On December 27, 2023, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) decided to revoke the political titles of three aerospace-defense executives: Wu Yansheng, Liu Shiquan, and Wang Changqing. Two days later, on December 29, nine senior military officials were removed from their posts at the National People’s Congress. Notably, five of those were past or current commanders of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF). Analysts saw the removals as a prelude to further disciplinary action, as NPC members are immune from prosecution.
While a continuation of the Chinese government’s anti-corruption campaign, the events of late December are the latest in a worrying trend of probes targeting China’s aerospace sector.
Since 2023, Chinese officials in the PLARF, and those with ties to the Rocket Force, have been the subject of corruption investigations and quickly removed from their positions. Such aggressive shuffling in the vaunted Rocket Force is a testament to the political insecurity felt by top Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, despite having invested greatly in the Rocket Force’s expansion from 2010 onward. In addition, the characteristics of the replacements for those ousted by the purges imply a more aggressive and uncompromising strategic posture for the PLA in the near-future.
The anti-graft purges targeting the PLA began following the scheduled resignation of the former Rocket Force commander Wei Fenghe from his position as China’s minister of defense in March 2023. Wei has not been heard from since being replaced by Li Shangfu.
As the anti-corruption probes continued, in June of 2023, Rocket Force Commander Li Yuchao, Rocket Force Commissar Xu Zhongbo, and his deputies Liu Guangbin and Zhang Zhenzhong were all removed from their positions. While no official cause was given, there has been speculation of embezzlement and espionage by these officers, with one rumor asserting that Li Yuchao’s son leaked government secrets to the United States while studying abroad. The following month, a former deputy of the Rocket Force and head of the secretive Third Department Wu Guohua died under mysterious circumstances. Official reports said that his death was the result of an illness, but a former associate speculated that Wu died of suicide related to work.
The anti-graft investigations would expand in scope in the following months, no longer targeting solely Rocket Force officials, but are concerning the loyalty of the People’s Liberation Army and Chinese Communist Party as a whole. In July of 2023, Foreign Minister Qin Gang was officially sacked from his position, with reports in diaspora media citing his extramarital affair in the United States as cause for removal. A few weeks later, Ju Qiansheng, commander of the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) and member of the Third Department, went missing amid investigations of misconduct. Among the PLASSF’s many responsibilities is coordinating with the Rocket Force in using intelligence and space assets.
In September, there was a major shakeup in the CCP hierarchy as Cheng Dongfang, head of the PLA Military Court and Li Shangfu, the defense minister, were removed from their positions and disappeared without a trace – mere months after taking their latest positions. Li Shangfu was previously the deputy commander of the Strategic Support Force and he also has close ties to the Rocket Force, being an aerospace engineer by trade. He previously held commands in departments relating to the procurement and development of aerospace weaponry.
The purges continued with the sidelining of still more senior military officers and defense industry executives in late December. On December 29, the National People’s Congress officially announced the removal of nine senior military officials from their positions, including Li Yuchao and Zhang Zhenzhong. Former PLARF commander Zhou Yaning, head of the PLARF armaments department Lu Hong, and former PLARF deputy Li Chuanguang were all discharged. Commander of the Southern Theater Navy Ju Xinchun and PLAAF commander Ding Laihang were also removed from their positions. Of particular note is the dismissal of Equipment Development Department officials Zhang Yulin, and Rao Wenmin, given the speculation that misconduct originating from the department was responsible for the dismissal of Li Shangfu.
In spite of all the drama surrounding the missing officials, it is worth noting that those that Xi Jinping selected as replacements are just as interesting as the ousted ministers themselves. Replacing Qin Gang is veteran diplomat Wang Yi, who has returned to the position of foreign minister and is known to be a longtime ally of Xi. Wang, 69, was even allowed to stay past the normal retirement age and join the Politburo at the 20th National Party Congress last fall.
On December 29, China finally announced its new defense minister: Dong Jun, who was the commander of the PLA Navy (PLAN). Notably, Dong becomes the first naval officer elevated to the minister of defense position – and he has spent his entire career in the navy, meaning little exposure to whatever corruption scandal may be plaguing the PLARF and PLASSF. He previously served as the deputy commander of the East Sea Fleet, which has responsibility for Taiwan Strait maritime issues and disputed islands in the East China Sea. Before that, Dong was deputy commander of the Southern Theater Command, which oversees the South China Sea.
Before Dong was tapped as Li’s replacement, Zhang Youxia and Liu Zhenli helped fill the role of the Chinese military’s global face. Both are unorthodox selections, with Zhang being past the customary retirement age for a PLA officer and Liu being the youngest in his rank group and both generals are among the few combat veterans left in the PLA, having seen action against Vietnam in the 1980s.
Li Yuchao and Xu Zhongbo were replaced by Wang Houbin and Xu Xisheng, respectively. Wang was the deputy commander for the PLAN and has a reputation for strict obedience, while Xu Xisheng was previously a PLA Air Force commissar assigned to the important Southern Theater Command.
These appointments should come as no surprise as Xi Jinping has already revealed his priorities in selecting officials with his picks for the Central Military Commission last year in 2022. These replacements are a continuation of his practices to ensure loyalty to him and support for his aggressive foreign policies. By order of rank, they were Zhang Youxia, He Weidong, Li Shangfu, Liu Zhenli, Miao Hua, and Zhang Shemin. Zhang Youxia, He Weidong, and Liu Zhenli have the operational command experience that Xi values, and while He lacks the combat experience of Zhang and Liu, he previously commanded the Eastern Theater Command which encompasses Taiwan. Zhang Youxia and Miao Hua have also worked with Xi in the past and Zhang in particular has close family ties to Xi. Zhang Shemin, despite having a career in the Rocket Force, is a part of the Shaanxi Gang, having grown up in the same area as Xi and acting as his enforcer. Li Shangfu has since lost favor with Xi, but his initial appointment can be attributed to Xi desiring more development in military technology.
Taken separately, the political fate of each official appears ambiguous, but together, they paint a picture of the strategic posture and outlook that Xi Jinping wants his government to have. Xi’s points of emphasis for his officials are political loyalty to himself and military command experience. With the investigations of the last few months, Xi has signaled that he has become unhappy with the technocrats in his administration, and is moving to replace them with aggressive commanders that can make his ambitions in the Indo-Pacific come to fruition.