Can China Trust Its Nukes? Top Officers Purged Amid Corruption Fears

Xi's Dream of World-Class PLA Grounded by Greed.

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Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna is a Defence & Aerospace analyst and is the Director of ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany with manufacturing units in Russia. He is Consulting Editor Industry and Defense at Frontier India.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been weakened as a result of a large-scale purge of Chinese generals, which has also revealed deeply embedded corruption. Eliminating this corruption may take more time, which may slow down the efforts of Chinese leader Xi Jinping to modernise the military amid geopolitical tensions, according to observers.

According to official media, on December 29, 2023, the most senior lawmakers in China dismissed nine senior military officers from their positions in the national legislative body’s membership. It is common practice for this action to come before additional punishments for uncooperative individuals.

Many of those who were expelled were members of the Rocket Forces, an important section of the PLA responsible for both nuclear and tactical missiles.

The purge is a setback for Xi, who has spent billions of dollars on purchasing and developing weapons as part of his ambitions to modernise the armed forces to “world-class” standards by the year 2050. This is amid a defence budget that has been expanding at a faster pace than the GDP of the country for several years.

Beijing did not elucidate the reasons behind the removal of the generals. Many experts believe the evidence suggests that the Rocket Forces engaged in corrupt practices when acquiring weaponry.

The fall from grace of generals and suppliers of military equipment has prompted questions about whether or not there has been sufficient monitoring of these huge military investments amid competition between China and the United States in critical locations, such as Taiwan and the South China Sea. The Rocket Force was an integral part of the live-fire drills that China carried out in the Taiwan region in 2023.

Since he came to power in 2012, Xi Jinping has launched a comprehensive anti-corruption campaign within the Communist Party and among government officials. The PLA is one of the primary targets of this effort.

The nine PLA generals dismissed from the legislative body were members of multiple military units. Within the Rocket Forces, three of them had previously served as either commanders or deputy commanders. There was one who had previously served as the Commander of the Air Force, and there was another who was a commander in the naval fleet that was in charge of the South China Sea. It was the responsibility of four of the officers to oversee the tools.

In addition, Wei Fenghe, a former minister of defence in charge of the Rocket Forces, is currently in an unidentified location. In August, in answer to inquiries regarding his whereabouts, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence claimed that the armed forces have zero tolerance for corruption.

After months during which he was absent from his job as defence minister, his successor, Li Shangfu, was abruptly ousted from his position in October without any explanation. Before, he had been in command of the department responsible for the technology used by the military.

On December 29, one of his deputy members who was serving at the time was dismissed from the parliament. Do Jun, a former chief of the Chinese Navy knowledgeable on the South China Sea, was chosen as the new defence minister on the day Li was removed.

Given how important it is for China’s nuclear weapons to be entrusted to individuals who are highly trusted, top officers in this section of the PLA, much like nuclear forces in other parts of the world, are required to go through the most stringent inspection.

Because some underlying factors, such as low officer wages and a lack of transparency in military expenditures, have not been addressed, analysts anticipate that the chronic corruption problem inside the Chinese armed forces will continue to exist for a longer time.

Strategic nuclear assets are ultimately what China relies on for its national security, and they represent the final deterrent with regard to Taiwan. It will take China some time to clean up the current mess and restore faith in the Rocket Forces’ ability to be reliable and competent. For the time being, this indicates that China is in a more vulnerable position.

Chinese President Xi Jinping may be dissuaded from serious conflicts with other countries over the next five to ten years due to the current crackdown.

Other Speculations 

A comprehensive analysis of the structure and organisation of the PLA Rocket Force was published in October 2023 by the China Aerospace Studies Institute, a think tank affiliated with the US Air Force. This paper sparked concerns about the possibility of intelligence breaches from the Chinese military. 

Some argue that the changes in the PLA Rocket Force may also be related to internal power struggles.


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