OPED by Lt Gen. PR Shankar (Retired)
The proclamation of the Communist Party of China from the days of Mao was that the Party must control guns. All leaders, past and present, have endeavored to keep the PLA under political check.
Xi Jinping has taken this mandate to a new level. From one perspective, it appears that Xi Jinping’s purges are tightening the control on the gun. However, when analyzed from a broader perspective, there is more than meets the eye.
Xi Jinping’s recent purge of nine PLA generals has made international headlines. Two of them oversaw satellite launches and manned space missions. One admiral was instrumental in expanding China’s footprint in the South China Sea.
A PLARF commander was also involved in scripting China’s nuclear policy. Five were past or serving top commanders of the PLARF. Two of these nine served in the Central Military Commission (CMC).
Accompanying all this is the sacking of three top executives of NORINCO (China North Industries Group Corporation) and China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. In addition a former chairman of China Ship Building Industry has been jailed.
The honors board is enormous this time. This targeted crackdown has political ramifications beyond mere corruption and bribery. There is a lot amiss in the PLA.
The whiff that all was abnormal and something unusual happened came to light in June 2023. South China Morning Post reported that the PLA issued some ‘unprecedented’ rules for top commanders’ social lives in a move not tried ‘even in Mao Zedong’s times.’
These rules were for control of the social activities of serving and retired senior PLA officers. They set out a code of conduct for dealing with Communist Party officials, government bodies and state-owned enterprises, social organizations, the media, academic and research bodies, ethnic minority and religious groups, foreign institutions, family members, and people they could meet online. These stringent rules meant that the PLA top guns could barely speak to their images!
Soon after, all hell broke loose in July 2023 as Xi carried out a set of high-profile sackings unceremoniously. Three top generals of the PLARF were dumped. Qin Gang, the foreign minister, and Li Shangfu, the defense minister, who was handpicked by Xi Jinping and inducted into the hallowed portals of the Politburo Standing Committee, have disappeared from public sight since then.
At the same time, it also surfaced that former Defense Minister Wei Fenghe’s whereabouts were also unknown. He has not been seen since then. Further, it was announced that Lt Gen Wang Shaojun died of an unknown illness after an unexplained three-month delay. He was responsible for the security of the country’s senior leaders and was with Xi Jinping during his visit to Hong Kong in 2017.
Around that time in July, Xi summoned PLA’s top military brass to Beijing and read the riot act to them. He told them, “Loyalty to the party is at the heart of armed forces’ goals.” The PLA Daily echoed his call for tight political discipline to avoid setbacks and losses.
Xi Jinping was putting the PLA on track to toeing Communist Party diktats. After all, the party must ‘command the gun.’ It was evident that Xi Jinping and China were under threat beyond the normal for him to call such a meeting and then publicize it!
In August 2023, the indication that bribery and corruption were affecting the quality of PLA equipment came into the open. General Zhang Youxia, the first vice-chair of China’s Central Military Commission, held a two-day meeting.
He called on the PLA’s military procurement and technological development system to improve the “quality of our weaponry…so we can win battles, strengthen our combat ability, and protect the lives of our soldiers”.
He also urged those in the meeting to “deepen rectification of quality controls of active supplies.” Very clearly, while the PLA procedures were being tightened up, the lack of quality and degradation of the operational readiness of its rocket force was out in the open.
The military purge must also be seen against the broader purge going on. Almost every sector in China has been under fire. Finance, state-owned enterprises, railways, energy, sports, tobacco, agriculture, healthcare, and infrastructure have all been targeted by Xi’s corruption hunters.
As per the latest reports, Xi has given his corruption busters a heads-up and free rein. He has personally instructed them to show no mercy in the “severe and complex” battle and continue with “persistent purification of the political ecosystem.”
He has also called for ‘heavier punishments’ and focusing on “high-risk” areas. Xi’s thought calls for “self-revolution.” Public confessions in the best traditions of Maoism are being put to practice.
The focus on the military bureaucracy, at least apparently, is on bribery relating to selling positions and embezzlement in logistics departments and contracts. All these undermine military readiness.
What is different between the earlier and current purges? The earlier purges were to get the Party back into the saddle to ‘control the Gun.’ These purges are different. For one, the frequency, intensity, and level have increased enormously.
They are happening when nothing seems to be going China’s way. Its economy is struggling. Political discontent is clearly in the air. In the past year and a half, there have been rumors of coup/assassination attempts.
Xi Jinping has spoken of color revolutions and outside interference. He has barely traveled outside China. When he has done so, his movements have been shrouded in secrecy lest he meets the fate of Prighozin or Lin Biao. Is Xi Jinping feeling threatened personally? Well, he should be for all the purges he has carried out.
Look at it anyway. These wholesale purges could be to root out corruption, professional incompetence, or political disloyalty. All these indicate that there is something amiss in the PLA.
It could be a lack of mutual trust and confidence between Xi and his military. It could be sub-standard equipment or morale due to widespread corruption. It could be a case of poor leadership and lack of command-level cohesion.
Outside forces could have infiltrated the PLA leadership. It could be a case of power plays and political wrangling. It could be a case of Xi eliminating any whiff of competition. It could be all of the above in bits and pieces. In all cases, these purges undermine the operational effectiveness of the PLA.
What will the result be? Xi will have to constantly look over his shoulder and worry if the PLA can deliver when the time comes. Hence, his global ambitions need tempering, especially since his cutting-edge tools of international power projection – the PLARF and PLASSF are under intense scrutiny.
This is compounded by the fact that the top-level leadership of the PLA and leaders of most sectors of the economy have been axed in recent times. The debilitating effect on the more significant tools of hard power – economy, diplomacy, and military is telling.
One can’t keep axing leadership across the board and still expect the system to fire on all cylinders. The opposite is true. All cylinders of the Chinese system are misfiring! It is a matter of viewpoint if the party is controlling the Gun or if Russian roulette with Chinese characteristics is being played out.
All this should logically put China’s global ambitions on ice. However, Xi Jinping is made of hardy stuff. Being the ideological man that he is, he will not let go. He will continue with his dream of rejuvenating the Chinese nation and establishing a Sino-centric world, whatever happens. All indications point in that direction.
Accordingly, India must be consigned to China, which is unstable internally and externally aggressive with massive mercantilist behavior. The danger will be when Xi wants to divert from his internal dissensions and externalize militarily with his wobbly gun. India needs to look out for that!