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Vanishing ministers, ousted officials rattle top Chinese brass

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BEIJING: A sweeping purge of Chinese generals has weakened the People’s Liberation Army, exposing deep-rooted corruption that could take more time to fix and slow Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s military modernisation drive amid geopolitical tensions, analysts say.

China’s top lawmakers ousted nine senior military officers from the national legislative body on Friday, state media reported, a step that typically precedes further punishment for wayward cadres. Many of these were from the Rocket Force, a key arm of the PLA overseeing tactical and nuclear missiles.

The recent downfall of generals and military equipment suppliers, however, has punctured some of this aura, and raised questions over whether there has been adequate oversight over these massive military investments as China vies with the United States in key areas, including Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Since Xi took power in 2012, he has embarked on a wide-ranging anti-corruption crackdown among Communist Party and government officials, with the PLA being one of its main targets.

The nine PLA generals removed from the legislature hailed from several military divisions; three were former commanders or vice commanders of the PLA Rocket Force; one a former Air Force chief and one a Navy commander responsible for the South China Sea. Four officers were responsible for equipment.

“It is a clear sign that they are being purged,” said Andrew Scobell, Distinguished Fellow for China at the United States Institute for Peace.

‘More heads will roll’

Beijing did not explain why the generals were removed. Some analysts say the evidence points towards corruption over equipment procurement by the PLA Rocket Force.

“More heads will roll. The purge that centred around the Rocket Force is not over,” said Alfred Wu, associate professor, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.

Wei Fenghe, a former defence minister who used to head the Rocket Force, has also vanished. When asked about his whereabouts, a defence ministry spokesman said in August that the military has zero tolerance for corruption.

His successor, Li Shangfu, was abruptly removed as defence minister in October without explanation after also disappearing for months. He had previously headed the equipment department. One of his then deputies was removed from parliament on Friday.

On the same day, Dong Jun, a Chinese ex-Navy chief, with a South China Sea background, was named Li’s replacement as defence minister.

Analysts say that while the Chinese military has long been known for corruption, the extent of the latest crackdown and the involvement of the PLA’s Rocket Force is shocking.

Published in Dawn, January 1st, 2024


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