Over the last two months, a series of senior Chinese generals have disappeared from public view, including the defense minister and the leadership of the force responsible for China’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). These disappearances are surprising given the perception that Chinese President Xi Jinping dominates the People’s Liberation Army and his ruthless commitment to rooting out malfeasance earlier in his tenure. In fact, that such incidents have not only continued but also affected some of the most sensitive parts of the PLA showcases the limits of Xi’s power.
Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) more broadly have long granted the PLA considerable autonomy to run its own affairs. Allowing the PLA a high degree of independence helps ensure its political compliance with Xi and the party, yet with no civilian checks and balances, it also creates the conditions for malfeasance and poor accountability to fester. Although the details of the recent purges are still murky, they reflect Xi’s lack of confidence in some of his most senior officers.
Such doubts about the competence of his people and the equipment they have apparently mismanaged could weigh on Xi’s calculations of the risks of initiating a conflict—making him less certain that a decision to use force would achieve the intended results. As long as Xi doubts the stories his generals are telling him about their own proficiency, his mistrust in his own military will likely serve as a deterrent to war.
The recent spate of disappearances began in August, when the top commander and the political commissar of the PLA Rocket Force were replaced with appointees from the navy and air force, a highly unusual move that bypassed lower-ranking Rocket Force officers. This coincided with rumors circulating about corruption and the sale of military secrets in the senior levels of that service, although no charges have been announced. It continued when the head of China’s military court was dismissed by the National People’s Congress. Then in September, observers noticed that Defense Minister Li Shangfu had failed to make several scheduled appearances, validating rumors that he is also under investigation for graft in the procurement system. Li served as equipment czar from 2017 to 2022.
These disappearances came as a surprise to many observers. Xi is often portrayed as the most powerful head of the Chinese military since Deng Xiaoping’s tenure as chair of the Central Military Commission in the 1980s. Xi was active in military matters even before his elevation to chair of the CMC in 2012. He is the son of a Red Army commander and ally of Mao Zedong, was secretary to the defense minister in the early 1980s, often coordinated with the military on mobilization issues during his provincial career in the 1990s and 2000s, and served as CMC vice chair under President Hu Jintao from 2010 to 2012. Xi has since burnished his credentials under the so-called CMC chair responsibility system, which holds that the chair is ultimately responsible for key military decisions. Xi has also spent more time than his predecessors inspecting military units and has published several military treatises that have become required reading for service members.
Eliminating senior officers who were either corrupt or of questionable political loyalty (or both) was a major task for Xi at the start of his tenure as CMC chair in 2012. His anticorruption drive netted at least 45 high-ranking military officials between 2013 and 2016, as well as retired military brass such as former CMC vice chairs Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong. Anticorruption investigations have since become less common, promoting the view that Xi’s early efforts to clean house had been largely successful. Xi has also remained heavily involved in military appointments, reportedly weighing in on promotions down to the rank of major general. At the 20th Party Congress last year, Xi selected a new slate of officers for the CMC, including Defense Minister Li. These picks were assumed to be reliable, competent, and loyal.
The specific cases are even more surprising because of the positions these officers occupied. The Rocket Force is responsible for China’s ICBM force and is thus the PLA’s most sensitive service; the military court is part of the internal control apparatus and, like any military justice system, requires its own leadership to be free from scandal to perform its duties; the defense minister is one of only six uniformed officers who sit on the CMC and is China’s top military diplomat, managing relations with the Russian military and other forces. Presumably, candidates for each of these roles would have been subject to the most rigorous possible vetting and personally approved by Xi. His failure to ensure compliance in these critical roles raises questions about his success in managing the military more broadly.
The disappearances suggest that Xi’s hold over the PLA might be less complete than imagined. They also reflect the fundamental structure of civil-military relations in China, which helps explain how cases of corruption and mismanagement can continue even in very sensitive parts of the PLA. Although Xi has established himself as a powerful CMC chair, the PLA is still at its core a self-governing institution. Unlike Western militaries, there are no external checks and balances, such as congressional oversight, an independent judiciary, or investigative reporters. Moreover, with only a few exceptions, Xi did not bring close aides who have known him throughout his career into the military staff—unlike the U.S. system in which presidents stack the bureaucracy with loyal political appointees.
The PLA has always been insular, but it achieved especially high levels of autonomy in the 1980s. In the previous decade, under Mao, the PLA had become heavily involved in governing the country, and senior officers held top positions in the party. Deng preferred governance by civilian technocrats and ordered the PLA to return to the barracks, where they would focus narrowly on military modernization. He also asked them to do this with paltry budgets (the military was the last of his “four modernizations”). The implicit bargain was that the PLA would be free to operate as it saw fit if it accepted party rule and did not become a threat; civilian leaders agreed to give the military wide latitude within its bureaucratic lane. Deng also permitted the PLA to operate vast business empires, which resulted in the 1990s in notorious cases, such as military procurement agents importing and selling luxury cars. Deng’s successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu, had great difficulty persuading the PLA to extricate itself from such ventures.
