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Sacking of Defence Minister: Limited Impact on PLA But Systemic Concerns

Attribution Photographer: Danial Hakim

Systemic impact of the dismissal indicates faultlines within the Chinese PLA including corruption in equipment procurement as well as the national higher leadership under President Xi raise serious concerns.

Finally a news that has been speculated upon for the past two months has been made public. China’s Defence Minister Li Shangfu has been formally removed also deprived of the position of State Councillor and member of the prestigious high level decision making body the Central Military Commission.

The National People’s Congress Standing Committee, China’s top lawmaking body, announced the decision at the end of a five-day meeting – after Li had disappeared from public view for more than two months.

The Standing Committee of the 14th National People's Congress [NPC], concluded its sixth session on October 24 in Beijing.

As per the release on the NPC website, “Li Shangfu was removed from the posts of state councilor and defense minister, Qin Gang from the post of state councilor, Wang Zhigang from the post of minister of science and technology, and Liu Kun from the post of finance minister”

While Yin Hejun was appointed as minister of science and technology and Lan Fo'an was appointed finance minister the defence minister’s relief has not been announced. Wang Yi China’s long time foreign minister had returned to the post after removal of Qin Gang known informally some months back.

China's defence minister is considered primarily as a public representative of the armed forces, both within China and abroad. The role is also responsible for defence mobilisation and national defence education. There is thus no formal command function which rests with the Central Military Commission and the theatre commanders.

The move comes just prior to the Xiangshan Forum being hosted by the Chinese Ministry of Defence in Beijing. Unexplained absence of a defence minister would have been embarrassing as official delegations from over 90 countries, regions and international organizations, including Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Brazil, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Fiji, are set to attend the biennial forum.

The removal may not impact the People’s Liberation Army in a major way as the role of Li Shangfu was essentially defence cooperation activities and those related to his ministry’s coordination within the State Council – China’s Central government administration headed by Prime Minister Li Qang.

Even Li’s removal from the Central Military Commission is also unlikely to impact the functioning of the PLA as there are other members who held more weighty portfolios than Li.

CMCs, deputy chairman Zhang Youxia, and He Weidong could well carry out the roles of Li till his post is filled up.

However systemic impact of the dismissal indicating faultlines within the Chinese PLA as well as the national higher leadership under President Xi raise serious concerns.

Why Systemic Concerns are Serious?

Firstly the belief that President Xi has cracked down on corruption leading to cleaning up of the system needs to be reviewed.

As per a Reuters report General Li Shangfu, a veteran of China's military modernisation drive, was under investigation in a broad probe over procurement of military equipment. Li an aerospace engineer was first deputy of PLA's Strategic Support Force, tasked with accelerating the development of China's space and cyber warfare capabilities. He was appointed head of the Equipment Development Department of the Central Military Commission.

The United States sanctioned Li over the purchase of 10 Russian Su-35 combat aircraft in 2017 and equipment related to the S-400 surface-to-air missile system.

Meanwhile in July this year the Department issued a notice that it was looking to "clean up" its bidding process and invited the public to report irregularities dating back to October 2017, when Li was at its helm. He ran the unit until October 2022 as per the Reuters.

Corruption in equipment procurement that reaches to the top implies a need to seriously review the capabilities of the Chinese military platforms especially after their rapid inductions. The PLA routinely takes military officials from other countries to visit ships and air bases which are spruced up for visits. Visitors return from these visits clearly impressed by what they see. However, there should be a serious review of the state of the PLA and realistically examine the capabilities.

On July 31, Chinese leader Xi Jinping announced that two generals from other branches of China’s military would be taking over the two top leadership positions in the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF), thus implying that former commander and deputy commander of the PLARF are under investigation for corruption as indicated by South China Morning Post.

Rocket Force Commander Li Yuchao was removed along with his deputy Liu Guangbin and a former deputy Zhang Zhenzhong and reportedly put under investigation by the Central Military Commission’s anti-corruption unit, according to an August podcast episode from the German Marshall Fund.

Xi appointed Wang Houbin, the former deputy commander of the navy, as the new head of the PLA Rocket Force, replacing Li Yuchao, who had been commander since January last year.

Xu Xisheng, from China’s air force, was made political commissar, an equally senior position in charge of enforcing party directives.

Li’s son studies in the United States, raising concerns about the potential betrayal of CCP’s military intelligence.

Wu Guoua, the deputy commander of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force reportedly died by suicide on June 6, 2023 — the same day when Xi was conducting an inspection of the Eastern Theatre Command.

PLA has stated that the cause of Wu’s sudden death was cerebral haemorrhage.

Summarising the Systemic Impact

Firstly recent removal of top generals in the PLA and the Defence Minister Li Shangfu has highlighted how the top echelons have been impacted by corruption for monetary gains possibly even involving the leakage of some of the top secrets of the Rocket Force to the United States.

Secondly selection of ministers by President Xi based on his personal preferences may be seen to be highly inefficient as apart from former Defence Minister Li, the foreign minister Qin Gang has also been removed after months of speculation.

These were known to be close to Xi and were his personal choices. That they were soon found to be unsuitable is a mark on President Xi’s selection as well which raises concerns of the choices made by China’s top leader.

Finally, the while it is believed that a collegiate system of the Communist Party of China work to select the top ministers it is evident that these bodies could well be rubber stamps of what is proposed by the General Secretary and President Xi.

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