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PLA’s Christmas

What is happening? / Co se děje?

While many in the Western world were occupied with Christmas gaieties, nine high-ranking People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers lost their posts in the National People’s Congress (NPC), the highest administrative body under the Chinese Constitution. Their loss of immunity from arrest or criminal charges suggests a large scope of disciplinary action. It is a continuation of a purge in the PLA which began in the summer of last year, when tens of PLA officers were arrested, interrogated, or disappeared. As in previous cases, the Standing Committee did not reveal the reason for their removal.

What is the broader picture? / Jaké jsou širší souvislosti?

The end of December, a time when the West is engrossed in celebrations and loses focus on international politics, presents an opportune moment for global dictators to advance policies or make decisions without much interference from the democratic world.

Christmas is not celebrated the same way in China as it is in the West. This time around, Chinese state media decided to diverge even further and offered an alternative version of Santa Claus, claiming that it is the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) who brings peace to people, not an old man from the West. The Chinese government is trying to enhance the public picture of its armed forces domestically. However, as the current developments illustrate, the PLA faces some serious challenges.

On December 29, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of China announced the removal of nine military personnel from their positions as NPC deputies. Among the nine, three were former commanders of the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF), an organization that was the target of recent purges.

It is a continuation of the large purge within the PLA which attracted the media attention in summer after two commanders of the PLARF were dismissed and disappeared.

A former head of the PLA Rocket Force, General Li Yuchao (李玉超), and his former deputy and current deputy chief of staff of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission Zhang Zhenzhong (張振中) have been under an anti-corruption investigation since July last year.

In October, China’s Defense Minister Li Shangfu (李尚福) was also dismissed and has been the subject of a corruption investigation. His predecessor Wei Fenghe (魏鳳和), who also served as the head of the PLARF (October 2012 – September 2017), finds himself in the same predicament. The fact that the last three commanders of the PLARF (Li Yuchao, Zhou Yaning and Wei Fenghe) are subjected to the investigation and their whereabouts remain unknown suggests that the purge is targeted against this powerful organization. Other names on the December list are also linked to the Rocket Force, the most secretive organization within the PLA. It is responsible for the country’s nuclear arsenal, equipped with ballistic missiles, nuclear warheads, etc. The Rocket Force would be also the main power in any possible offensive war.

Another targeted organization is the Equipment Development Department (EDD) of the Central Military Commission (CMC) suggesting corruption in the PLA equipment procurement.

Why does it matter? / Proč je to důležité?

The reports suggest three possible scenarios for what has been transpiring within the PLA. Firstly, there might have been instances of corruption linked to logistics and procurement of the PLA equipment. The second scenario involves the possibility of punishment related to the intelligence leak of China’s missile secrets to the US. Lastly, but not least likely, is the loyalty issue. Xi Jinping (習近平) may be keen on ensuring that one of the most powerful organizations within the PLA remains completely loyal to him and that commanders do not pose any challenges to his grip on power.

The fact that some officers were promoted by Xi Jinping himself indicates the gravity of the situation and the potentially precarious position of the ultimate leader. In his New Year Address, Xi Jinping declared that unification with Taiwan is a “historical inevitability” (歷史必然). However, the situation in the organization which would be crucial in an armed attack remains uncertain. At least for now.