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China's military shake-up: Power play or strategy shift?

Yuchen Li in Taipei
August 9, 2023

Speculation is rising about why Beijing has replaced Rocket Force leaders with officials lacking relevant expertise and whether it really is attempting to fight military corruption.

China Rocket Force Parade
The Rocket Force oversees China's strategic missile arsenal, conventional and nuclear, and can both deter and strike, according to Beijing Image: Wu Xiaoling/Photoshot/IMAGO

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 .

Military vehicles carrying nuclear-capable DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles march during a 2019 military parade at Tiananmen Square
A US intelligence report says the Rocket Force's conventional missile capabilities 'probably' pose a serious threat to US forces in East AsiaImage: Tang Yanjun/China News Service/picture alliance

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.

Removal of Qin Gang from his post 'an extraordinary move'

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 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, explaining that plans for developing the military were mostly pre-established five to 15 years in advance and would likely continue.

What deserved more attention, Lin said, was whether Beijing had made real attempts to tackle the corruption in equipment procurement.

Chinese President Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping has made tackling corruption a centerpiece of his decade-long ruleImage: Li Gang/Xinhua/AP/picture alliance

Speculation surges over the reshuffle 

Last month, the CMC called for the establishment of an "early warning mechanism for integrity risks in the military" to investigate cases of corruption dating back nearly six years.

Since the Chinese government has not officially clarified the reasons for the leadership reshuffle, some have speculated that military secrets might have been divulged.

In October, a comprehensive report on the organization of PLARF was released by the China Aerospace Studies Institute, a US Air Force think tank, that raised suspicions of a potential leak in the Chinese military.

But observers have argued that Xi can 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 added that the death of Wu Guohua, a retired PLARF deputy commander, was probably linked to the Communist Party's latest attempt to remove critics. 

In early July, Wu's death was reported in the Chinese media as being the result of "medical issues." However, Gao posted on Twitter, that Wu's former boss Zhang Xiaoyang had revealed that he had committed suicide at home.

A user claiming to be Wu's daughter posted a message on the Chinese social media platform Weibo and attempted to defend her father's reputation by praising him for "punishing the traitors" during his tenure.

With the leadership shrouded in mystery, once again, "the standing among the services in the PLA might take a reputational hit," predicted Morris.

Edited by: Keith Walker