month before being replaced by his predecessor, Wang Yi.
Taylor Fravel, an expert on the PLA at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told DW that both incidents highlight the fact that “leadership positions in the party remain precarious, even after more than 10 years of Xi’s rule and consolidation of power.”
“It suggests that events such as these are a feature of Xi’s rule and not a bug,” he added.
Has China’s military strategy on Taiwan changed?
The Rocket Force, responsible for China’s fast-growing land-based nuclear deterrence and missile systems, has played a key role in live-fire drills that China has carried out around Taiwan.
The selection of a new commander with strategic planning experience from his previous role as deputy chief of staff in China’s navy is regarded by some military experts as evidence of Xi’s heightened readiness for an invasion of Taiwan.
But Lin Ying-Yu, an assistant professor researching the PLA’s development at Tamkang University in Taipei, told DW that “China’s policy towards Taiwan is unlikely to have a significant change.”
While Xi appears to “prioritize loyalty over expertise”, the force’s capabilities are unlikely to diminish solely due to leadership changes, Lin added, as the plans for the force development were mostly pre-established 5 to 15 years in advance and are likely to continue.
Instead, Lin believes, what deserves more attention is whether Beijing has been dealing with significant corruption in equipment procurement — a situation that affected the Russian army’s advances.
Speculation surges over the reshuffle
Last month, the CMC issued opinions on establishing an “early warning mechanism for integrity risks in the military” to investigate cases of corruption linked to equipment procurement dating back nearly six years.
However, as the Chinese government did not officially clarify the causes of PLARF’s leadership reshuffle, further speculation pointed to the divulgement of military secrets.
In October, a comprehensive report on the organization of PLARF was released by the US Air Force’s research institute, raising suspicions of a potential leak within China’s rocket forces.
But critics argue that Xi could use any reason to remove political dissidents and consolidate power.
Gao Yu, a senior Chinese journalist and dissident, told DW that the upheaval in PLARF “can include issues of power struggles.” She mentioned the death of Wu Guohua, a retired deputy commander of PLARF, is considered to be related to the latest purge.
In early July, Chinese media belatedly reported Wu’s passing as a result of “medical issues” while his former boss Zhang Xiaoyang revealed that Wu had committed suicide at home, as Gau posted on Twitter.
Additionally, a user claiming to be Wu’s daughter posted on Weibo, China’s equivalent of the social media platform X (formerly Twitter), to defend her father’s reputation by praising Wu for “punishing the traitors” during his tenure.
Much like Wu’s case, the secretive nature of personnel changes within China’s rocket forces raises questions. “The standing among the services in the PLA might take a reputational hit,” Lyle said.
Edited by: Keith Walker