The political factors behind China’s disappearing leaders


New Atlanticist

October 20, 2023 • 11:42 am ET

The political factors behind China’s disappearing leaders

Mark Parker Young

Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping has shaken China’s military and foreign affairs establishments in the past two months by abruptly replacing several senior military officers and China’s minister of foreign affairs. The removals were all the more surprising because Xi had promoted many of these same officials to lead their organizations less than a year earlier. A close look at the officials involved suggests that a variety of personal and institutional factors contributed to their downfall, but the disruptive impact of the sudden disappearances indicates underlying mistakes and misjudgments on the part of Xi and the personnel apparatus he oversees.

The recent removals suggest that Xi has approved prosecutions of several discrete pockets of corruption and misconduct rather than a repeat of the sweeping and interconnected purges of his first term. The senior officials involved had crucial roles within their respective military and civilian bureaucracies, but none was part of Xi’s core apparatus of political control.

Interpreting patterns among ousted officials

The reshuffles in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) constitute its most significant internal upheaval since 2017. Recent anti-corruption investigations appear to be radiating outward from the traditional locus of military corruption: procurement and logistics. In the last two months, investigators have reportedly detained Minister of National Defense Li Shangfu, Rocket Force Commander Li Yuchao, Rocket Force Political Commissar Xu Zhongbo, and several of their deputies. Li Shangfu served from 2017 to 2022 as chief of the PLA’s armaments and procurement department and the Rocket Force is an extremely capital-intensive service that has expanded rapidly in the past decade, likely affording numerous opportunities for graft. Xu also previously served as political commissar of the Joint Logistics Department and is the latest in a long line of its former leaders to fall under suspicion. The new Rocket Force leaders have no prior experience with the force and its incoming political commissar significantly outranks the new commander in the CCP hierarchy, signaling Xi’s determination to uproot their predecessors’ personal networks and reimpose discipline.

By targeting procurement-related organs, Xi has launched a fresh campaign against one of the two military institutions most susceptible to corruption; the other is the political work system and the network of political commissars embedded at every level of the PLA. If prosecutions were to expand beyond procurement-linked officers to implicate broader networks within the Central Military Commission (CMC) Political Work Department, then the disruptive impact would likely spread across the PLA.

The circumstances of Foreign Minister Qin Gang’s removal remain unclear, but they are more likely to stem from personal misconduct and idiosyncratic factors that have a narrower impact on the national security establishment. Qin’s own network within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) may be somewhat narrow because of his unusual and rapid ascent. MFA officials also have limited influence over major contracts and assets, so presumably less direct opportunity for large-scale graft. If Xi decides to publicly charge Qin with a broad range of offenses, however, investigators may find grist in his prior service in the MFA Protocol Department, where he would have been responsible for the disposition of official gifts, travel, and hosting functions. One of the few senior Chinese diplomats charged with corruption in recent years was former Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Zhang Kunsheng, who also led protocol functions and was dismissed from his position in 2015.  

Alongside these high-profile removals, the internal investigations apparatus continues to churn through the middle ranks of the civilian sector under the new secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, Li Xi. Some of the targets this year have been significant, such as the former Guizhou party secretary, former secretary of the Bank of China’s party committee, and a raft of mid-level officials from the discipline inspection system itself. However, there is no clear thread that links these investigations to top leaders.

Removals point to vetting missteps and misjudgments

Xi’s management of the CCP’s personnel system is vital to his political position and to the functioning of the party-state. At the same time, the identity of the recently removed officials along with their brief tenures suggest that he has committed unforced errors. 

High-level prosecutions are not in and of themselves a sign of misjudgment, because there is a powerful rationale for Xi to periodically prosecute officials in politically sensitive positions. Working as a senior official in the Ministry of Public Security’s headquarters, for example, is likely to remain a high-risk occupation as long as Xi is in office. Xi has an incentive to selectively undermine ties and trust between officials who are in a position to affect his political security. Indeed, he has already demonstrated his willingness to use members of the security establishment against one another. Xi very likely recognizes that internal investigations can also promote paralysis and degrade organizational cohesion, but views this as a small price to pay for protecting his position.

However, there does not appear to be a clear political rationale behind the most recent removals that would offset the disruption to China’s national security apparatus. The officials who have been targeted played peripheral roles, at best, in the maintenance of Xi’s and the CCP’s political power. The minister of defense is not in the chain of command, and although the Rocket Force is crucial to the PLA’s military capacity, it is probably the most insular service. It plays little role in internal stability operations. The abrupt removals of Qin and senior military leaders so soon after they were put in office therefore exacts a cost to their organizations and to China’s image with little redeeming political value. This suggests shortcomings in the personnel vetting and monitoring systems—and perhaps Xi’s own judgment—that should have highlighted disqualifying factors before they were elevated to positions of prominence.

Implications for Xi’s political and strategic calculus

The recent personnel tumult suggests a variety of implications for Xi and China. First, the clean sweep of the Rocket Force’s leadership team and the imposition of outsiders to replace them indicate that Xi probably does not anticipate fighting a large-scale conflict soon. If he foresaw an imminent likelihood of war, then he probably would not have uprooted the Rocket Force’s entire leadership, or he at least would have chosen replacements more familiar with the force.

The nature of the removals is also a fresh demonstration that the imperatives of secrecy and compartmentalization in party governance are far more important to Xi than assuaging foreign concerns about the CCP’s opaque and seemingly capricious decisionmaking. The silence accompanying the mysterious disappearances of Qin and Li will fuel rumors about other potential targets. It substantiates concerns among foreign officials that their interlocutors are “nowhere near within a hundred miles” of Xi’s inner circle, as US Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Kurt Campbell described in 2021.

Finally, the extent of the reshuffle will also be a marker of Xi’s broader approach to political control over the elite as he enters a new phase of his tenure. The ebb and flow of investigations over the past eleven years has tracked Xi’s overall political position and priorities. In his first term as general secretary from 2012 to 2017, Xi was consumed by his campaign to target the personal and institutional power bases of his rivals while elevating his allies. After Xi completed his consolidation of power in 2017, the broad purges and reorganizations slowed significantly as he shifted from disruption to construction. Since then, he has focused on rationalizing and strengthening the party apparatus.

The investigations that have come to light recently in Xi’s third term probably reveal cracks in Xi’s personnel management system. However, they do not yet imply a departure from his overall approach to controlling the CCP apparatus or a threat to his power. Xi maintains personal control over the key organs of political power within the party. He relies on a very small circle of trusted subordinates to run those organs and on regular but contained internal investigations into senior officials outside that circle. It would, however, signal a more disruptive and unpredictable approach to governance if leaders and officials at the heart of Xi’s political control apparatus were targeted. Those key organs include the Central Committee’s General Office and Organization Department and the CMC’s General Office. For now, the churn within the upper ranks of the PLA and MFA reflects a familiar, if flawed, playbook for enforcing discipline within the CCP.

Mark Parker Young is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub and a principal analyst at Mandiant. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

Further reading

Image: Members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) walk past an image of Chinese President Xi Jinping at an exhibition at the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution in Beijing, China October 8, 2022. REUTERS/Florence Lo

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