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Xi’s campaign for greater loyalty within China’s military

Chinese President Xi Jinping pinpointed “deep-seated problems” in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), whose root causes “lie in the lack of ideals and beliefs.”…reports Asian Lite News

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), paradoxically named since it is beholden to the party rather than the people, is still not politically pure, according to its head, Chairman Xi Jinping. Despite an anti-corruption campaign lasting more than a decade, Xi continues to call for greater loyalty within China’s military.

During a Central Military Commission (CMC) Political Work Conference from June 17-19, Xi pinpointed “deep-seated problems” in the PLA, whose root causes “lie in the lack of ideals and beliefs.”. The correct response, according to China’s leader, is for personnel at all levels, especially senior cadres, to “introspect, engage in soul-searching reflections and make earnest rectifications”.

As quoted by state broadcaster CCTV, Xi asserted, “The gun barrels should always be in the hands of those who are loyal and reliable to the party, and there must be no place for corrupt elements to hide in the military.”

Xi convened this meeting in Yan’an, an old revolutionary PLA base in the northwest province of Shaanxi. Recalling past glories, Xi took CMC members and department heads to visit revolutionary relics at Wangjiaping, where the CMC’s headquarters was stationed from August 1937 till March 1947.

According to PLA reports, “Xi emphasised the need to uphold the party’s absolute leadership over the military and to build a high-quality cadre team that is loyal, clean, responsible, and capable of fulfilling the mission of strengthening the military.”

Significantly, this was the first such conference since Xi held one in Gutian, Fujian Province, a decade ago. In his landmark 2014 speech on that occasion, Xi accused PLA officers of laxity and being too focused on personal aggrandisement over professional responsibilities to “fight and win wars.”.

Subsequently, Xi granted more authority to discipline inspectors and financial auditors, though he allowed the PLA to continue self-policing.

This occurred because, at the time, Xi needed the PLA’s support to consolidate his power and push through his massive military reorganisation of 2013. As an example of his light-handed approach, Wang Qishan, who oversaw zealous anticorruption measures within the party hierarchy, had no mandate to do so in the PLA.

Nonetheless, from 2013-16, Xi’s anti-graft pogrom netted at least 45 high-ranking PLA officials, as well as retired figureheads like CMC vice chairs Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong. After that, investigations have been lower profile. Relatively loose oversight, as well as generous defenxe budget increases, have kept the PLA satiated.

Indeed, some 40 percent of funds have been dedicated to procuring shiny new toys such as aircraft carriers, fifth-generation fighters, and missiles.

The PLA has no congressional oversight, no independent judiciary, and is not investigated by a free press. Indeed, at its heart, China’s military is a self-governing institution that enjoyed its highest autonomy in the 1980s. As much as Xi tries to root out corruption, bad practices have been part of the PLA’s DNA since its foundation.

While individual bad apples may be removed, it is impossible to expunge a culture that operates with few checks and balances or the rule of law.

By allowing the roguish PLA a certain degree of autonomy, Xi may even have been genuinely taken by surprise by the 2017 Doklam incident on India’s border, and by last year’s embarrassing spy balloon saga.

Xi is heavily involved in military appointments and promotions, supposedly of candidates who are reliable, competent, and loyal. Yet with so much cash being splashed around in ever-increasing defence budgets, some high-up officers in the PLA have seized the opportunity to profit personally.

This unsatisfactory state of affairs, as the PLA shows its true colours, catalysed Xi’s second, ongoing major round of detentions. That purges are continuing, twelve years after Xi came to power, shows the hopelessness of the task of entirely rooting out corruption.

In July 2023, the CMC announced a corruption probe into the PLA’s Equipment Development Department (EDD) dating all the way back to 2017. This entity had been led by disgraced defence minister Li Shangfu for five years. Formerly known as the General Armaments Department, the EDD has long been regarded as a hotbed of corruption, simply because so much money passes through its hands.

Actual disappearances began in August 2023 with the two top commanders of the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF), which is responsible for China’s ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. A bevy of other senior PLARF leaders were snared too. By September, Defence Minister Li was noticeably gone as well.

In December 2023, and again on February 27, 2024, the National People’s Congress removed senior military officers. It kicked out three generals and five lieutenant generals, most of them currently or previously in the PLARF or EDD, as well as the PLARF’s two commanders. The only one not connected to either of these entities was General Ding Laihang, former commander of the PLA Air Force until September 2021.

Such high-profile purges within the EDD and PLARF are unprecedented. Last September, Cheng Dongfang, President of the Military Court of the PLA, was removed too. The court has a critical role in prosecuting graft. Meanwhile, February’s dismissals included Lieutenant General Li Zhizhong, deputy commander of the Central Theatre Command. Another was Lieutenant General Ju Xinchun, most recently the naval commander of the Southern Theatre Command, but before that a deputy minister of the EDD.

2. Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with representatives of the aircraft carrier unit and the manufacturer at a naval port in Sanya, south China’s Hainan Province. (Xinhua/Li Gang/IANS)

Lyle J Morris, Senior Fellow for Foreign Policy and National Security at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Centre for China Analysis, noted: “If the downfall of PLARF commander Li Yuchao and his subordinates is related to intel leaks, as some reports have suggested, that suggests trouble within China’s nuclear forces–a key piece of Xi’s military modernization drive. Some of the intel leaks reportedly include the ‘blueprints’ of China’s nuclear strategy and posture towards the United States. If there is any shred of truth in these rumours, that would constitute a big setback for China’s nuclear program and raise questions about the political reliability of senior PLA leadership in charge of the nuclear forces.”

It is not just PLA personnel being purged, either. He Wenzhong, deputy general manager of China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC) was investigated by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Boasting 2,00,000 employees, CETC specialises in electronic equipment such as radars.

Additionally, last December, Liu Shiquan, chair of Norinco; Wu Yansheng, chair of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC); and executive Wang Changqing of China Aerospace Science a Industry Corporation (CASIC), were all removed from these state-owned enterprises.

This indicates how deep corruption runs in China’s military-industrial complex, where kickbacks are common.

Morris observed, “Corruption is baked into the system of governance in China. Given these dynamics, which have been a feature of China’s military bureaucracy for decades, the recent purge will likely not greatly influence the overall trajectory of PLA modernization or combat effectiveness.”

He Weidong, Vice Chairman of the CMC, urged tenacity and persistence in improving discipline and battling corruption. “It is necessary to promote in an integrated manner those who do not dare to corrupt, those who cannot corrupt, and those who do not want to corrupt, rectify the source and build a solid ideological dam, coordinate and deepen various rectifications and reforms, and jointly tighten the institutional cage between the military and civilians to improve the comprehensive efficiency of system governance.”

This was Xi’s message at the CMC Political Work Conference in Yan’an, too. He said the PLA’s political work is confronted by complicated challenges, and that political loyalty is necessary “to ensure that the people’s armed forces always uphold their core values, maintain purity, and strictly adhere to discipline.”.

Xi concluded that the PLA must “nurture a contingent of high-calibre officers, eradicate the breeding ground for corruption, and enhance the comprehensive oversight of high-ranking officers in terms of their performance of duty and exercise of power.”.

Xi said, “Measures to govern the military with strict discipline have been comprehensively implemented with unprecedented determination and intensity, achieving historic accomplishments in enhancing political loyalty in the military.”.

The party hierarchy must hope that these stark lessons, where even ministers are not immune to arrest, might force others into line. However, this approach could backfire, as many personnel will rightly or wrongly fear being purged.

Regardless, Xi still harbours deep and abiding doubts about the loyalty and honesty of his most senior officers and their promises of combat readiness. China’s authoritarian leader doubtlessly watched the issue of corruption in Russia’s military as it battled Ukraine, and is worried the PLA might be similarly infected.

These suspicions will hopefully act as a deterrent to war, even as China’s economic woes continue to reveal themselves. The nation’s latest budget projected a 2024 government deficit equal to 3 percent of GDP. However, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in the USA predicts it is more likely to reach a deficit of 8 percent this year.

Xi might well end up with a more politically loyal PLA, at least on the surface, but will it be any more capable militarily? It will have to readjust and reorganise as it implements Xi’s decrees. More time will be devoted to political theory and party activities, which comes at the expense of true military training. There is also the possibility of unqualified personnel being promoted to high positions based simply on political loyalty rather than their military or leadership acumen. This may be good news for Taiwan if Xi is uncertain of the PLA’s loyalty as he contemplates an invasion.

A Taiwan invasion would represent the PLA’s most complex military task ever undertaken. At best, a swift victory would create a long occupation of a hostile populace, while, at worst, a protracted and costly campaign would jeopardise the party’s legitimacy. The PLA is historically corrupt, it underwent a major restructure less than a decade ago, and it has no recent combat experience.

This all suggests the PLA needs as much time as it can get to improve itself.

Conversely, others believe China’s weakness might encourage it to act even more boldly. For instance, retired Admiral Phil Davidson, former commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, noted: “The lessons [China is] learning is that a much more comprehensive attack – delivered with much more violence – is actually the solution to what they’re viewing as Russia’s problems in Ukraine.”

Incidentally, China did not attend the Ukraine peace summit in Switzerland earlier this month, nor did President Volodymyr Zelenskyy meet with Chinese officials in Singapore when he was there in May. He said, “Ukraine has no powerful connections with China, because China does not want it.”

Xi knows the PLA is riven by scandals and corruption. This explains his repeated prognostications for political loyalty and a lot of propaganda about its combat readiness. Overseas buyers of Chinese equipment often complain about quality issues, and this presumably also applies to the PLA’s flashy new equipment. There may be a range of defects in Chinese weapons, some known and others yet to emerge, their exposure is surely accelerated by any conflict with a capable adversary such as Taiwan.

Certainly, Xi has built a powerful military on paper, but politics have forced him to treat it with relative mildness for many years. Consequently, even as he ramps up his latest anti-corruption purge, there must be credible doubts in his mind about the PLA’s reliability and capability during a crisis. (ANI)

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