September 2023


A season of purges

In charting the recent ‘removal’ from office of several top Chinese government and military personnel,  Yvonne Gill considers what lies behind the cull

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) playbook is simple: people often discover some top official has disappeared from public view. Then they come to know that the ill-fated individual has been sacked. Once any official, however important and high-placed, loses his job, he may end up in prison or, worse, on death row. China’s opaque justice system is virtually the prisoner of the Supreme Leader, whose writ runs large so long as the big boss wields power. And the dread of being purged has sustained the CCP General Secretary’s – formerly the Chairman’s – grip on power and his dictatorship.

Even as the Chinese economy faces an imminent crash, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping seems to have gone on a sacking spree of top officials in the government and military. Like most of his predecessors, Xi has been known for not tolerating anyone whose absolute loyalty to him is in doubt, say keen observers of Chinese affairs.

Foreign Minister Qing Gang, a Xi protégé, was the first such top official to go in recent days. He had been ‘missing’ since June 25; then he was fired and replaced by his own predecessor, Wang Yi, who is also head of the CCP’s powerful Foreign Affairs Commission Office and a member of the 24-memberPolitburo.

The flimsy official explanation given for Qing’s removal was that he has some ‘physical problems’. Rumours of his affair with a Chinese reporter in Washington, where he had earlier been posted as ambassador to the US, had been circulating. Analysts, however, maintain that this was a political purge, for, soon after his removal, Qing’s name and past activities were scrubbed clean from the foreign ministry’s official website.

XI PROTÉGÉ: Foreign Minister Qing Gang was fired and replaced by his own predecessor

From a foreign ministry spokesperson between 2005 and 2010 to the head of the ministry’s information department, Qing’s rise was nothing short of meteoric.He was appointed as the country’s youngest foreign minister in December 2022, having earlier served as chief protocol officer, handling Xi Jinping’s engagements and meetings. He was appointed ambassador to the US, a prized position, over the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s preferred candidate, reportedly at Xi Jinping’s behest. But many a Xi loyalist has fallen from grace in their quest for power, a glaring example being former Vice President Wang Qishan.

As someone joked, it was layoff time for China’s bureaucracy. A wide-ranging corruption investigation has been going on against officers of the People’s Liberation Army’s strategic wing, the Rocket Force. Two generals and ten former and current officials of the Rocket Force have joined the ‘missing officials’ list. It is not exactly clear when they disappeared, though informed sources say they have not been seen for months now. The number of missing officials is increasing by the day.

Most prominent among them are General Li Yuchao, Commander of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF),and General Liu Guangbin, the Political Commissar of PLARF. In the PLA hierarchy, the commander leads the force, while the commissar is in charge of political discipline and ideological education. General Yuchao, whose son is studying in the US, was taken away while attending a conference and has also been absent from recent promotion ceremonies.

This is believed to be the largest purge at the highest levels of the PLA in a decade or so.

So, what has gone wrong? Is Xi trying to divert the people’s attention from their economic woes? With unemployment growing, foreign investments having dipped and the bursting of the gigantic property bubble, the Chinese economy is clearly showing signs of deflation.

Many a Xi loyalist has fallen from grace in his quest for power

As ever, Chinese officials are keeping mum about the disappearances of these top military officers. But rumours that they and other officers have been arrested on corruption charges are rife. Other reports say the officers are being investigated for leaking military secrets. If that is so, it would be a major intelligence breach within one of the most strategically important wings of the PLA, which is under the direct command of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Military Commission (CMC), headed by the CCP General Secretary himself.

Under Xi, China has heavily invested in the Rocket Force, which commands China’s nuclear triad and the missile force, including tactical weapons targeted at Taiwan and those meant to deter the US in the South and East China Seas. Xi chose August 1, which marked the PLA’s 96th anniversary, to announce the promotions of Wang Houbin, deputy commander of the PLA Navy since 2020, as the new commander of PLARF, and PLA Air Force officer and Party Central Committee member Xu Xīsheng as Rocket Force’s new political commissar. Both Wang and Xu are outsiders brought in to serve the PLARF. This, some experts say, is the first time since 1982 that a non-PLARF officer has been given command of the force.

Former PLARF deputy commander Wu Guohua died in Beijing under mysterious circumstances

Wang Houbin, new commander of PLARF (left) and PLA Air Force officer and party central committee member Xu Xīsheng, Rocket Force’s new political commissar
Retaliation: China flexes its muscle following Taiwan's Vice President’s visit to New York

The former commander’s deputies, Liu Guangbin and Zhang Zhenzhong, are also reported to bemissing from their regular duties. Earlier, on July 4, Former PLARF deputy commander Wu Guohua died in Beijing under mysterious circumstances.The news of his demise was not made official in the media until July 27.

Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012,he has been ruthlessly trying to enforce the Party’s control over various government organs. Xi is Chairman of the CMC, the top decision-making body for military matters. This chairmanship gives him immense power. In addition, he is the supreme commander of all the wings of the PLA: the army, navy andair force, as well as the Rocket Force.

After Mao Zedong, Xi has emerged as China’s most powerful leader. He has systematically crushed dissent within and outside the Party, thus weakening factions to the extent that he has become the final arbiter of Chinese affairs, domestic as well as foreign. What has helped him consolidate such immense power is the opaque system which has been a hallmark of Communist rule, whether in China or elsewhere. There is no democracy within the Party itself, while popular dissent is a crime and it is difficult to get any news about what is happening on the mainland.

The Supreme Leader appoints, promotes and removes key officials at will. From Mao’s era, it is loyalty to the super boss that matters most in China. While competence is not always compromised, loyalty becomes the main criterion for selection to high office. For, like any autocrat, Chinese leaders are always worried about their vulnerability, because none of them enjoys a popular mandate from the people. They are at the helm by virtue of being leader of the Party, and China is a low-trust society whose rulers have always been paranoid about being betrayed, even by those they trust.

Xi exercises centralised control over the Party, the PLA, as well as the government, legislature and even important ministries. Given the character of the system, nothing is transparent – be it the selection, promotion or dismissal of key officials of the different branches of the government and administration. That, combined with massive economic might and a powerful military, makes China a considerable threat to peace and stability, not only in the region but globally.

Yvonne Gill is a freelance journalist based in London

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