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For China’s Military, 2024 Is the Year of Discipline 

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For China’s Military, 2024 Is the Year of Discipline 

Corruption and high-level upheaval defined 2023 for the PLA, and will continue to shape the coming year. This merits a closer look at the PLA’s disciplinary practices. 

For China’s Military, 2024 Is the Year of Discipline 
Credit: Depositphotos

On January 6, an article in Bloomberg made sensational claims about China’s nuclear force. Per U.S. intelligence, the article said that China’s recent removals of several high-ranking military figures, including People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force Commander Li Yuchao, Political Commissar Xu Zhongbo, and Defense Minister Li Shangfu, happened after the discovery of significant problems with the country’s nuclear arsenal. Specifically, it claimed, many of the missile silos in western China had non-functioning lids, and some missiles were “filled with water instead of fuel.” 

Some were quick to raise questions around that intelligence. China’s one liquid-fueled nuclear missile, the DF-5, is not kept fueled because the fuel is highly corrosive. The claim of dramatic holes in China’s nuclear arsenal contradicts other U.S. assessments of Chinese nuclear capabilities and military developments.

However, Bloomberg’s was not the only explanation of the high-ranking removals. Some analysts argued that the goal of the moves was to strengthen China’s nuclear triad of sea-based, air-based, and land-based delivery systems; the new commander and commissar come from the PLA Navy and Air Force, respectively. Others have argued that it suggests a crisis of confidence on the part of President Xi Jinping, and that he is prioritizing officials with personal loyalty above all else. 

Questionably water-logged missiles aside, corruption and high-level upheaval defined 2023 for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). So far, articles in the army’s newspaper and internal directives published in early January suggest that discipline will define 2024. This merits a closer look at the PLA’s disciplinary practices. 

The high-level removals and renewed focus on discipline at lower levels are different tiers of the same disciplinary regime. Removing top officials while strengthening education and discipline among the rank-and-file shows that Chinese leadership recognizes that corruption remains a major issue in the PLA, and that it cannot be solved by targeting individuals alone. Instead, Beijing is taking a holistic, long-term approach to improving discipline in the army from the bottom up as part of its military modernization goals. 

A Call to Arms Against Corruption 

Combating corruption may be the central feature of Xi’s tenure so far, and the PLA has been one of his main, and most difficult, targets. Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, has described eradicating military corruption in China as a “Sisyphean task.”  

Chinese analysts and leaders are frank in their assessments of PLA shortcomings in media targeted at domestic audiences. Articles, and even dramatic videos, exhort the army to overcome the “peace disease” brought on by decades without actual combat. Correcting discipline in the PLA relates to the reliability of its military personnel, and thus the military seeks to build a culture of discipline from the ground up. 

The last line of the Bloomberg article on corruption referred to an editorial published by the PLA Daily on January 1, which reflected on 2023 and offered a general outlook for China’s, and the PLA’s, 2024. The overarching goal for the PLA is meeting the 2027 centenary milestone on the road to building a world-class army by 2049. How will this milestone be met? As Bloomberg pointed out, the editorial promises to wage a “war on graft” – specifically, “storming heavily fortified positions” in a “long, drawn-out war,” i.e. carrying out a long process of rooting out the corruption that is systematically embedded in the PLA.  

Further, cadres and talent must be under Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control. Specifically, “the gun must always be in the hands of those dependably loyal to the party.” That tracks with the statement, further down, that the “vitality” of the PLA depends on its fighting capability, which must be built up while also embodying struggle and perfecting the army’s systems, especially training and education systems. In other words, the PLA’s goals go beyond larger arsenals and better military technology to encompass greater loyalty and utilization of human resources.

That’s a noteworthy statement of PLA priorities and goals for the future. On January 4, the Central Military Commission’s Commission for Discipline Inspection (CMCCDI) drove this message home in a circular outlining guidance on the “precise observance of the first form” at the lowest level PLA Party organizations. One of its focus areas was “strengthening daily education management and supervision of officers and soldiers.”

