Why Xi Jinping doesn’t trust the Chinese military

Xi Jinping between two honor guard soldiers during a ceremony in Beijing (REUTERS/Jason Lee/file) (Jason Lee/)

The recent disappearances of top Chinese generals, including the Defense Minister, raise questions about the ability of Xi Jinping to maintain your control over the People’s Liberation Army (EPL). These disappearances also expose the Chinese president’s reservations about the PLA operational capacity in times of crisis or conflict, which could have significant repercussions on regional security policy.

This is how he evaluated it Joel Wuthnowsenior researcher at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the US National Defense University, in an article for Foreign Affairs which analyzed the implications of these disappearances and how they affect the perception of China’s military capability.

The disappearances began in August, when the commander-in-chief and political commissar of the Rocket Force, in charge of controlling intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), were replaced by officers from the Navy and Air Force. This coincided with the circulation of rumors about corruption and sale of military secrets at the upper levels of that service, although no positions have been announced.

The purge continued in the following weeks with the dismissal of the head of the Chinese military court by the National Popular Assembly. Then, in September, observers noticed that the defense minister, Li Shangfuhad failed to attend several scheduled appearances, validating rumors that he was also being investigated for bribes in the procurement system. Li served as team leader from 2017 to 2022.

Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu greets before delivering his speech on the last day of the 20th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia's annual defense and security forum, in Singapore, Sunday, June 4, 2023. (AP Photo /Vincent Thian)
Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu in one of the last events in which he was seen in public. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian) (Vincent Thian/)

According to Wuthnow, the disappearances show the difficulty of controlling an institution with a high degree of autonomy like the EPL and fuel questions about the Xi’s ability to choose officials in key positions.

“Presumably, candidates for each of these roles would have been subjected to the most rigorous vetting possible and personally approved by Xi. “His failure to ensure compliance in these critical functions raises questions about his success in managing the military in general,” the analyst writes in the influential American publication.

The disappearances caused even more surprise because Xi is often portrayed as the most powerful head of the military chinese from Deng Xiaoping (in office since 1978 to 1989). The Chinese leader was elected president of the powerful Central Military Commission in 2012 and since then one of its main tasks was to eliminate corrupt senior officers or those of dubious political loyalty, Wuthnow recalls. Xi has also remained closely involved in military appointments, reportedly influencing promotions up to the rank of major general. His control over the army was therefore supposed to be solid.

On the contrary, “the disappearances suggest that Xi’s control over the PLA may be less complete than imagined,” according to Wuthnow.

The problem of lack of controls

Xi’s difficulties are also due to extensive autonomy of the EPLsomething that often ended up favoring cases of corruption.

“Unlike Western militaries, there are no external checks and balances, such as congressional oversight, an independent judiciary, or investigative journalists. Furthermore, with few exceptions, Xi did not incorporate close aides to the General Staff who had known him throughout his career, unlike the American system, in which presidents fill the bureaucracy with loyal political positions,” observes Wuthnow. .

That autonomy continued to be guaranteed by Xi. In exchange, the Chinese leader obtained the support of the PLA to consolidate his power and carry out his ambitious plan to modernize and reorganize the armed forces, the largest since 1950 and which none of his predecessors had achieved.

“Xi was able to carry out those reforms because he gained support from the military leadership and allowed the PLA to remain largely free of external oversight,” Wuthnow writes.

In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping, bottom center, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, poses for a group photo with deputies from the delegation of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and the People's Armed Police Force before attending a plenary meeting of the delegation during the first session of the 14th National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing, on Wednesday, March 8, 2023. Xi has called for
Xi Jinping, also chairman of the Central Military Commission, poses for a group photo with deputies from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) delegation and the Armed Police (Li Gang/Xinhua via AP) (Li Gang/)

Added to this were the continued increases in military budgetswhich from 2012 to 2022 more than doubled, going from 106 billion to 230 billion dollars.

The rain of money and the lack of controls placed officials such as the leaders of the Rocket Force and responsible for the purchase of equipment, such as Li Shangfu, in a position to benefit. “They had the means, the motives and the opportunity to line their pockets, despite Xi’s rhetoric about fighting corruption and professionalization,” according to Wuthnow.

Confidence crisis

The lack of trust in some of the PLA’s top leadership also raises new questions, both for outside observers and for Xi and other civilians in the CCP Politburo Standing Committee, about the degree of corruption that continues to exist in the procurement system and about what else the military may be hiding in terms of spending and operations.

  Xi Jinping speaks with officers and soldiers during an inspection of a People's Liberation Army (PLA) division at the Central Theater Command on January 3, 2018. (Sipa USA/The Grosby Group)
Xi Jinping speaks with officers and soldiers during an inspection of a division of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at the Central Theater Command on January 3, 2018. (Sipa USA/The Grosby Group) (Sipa USA/The Grosby Group) /Lagenc/)

For example, civilian officials might have valid reasons to suspect that the PLA may even be hiding defects in critical equipment acquired in the last decade, affecting civilian elite perceptions of the capability and reliability of these forces in a conflict.

“They would have to ask themselves What could go wrong if the PLA is asked to go beyond symbolic displays of power, such as sending fighter jets near Taiwan, and into real conflict against a capable adversary. Such concerns should inform the decisions Xi and the Politburo Standing Committee make about whether to enter into conflict with USA and Taiwan in the first place,” Wuthnow writes.

These doubts could weigh on Xi’s calculations about the risks of starting a conflict, making him less certain that a decision to use force would achieve the intended results. Thus, according to Wuthnow, Xi’s lack of confidence in his general ability could paradoxically have a positive effect: be a deterrent to war.