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China PLA Anti-Corruption Campaign: Prognosis and Impact on Operations

That China’s People’s Liberation Army [PLA] was going through the process of elimination of corruption which has been a pet theme of the President and Chairman of the Central Military Commission [CMC] Xi Jinping was well known.

But the public announcement of the shock dismissal of two successive defence ministers and members of China’s Central Military Commission. 

In a surprisingly candid press release China Military Online declared that former defense ministers Wei Fenghe and Li Shangfu have been expelled from the Communist Party of China and stripped of their qualification as delegates to the 20th CPC National Congress. The decisions were reviewed and approved by the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee. The Central Military Commission [CMC] which is headed by Xi Jinping as the Chairman had already expelled Wei and Li from military service and deprived them of their rank of general.

Explaining the dismissal, the report states that Li and Wei were under investigation in August and September last year, exposed during investigations by Discipline Inspection Commission of the Central Military Commission. Li and Wei seriously violated political and organizational discipline, and resisted organizational scrutiny thus indicated some confrontation with the establishment as well.  The investigations have noted that Li “sought improper benefits in personnel arrangements for himself and others:, including acceptance of large sums of money, and suspected of taking bribes.

In addition he has been alleged to have paid bribes to others as well   Li is thus accused of betraying the trust of the CPC Central Committee and the CMC particularly the “equipment sector in the military and the ethics of relevant industries”.

Wei who served as the defense minister for five years from 2018 to March 2023 is guilty of taking bribe in “personnel arrangements” possibly in terms of postings, transfer and even promotion of officers. The CMC had already expelled Wei and Li from military service and deprived them of their rank of general. The two former defence ministers will also be prosecuted as suspected criminal cases to procuratorial organs of the military for examination and prosecution.

The actions taken by the Politburo will be officially confirmed when the CCP’s central committee meets for the third plenum on 15-18 July.

So how are the dismissals to be interpreted.

First the discharge of the two top ministers from the PLA and their removal as delegates to the 20th CPC Central Committee is a precursor to criminal charges which are likely to be pursued to a conclusion just as these had been of other senior generals in the past. Thus, the charges are serious enough not only to dismiss them but hold criminal charges against them.

Secondly apart from the high post of defence minister, involvement of the two in key functions – first procurement particularly of the Rocket Force and in personnel management raises a major question on the credibility of the processes in these key military functions. This apart the function ability of strategic systems of the PLA Rocket Forces and the appointment of senior officers also comes up for debate.

Thirdly both these had been promoted as Defence Ministers under the watch of President Xi, clearly the system of checks and balances in the CMC as well as the Politburo in an overly centralized system are questionable.  In fact, a foreign minister Qin Gang, was also removed recently though the charges against him were not of corruption but possibly personal indiscretion with rumours floating of an extra marital relationship when he was posted as the Ambassador in Washington.

Fourthly, Wei Fenghe and Li Shangfu were not involved in the operational role as China’s Defence Minister is a state function that primarily coordinates with other ministries and is engaged in defence diplomacy the most public role that is visible to the World.

Thus, compromise in the operational sphere despite their being members of the CMC is unlikely.

Finally, the determination of President and Chairman CMC to clean up the PLA amongst other organs of the State is evident which may if it succeeds provide an edge to the military which is clearly wanting at present particularly in the field of combat.

That Xi is willing to expose the rot at the highest level of the military is an indicator that he is not shy of cleaning up the mess even if some of it exposes him to inadequacies of judgement.

For an organization that is built on personal loyalties, has political intervention in every military unit and has a decades long rot of corruption, Xi’s task is daunting so let us wait and watch.

Thus, the PLA is mauled no doubt for the time being but may if Xi’s plan succeeds emerge stronger from the trial by corruption.


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