The implications of recent military purges in China

In recent months, a series of high-ranking Chinese officials have disappeared from public view, leading to speculation of a purge by President Xi Jinping. The latest official to vanish is defence minister Li Shangfu, who is reportedly being investigated over military equipment purchases. This follows the removal of top officials in the Rocket Forces and a military court judge. The lack of official explanation for these removals has led to widespread speculation, with the main theory suggesting a crackdown on corruption within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Corruption has long been a problem in the Chinese military, and although Mr Xi has made progress in combating it, rooting out corruption entirely would require significant systemic redesigns that the authoritarian state is reluctant to undertake. However, the disappearances could also be a result of the Chinese government’s growing paranoia in its relationship with the US, as indicated by the expanded counter-espionage law and public encouragement to combat spy activities. Regardless of the motivation behind these purges, they may be a sign of instability in Mr Xi’s leadership. Disappearing officials, including Li and Qin Gang, had held elevated positions and were personally favored by Mr Xi. The rapid implementation of a political purge so soon after consolidating power raises questions about the president’s judgement. On the other hand, the purges may also serve as a display of strength by Mr Xi, as he is known for his crackdowns on corruption and removal of his enemies. However, these disappearances create a climate of fear within the military and government, which could lead to compliance but also have a demoralizing effect. There is a risk of groupthink within Mr Xi’s inner circle, which could negatively impact China’s national security and foreign policy. Despite concerns, some argue that China’s military leadership is robust enough to withstand the replacement of top officials, as long as it operates below the threshold of war. Ultimately, these incidents highlight the opacity of the Chinese system and the resulting unease it generates.