The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has become increasingly swift in the past year in removing leaders whose views appear misaligned from those of the CCP or General Secretary Xi Jinping’s rhetoric as he has moved to solidify his power in the party and military since the October 2022 approval of his unprecedented third term.
In early August 2023, Xi replaced two key leaders he had handpicked for the CCP’s elite nuclear force, according to news reports. Xi named replacements Wang Houbin, former People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deputy navy chief, and Xu Xisheng, a CCP central committee member who previously served in the PLA Air Force’s Southern Theater Command, to lead the unit, which oversees land-based nuclear and conventional ballistic missiles, including nine bases, The Japan Times newspaper reported. Neither hail from the space command.
The two newly departed leaders of the PLA Rocket Force unit, Gen. Li Yuchao and his deputy, Gen. Liu Guangbin, “disappeared” months ahead of their ouster, according to the BBC news agency. They likely will be prosecuted for corruption along with former Li deputy Zhang Zhenzhong, The South China Morning Post newspaper reported.
CCP observers touted their removal as the most significant PLA upheaval in nearly a decade. Xi also serves as chairman of the CCP’s Central Military Commission.
Some analysts contend the move signals a shift in nuclear policy that could upend regional stability, especially in light of the CCP’s rapidly growing stockpile of nuclear weapons, which the PLA’s Rocket Force oversees.
“The latest purge is significant… [as] China is undertaking one of the most profound changes in nuclear strategy in decades,” Lyle Morris, a foreign policy and national security fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, told the BBC.
Moreover, the latest removals may also signal that more changes in the top ranks are to come.
“Xi has consolidated control of the PLA in unprecedented ways, but that doesn’t mean it’s complete. Xi is still worried about corruption in the ranks and has signaled that absolute loyalty to the [party] has not yet been achieved,” Morris told the BBC.
In late July 2023, in another irregular shakeup, Xi ousted Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang after he was not seen publicly for a month, The Associated Press (AP) reported. Xi has temporarily replaced Qin, who had only held the post since December 2022, with his predecessor, Wang Yi, CNN reported. Wang held the position from 2013 to 2022.
The CCP deleted any mention of Qin from the foreign ministry’s website within a day of his removal, AP reported.
Under Xi, there has been a pattern of senior Chinese officials disappearing from public view before their removal and subsequent detainment as part of the general secretary’s so-called anti-corruption campaign. Whether Qin will be prosecuted for any alleged wrongdoing remains unclear, AP reported.
Shortly after taking office, Xi initiated a purge of the CCP’s military leadership to shore up his power base. In 2014, for example, he removed the then-deputy chairs of the Central Military Commission Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong. Xi also saw that they were prosecuted for corruption. A military court sentenced Guo to life in jail, and Xu died before he could stand trial, the BBC reported. In 2015, former PLA Lt. Gen. Gu Junshan was given a suspended death sentence after being convicted for bribery, abuse of power and the misuse of public funds, among other crimes, as part of Xi’s push, according to the BBC.
Xi has continued to target the military with his anti-corruption campaign to consolidate his power, especially within the rocket force. The purge is “… partly to solidify his control to ensure all those under him are all very loyal to him,” Tony Hu, the first U.S. Defense Department senior country director for Taiwan, told The Daily Beast, a U.S.-based news website.
Ironically, Xi had personally selected his Rocket Force unit leaders and foreign minister Qin. Their ouster could reveal that Xi is having doubts about his decision- making, some analysts assert.
“This shows that the leadership that Xi has handpicked might be causing him to have concerns about loyalty,” Hu told The Daily Beast.
After Qin Gang’s removal, Xi is “probably double checking everybody’s background,” Hu said. “That should cause serious worry in the mind of Xi Jinping to think, who else might be foreign agent or influenced by foreign countries, foreign governments, within his inner circle.”
Freddy Lim, a legislator in Taiwan, told The Daily Beast in July 2023 that Qin’s disappearance from the public view “shows that Xi Jinping doesn’t feel safe in his position. If he reveals some realities, some reasons why he shouldn’t be in that position anymore then it might just damage Xi Jinping’s authority.”