Xi has encouraged the PLA to be cleaner and more professional, continuing the themes of his predecessors. In a 2014 landmark speech at Gutian, the site of the famous 1929 Party Congress that established the principle that the “party commands the gun,” Xi exhorted the virtues of proper discipline among PLA officers, whom he accused of being “too lax” in their duties and too focused on personal aggrandizement over their professional responsibilities to “fight and win wars.” Along with the anticorruption campaign, Xi reorganized the bureaucracy to promote better management, including by granting more authority to financial auditors and antigraft inspectors. Yet Xi did not alter the bargain offered to the military by Deng. He allowed the PLA to continue to police itself, with little intervention from outside authorities. Wang Qishan, who oversaw anticorruption purges in the civilian bureaucracy, had no writ to do the same in the military (although, ironically, military members sat on the body overseeing the civilian investigations).
The key reason for this autonomy was that Xi needed to gain and maintain support from the PLA. Although determined to root out networks of corrupt and potentially disloyal officers, he required support from the top brass to consolidate his power and to implement what would become the most wide-ranging military restructuring since the 1950s. That shift included a downsizing of 300,000 personnel and a reduction of the share of the politically influential ground forces from more than two-thirds to less than half the force. Bureaucratic resistance had prevented Jiang and Hu from executing similarly ambitious plans for military reform; Xi could achieve such reforms because he got buy-in from the military brass and allowed the PLA to remain largely free from outside supervision. As another carrot, Xi followed long-standing promotion and retirement norms, finding new positions for senior officers displaced in the reorganization and allowing them to serve out their tenures with full benefits.
Loose oversight of the PLA was coupled with continued increases in military budgets. From 2012 through 2022, China’s official defense spending more than doubled from 670 billion to 1.45 trillion renminbi (roughly $106 billion to $230 billion). Roughly 40 percent of this was allocated to the procurement budget, where it funded lavish programs such as aircraft carriers, fighter modernization, and the prodigious expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal. Individuals such as Rocket Force leaders, the equipment czar, and those responsible for oversight were all positioned to profit. They had the means, motive, and opportunity to line their own pockets, despite Xi’s rhetoric about anticorruption and professionalization.
CRISIS OF CONFIDENCE
Understanding the recent purges through the lens of China’s unique civil-military relations yields a diminished view of Xi’s ability to corral the military bureaucracy. It also helps explain why such cases have persisted a decade into his tenure and in sensitive positions. Xi’s political need to grant the PLA a high degree of autonomy can also help account for other surprising cases in which the military appeared to operate outside the bounds of civilian control, including controversial infrastructure construction plans in the Doklam region of Bhutan, which sparked a 2017 diplomatic crisis with India and appeared to take the leadership off-guard, and February’s spy balloon incident, which likely saw the PLA conducting clandestine programs free from oversight or coordination. The PLA has remained, in some respects, what the political scientist Andrew Scobell calls a “roguish” outfit—unlikely to mount a coup but also poorly supervised.
The evident loss of confidence in some of the PLA’s top leaders raises new questions—for outside observers and for Xi and other civilians on the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee—about how much rot remains in the procurement system and what else the military might be hiding in terms of its expenditures and operations. Combined with the party’s focus on a faltering economy, questions of mismanagement within the PLA will likely require more of Xi’s time and attention.
A lack of confidence in the military is also likely to have implications for the party’s considerations about using force in the years ahead. Given his background, Xi is likely aware that the PLA is a scandal-prone institution that is hard to control, despite propaganda efforts and periodic anti corruption drives. Recent cases only deepen suspicions that the PLA might be hiding other defects, including in critical equipment purchased over the last decade. This could ultimately impact military readiness, or at least the perceptions among the civilian elite about how capable and reliable these forces might be in a conflict. They would have to ask what could go wrong if the PLA is called on to move beyond symbolic displays of power, such as sending fighter jets near Taiwan, and into a real conflict against a capable adversary. Such concerns should inform the decisions Xi and the Politburo Standing Committee make on whether to enter a conflict with the United States and Taiwan in the first place.
Xi can take credit for building a powerful peacetime military that poses undeniable challenges to Taiwan and other regional rivals. But precisely because he needed institutional buy-in from the PLA, he has hesitated to upset the bureaucratic apple cart. Xi’s knowledge of the PLA’s secrecy and mismanagement deep inside its own structure could lead him to doubt its operational proficiency in a crisis or conflict. While the United States worries about how best to deter Chinese aggression, the critical constraint might be one much closer to home.