A purge, for the worse

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Venus Upadhayaya (The Epoch Times)

THE recent removal of the top two commanders overseeing China’s nuclear arsenal, reveals serious fractures in Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s regime and will harm its military modernisation, according to analysts.

Link to the original story on Epoch Times

Last week, Gen, Li Yuchao, commander of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force, and Xu Zhongbo, political commissar, the branch’s second in command were purged from their posts after having disappeared from public view for months. The reason for their dismissal and their current whereabouts are unknown.

Mr. Xi installed former deputy navy chief Wang Houbin as the new commander on July 31, while Xu Xisheng, an air force officer and member of the Chinese Communist Party’s elite Central Committee, was promoted to political commissar.

Notably, both men come from outside the branch and have no experience in the Rocket Force, the arm of the PLA responsible for the country’s nuclear arsenal and ballistic missiles. Analysts say their installation will likely jeopardise the regime’s war-fighting ability, as it increasingly seeks to challenge the US and Russia’s nuclear forces.

General Li and Xu Zhongbo’s disappearance was among several leaders in the Rocket Force to have gone missing in recent months, presumed to be under investigation, signalling a wholesale purge of the branch’s top brass. These include Lt. Gen. Liu Guangbin, deputy commander of the Rocket Force, and Lt. Gen. Zhang Zhenzhong, former deputy commander of the Rocket Force, according to Germany-based sinologist Frank Lehberger.

Besides the disappearances, the death of Gen. Wu Guohua, 66, former deputy commander of the force, on July 4, which was only confirmed by the Chinese state media in late July, has led many to speculate that the purges were due to corruption or the leaking of military secrets.

Three weeks after his death, Chinese state media reported that General Wu had died of an unspecified illness. His death was earlier reported by overseas Chinese-language media, fuelling speculation that the general had killed himself.

  • Disappearances and deaths

The purges came at a time of much upheaval within the opaque Chinese Communist Party (CCP). “There is more than meets the eye in the recent changes in the PLA Rocket Force, especially at a time when the Chinese Foreign Minister has disappeared,” Claude Arpi, a French historian and expert on Tibet based in India, told The Epoch Times. The previous Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang disappeared for a month before being officially removed from his post, without explanation.

Lehberger, the sinologist, also noted the suspicious circumstances surrounding Gen. Wu’s death. “No reason was given why his death was kept a secret for three weeks. In late July, he was given an uncharacteristically low-key funeral, his obituary omitting his status as a high level member of the CCP. A humiliation basically. No reason was provided for this

Either,” Lehberger said.

And Gen. Wu was not the only high-ranking military official to have died earlier this year, only to be belatedly confirmed by the Chinese regime. Gen. Wang Shaojun, 67, former head of the Central Guard Bureau died from an undisclosed illness in Beijing on April 26, Chinese news agency Xinhua reported on July 27. Gen. Wang had previously served as the chief bodyguard to Chinese leader Xi and other high ranking members of the CCP. “No reason was given why his death was kept a secret for three months,” said Lehberger, adding that the case of the two generals was “something unprecedented” in the history of the communist regime.

  • Corruption

Nishakant Ojha, an India-based geopolitical analyst, believes the purge of the Rocket Force’s entire command is linked to a crackdown on corruption. “The Rocket Force may have failed to meet certain high-level goals,” Ojha told The Epoch Times, adding that this may have prompted an investigation into where the money went. A July 28 report by South China Morning Post, citing unnamed sources, said several top PLA Rocket Force generals had been investigated for corruption by the military watchdog for months, including the force’s current commander, Li Yuchao, and deputies Zhang Zhenzhong and Liu Guangbin. Ojha likened the situation to the corruption probe of China’s state-backed semiconductor investment fund, known as “Big Fund,” this past year that led to multiple top executives, including the fund’s former president detained on graft charges.

 

  • Intelligence leak

For He Qinglian, a prominent US-based Chinese economist and commentator, the shake-up was the result of a leaking of military secrets that came to light when the US Air Force think tank published a report on the PLA Rocket Force.

The report described the organisational structure of the Rocket Force, a branch known for its secretary, with a remarkable level of detail, prompting analysts including He Qinglian to conclude it was leaked by senior officials of the force.

“It is not too difficult to grasp this kind of information,” she said, noting that the US intelligence services routinely recruited Chinese informants.

“What’s more, the CCP has always strictly dealt with this kind of espionage that undermines national security – in line with the principle of ‘killing a thousand rather than letting one go,” she said, referring to a quote by former Chinese leader Mao Zedong. He Qinglian said she’s reminded of previous similar incidents like the 2010 purge during which the CCP dismantled a CIA espionage operation inside China by executing or imprisoning dozens of informants over a period of two years.

