China Watch: Interpreting Xi’s Military Purges

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SUMMARY: Signals in official PRC media suggest that the recent removal and disappearance of senior People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers were driven by PRC leader Xi Jinping’s perception of political disloyalty.  The PLA personnel moves occurred at the same time as the disappearance and subsequent dismissal of former Foreign Minister Qin Gang, although it is unclear if the events are related.  The high-level shakeups demonstrate Xi’s focus on security and loyalty, which may contradict Beijing’s stated desire for more economic openness and foreign cooperation. 

Xi Jinping is carrying out a highly unusual senior leadership shakeup in multiple PLA branches.  On 31 July, Xi replaced the commander and political commissar of the PLA Rocket Force (RF), who are reportedly under investigation along with other current and former RF leaders.  The commander of the PLA Strategic Support Force (SSF) may also be under investigation.  The RF oversees China’s conventional and nuclear missiles, and the SSF is responsible for cyber, electronic warfare, technical intelligence, and space operations. 

  • It is highly unusual to simultaneously remove both RF Commander Li Yuchao and Political Commissar Xu Zhongbo because the political commissar is tasked with monitoring the commander to ensure political fealty and professional integrity.  Xu’s dismissal suggests that the internal supervisory mechanisms had failed.  In a departure from past practice, Xi replaced Li with a career Navy officer with no prior experience in the RF, suggesting that Xi has lost confidence in the senior RF leadership.[1]
  • In addition to Li and Xu, RF Deputy Commander Liu Guangbin and a former RF deputy commander have also been placed under investigation, according to Hong Kong media reports. 
  • Ju Qiansheng, commander of the SSF, was put under investigation in July, according to separate Hong Kong press reports.  He did not attend a 31 July military event that he was expected to attend.  PRC authorities have not announced the status of the dismissed or missing officers, but official announcements that they are under investigation are likely forthcoming.   
  • Furthermore, there may be turmoil in the Central Guards Bureau (CGB), which is responsible for the security of senior Party leaders and their families.  Wang Shaojun, former director of the CGB, passed away on 26 April, but official PRC media did not publish the news until 24 July.  Deaths of officials are usually announced promptly, unless the circumstances around the death were suspicious or if the deceased had been under investigation.

Commentary in authoritative PRC media suggests that Xi removed the senior PLA officers because of suspected political disloyalty, although the precise nature of their transgressions is unknown.  On at least four occasions between April and July 2023,[2] the PLA Daily and the People’s Daily cautioned military and civilian officials against forming “little fiefdoms, small circles, and small groups.”[3]  This is the same phrase that authoritative PRC media used to describe the “crimes” of former PLA senior leaders Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong, who were detained in 2014 and 2015, respectively, for corruption, but the more serious offense was their perceived disloyalty toward Xi, as they were allied with Xi’s rivals, according to Chinese- and English-language press reports.  Guo was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2016, and Xu died of cancer in 2015. 

  • Official media used the phrase again to refer to the 2020-2021 corruption investigation into former Vice Minister of Public Security Sun Lijun, who was affiliated with a group of officials close to former President Jiang Zemin.  Sun headed the critical national security bureau in the Public Security Ministry, and Xi saw Sun as an obstacle to his complete control over the security services.  Sun was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve in September 2022.
  • The phrase is not used often and historically has been associated with political disloyalty, not just corruption or malfeasance.  Its appearance amid the recent wave of military purges and Qin Gang’s dismissal suggests that Xi perceives a similar level of threat
  • Unlike earlier purges against Xu, Guo, and Sun, Xi is dismissing officials he had chosen.  He had promoted the former leaders of the RF and the SSF, as well as Qin Gang.

The reshuffles may reflect Xi’s insecurity about his hold on power, and it is unclear whether the threats are real or imagined.  According to uncorroborated media reports, Xi has faced multiple assassination attempts in the past, which could explain his obsession with security and loyalty.  Regardless of the reasons, Xi’s emphasis on security could have negative ramifications for economic policy and foreign businesses. 

  • On 1 August, Minister of State Security Chen Yixin called on the public to participate in counter-espionage efforts by creating channels for the public to report suspicious activities.   A spokesperson for the US State Department subsequently expressed concern over Chen’s statements.  Foreign businesses are also concerned that they could become targets.    
  • While economic officials have been unaffected by the latest round of personnel shakeups, Xi’s willingness to purge his allies is likely to create an atmosphere of uncertainty and inertia among all officials.  Economic officials—even those close to Xi—may be reluctant to lean forward to support private and foreign businesses unless they receive clear instructions from Xi.

[1] Both Li Yuchao and Xu Zhongbo are full members of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee (CCPCC), meaning that they are also senior Party leaders.  The current CCPCC has 205 full members.

[2] PLA Daily: 6 April and 8 July; People’s Daily: 14 and 17 July.

[3] In Chinese: 小山头,小圈子,小团伙