Ian Williams Ian Williams

Why has Xi Jinping purged his senior commanders?

Credit: Getty Images

The Chinese Communist party will no doubt throw a militarised tantrum should Saturday’s election in Taiwan be won by Lai Ching-te, the more independence-minded of the candidates. Yet behind these histrionics lies an army in turmoil, with a purge of top generals raising serious doubts as to whether it is up to the task of fighting a war. 

The CCP has spent billions of dollars expanding and modernising its armed forces at a pace rarely seen in peacetime, with the aim of creating a cutting edge force. But the money thrown at the generals and their hunger to acquire shiny new kit has fuelled increasingly deep-seated corruption in its rapacious ranks. According to US intelligence assessments, Xi observed that some of the People Liberation Army Rocket Force’s missiles were filled with water instead of fuel and silos in western China had lids that could not properly open. The Rocket Force oversees China’s land-based missiles, including nuclear weapons, and would play a key role in any battle for Taiwan. The US assessments, reported by Bloomberg, suggest that military corruption is so extensive that President Xi Jinping is less likely to contemplate major military action over the coming years than had been assumed.

Shortly before new year, nine senior officers were ousted from the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislative body, a move that typically precedes more serious action. Three were former commanders or vice commanders of the Rocket Force, one a former Air Force chief and another a Navy commander responsible for the South China Sea, where the CCP is aggressively asserting extensive territorial claims. Four were in charge of procuring equipment. Three of those purged were members of the Central Military Commission, the country’s top military decision-making body, which is chaired by Xi. 

Their removal follows the disappearance early last summer of Li Yuchao, the last Rocket Force commander and his deputy.

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