  • Multiple factors

Some analysts have noted that Xi’s replacement of the Rocket Force command occurred not long after the Russian Wagner mutiny of late June, directed against President Vladimir Putin. Lehberger called Putin a close personal friend of Xi Jinping and said that the Russian mutiny was believed to have shaken the Chinese leader to the core. While this is unconfirmed, Lehberger noted that “the peculiar timing and the haste with which the replacement inside the PLA has taken place” lends some credence to the speculation, especially taking into account that Xi has likely faced coup threats during his tenure. “Hence some commentators dub the whole affair as ‘China’s Wagner moment,” he said.

The Rocket Force, the PLA’s newest branch created by Xi during his sweeping military reforms in 2015, oversees precision missiles that are aimed at both stationary and moving targets anywhere in Taiwan, Japan, India and the US territories in the Pacific like Guam, Wake Island, Hawaii, as well as in continental America, said Lehberger. “Most (non-nuclear) precision missiles, controlled by the [Rocket Forces] could hypothetically also be targeted by hypothetical future Chinese coup plotters at Xi Jinping himself. Thus becoming hypothetically a sure and error-proof way [of] eliminating Xi as China’s leader … very much unlike the botched coup by Wagner mercenaries, only armed with regular firearms, who were targeting Vladimir Putin in Moscow,” he said.

Lehberger also said that the CCP’s recent messaging, targeting the PLA, revealed the causes behind the purge. According to him, Xi’s speeches since July 24 and the various editorials published in CCP’s state media, highlight four main problems in the military. “Lack of ethics among the PLA, lack of supervision of the PLA, formation of factions inside the PLA and active divulging of military top-secrets by the PLA,” he said.

The first two factors can be linked to corruption and various forms of ethical misconduct, the latter two are serious and political and treasonous offenses that are directly threatening the survival of the CCP regime and Xi personally, according to the sinologist. “These four points corroborate my assessment that this whole affair is not only due to corruption or behaviour or ethical misconduct, but that Xi’s status as autocratic leader of China is also threatened,” said Lehberger.

 

  • Impact on PLA’s war-fighting ability

The appointment of two outsiders to lead the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF), with the commander from the Navy and his deputy from the Air Force, has raised the eyebrows of analysts. “All this shows that Xi Jinping has not only a huge problem of discipline within the PLA, but also has serious problems finding officers that he can trust,” said Arpi, the India-based historian.

Lehberger said that Gen. Wang’s appointment was not only peculiar, but also detrimental to the Rocket Force’s war fighting capability. He cites Gen. Wang’s official biography, which states he started his career as a low-level officer in the PLA Navy’s Air Force Detachment. Wang was more like a bureaucrat who never flew airplanes at the time, thus gaining no flying experience. Later he became an officer at the staff headquarters of the PLA Navy. As such, he was also never involved in a command of a warship, therefore lacking practical experience. “Wang was only commended for being a loyal, docile and

hardworking officer in the staff headquarters. Paradoxically it were those qualities, coupled with his total lack of technical or professional know-how, which did play a crucial role for Xi picking Admiral Wang Houbin as new PLARF commander, “ said Lehberger.

The general’s lack of relevant experience will be especially damaging to the Rocket Force because, according to Lehberger, the force is much larger than other branches and it’s essential that it be led by a commanding officer with specialised knowledge of ballistic missiles. “Moreover the main adversary of the PLARF is the formidable US Strategic Nuclear Force, which forces the PLARF not to commit any kind of amateurish mistake with possibly catastrophic repercussions for the CCP,” the expert said.

“A novice and outsider like Gen. Wang Houbin as head of the PLARF will therefore only elicit angry contempt and insubordination from the officer corps and the rank and file, in turn increasing the suspicions and paranoia of Xi,” he added, describing this as a “vicious cycle”.

The massive shake-up of the forces that Xi personally created indicates that the Chinese leader’s reforms of the military, which commenced in 2015, is facing serious and unprecedented trouble, according to Lehberger. “This is corroborated by the fact that apart from a handful of high PLA officers who he knows personally for decades, Xi never trusts anyone else inside the PLA officer corps; he is visibly uncomfortable when meeting with PLA officers or with ordinary rank and file,” he said.

Xi created both the Rocket Forces and the PLA Strategic Support Force, responsible for psychological, cyber, and information warfare, in December 2015. “Xi staffed them with handpicked officers, carefully vetted for their loyalty to him personally,” he said.

 

(This write-up by Venus Upadhayaya, was originally published in The Epoch Times.)

 

 

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