The Four Forms 

That “first form” is one of Xi’s “Four Forms” of CCP supervision and investigation, put forth at a meeting of the CCP Central Committee in October 2016 and written into the Party Constitution a year later. The “four forms” are consistent criticism and self-criticism (“let red faces and sweating become the norm”), light discipline and minor organizational adjustments for the majority of disciplinary cases, harsher discipline and positional adjustment for a minority of cases, and, lastly, serious disciplinary investigations for a small number of cases involving illegal activities.

This “fourth form” is the formal disciplinary policy responsible for the recent removal of several high-ranking PLA officials. No specific charges were announced, but some articles cited rumors that family members were selling state secrets abroad or compromised by foreign intelligence services.

The U.S. press is understandably attracted to these high-profile cases, but the January 4 CMC document focused on “first form” corrections of behavior at the lower cadre level. The PLA Daily’s coverage of that circular, in an editorial published January 5, gives us a deeper understanding of how the CMC wants the first form to be applied within the PLA.  

The editorial, titled “Daily Education of Officers and Soldiers Should Embody Strict Management and Deep Love,” provides an expanded explanation of the CMCCDI’s goals in re-emphasizing the “first form.” It shows that behavioral correction and improved discipline at the lower level is seen as key to achieving the centenary goal of “solidifying the purity and glory of the PLA.” 

Paired with the removal of higher-level officials, it suggests that high-profile examples are being set while a culture of anti-corruption and improved discipline is being built at lower levels.  

The editorial says that this circular is meant to re-emphasize the importance of strict governance and good education among lower-level officers and soldiers, which is key to strengthening the “first line of defense” against corrupting influence in the party and army. According to Xi, it is important for cadres and soldiers to steer each other on the right path; problems must be nipped in the bud, and it is inexcusable to watch one’s comrade “slide further and further away down the wrong path.” 

“It is easy to save the small scale”, the editorial says in classical Chinese, “but hard to save at the last.” In other words, the goal of disciplinary policy in the PLA should be to build a culture from the bottom up where behavior is corrected early, thus avoiding unreliable officials ending up in influential, high-ranking positions. 

PLA Quality Concerns Are Not New 

Both U.S. and Chinese analysts have discussed the gap in quality and talent between the PLA and the U.S. armed forces, and Chinese officials publicly acknowledged the PLA’s shortcomings long before Xi took office. When he became CCP general secretary and CMC chairman in 2012, Xi inherited an army plagued by widespread corruption and operational weaknesses, with the former naturally exacerbating the latter.  

Xi is not the first to recognize this problem. Deng Xiaoping and subsequent high-level leaders made speeches calling for improvements in PLA operational competence as well as military capabilities. PLA units study and discuss these speeches internally during political training sessions, and the critiques from leaders are shortened into political slogans that act as long-term goals for improvement in areas like combat readiness or command and control.

Xi’s principal additions to this lexicon include the Two Insufficients,” which refers to the PLA’s inability to fight a modern war and its officers’ inability to command one. They also include the Five Incapables,” which refers to the officers’ lack of capacity to analyze situations, make operative decisions, understand superiors’ orders, deploy troops, and deal with unexpected situations. According to retired U.S. military intelligence officer Dennis J. Blasko, this is a way for the PLA to “know itself” through realistic self-evaluation of its own problems.  

The same focus on self-criticism from the top down is evident in the renewed focus on anti-corruption work and better education at the lower levels of the PLA. Higher leadership is removed, there is an official recognition of disciplinary issues (albeit in a characteristically opaque way), and adherence to standards (in this case the Four Forms) is re-emphasized, with the goal of improving discipline, loyalty and quality from private to general.  

While water-filled missiles might be a little far-fetched, the wave of high-level purges and the focus on correcting behavior at lower levels should serve as a reminder that the PLA, per its own evaluation, is far from the razor-sharp modern army it wants to be.