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Shake It Up: Corruption, Modern Warfare, and the Reorganization of the Chinese Military

What is happening?

As China gears up for modern warfare, the People’s Liberation Army inaugurated its brand-new strategic arm, the Information Support Force (ISF), at a ceremony held in Beijing on April 19. Paramount leader Xi Jinping (習近平), who also serves as the chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), passed a ceremonial flag to the force and delivered his instructions. The ISF succeeds the now-disbanded PLA Strategic Support Force (SSF), which was established in 2015 to bring together the space, cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare capabilities. The establishment of the ISF marks one of the largest reorganization within the PLA system since Xi Jinping came to power. The three nascent arms of the PLA, including the newly-established ISF, the Aerospace Force, and the Cyberspace Force enjoy a high status as bodies directly subordinate to the Central Military Commission (CMC).

 

What is the broader picture?

In his speech, Xi Jinping highlighted the CCP’s paramount leadership over the military, which should demonstrate “absolute loyalty, purity, and reliability” to the party. The establishment of the ISF should help the armed forces be ready to engage in modern warfare and ensure Chinese domination in new domains.

At the inaugural conference of the ISF, the defense ministry spokesperson Wu Qian (吳謙) said: “The Information Support Force is a new, strategic branch of the military and a key pillar in coordinating the construction and application of the network information system. It will play a crucial role in advancing the Chinese military’s high-quality development and competitiveness in modern warfare.”  

The appointed leaders of the new Information Support Force are Bi Yi (畢毅), who served as a deputy commander of the recently disbanded SSF since July 2023, and Li Wei (李偉), the political commissar of the ISF who assumed this role given his experience as the political commissar of the SSF.

As Bill Bishop comments, the appointment of top leadership from the dissolved organization suggests that the reorganization is not a response to another corruption scandal. Instead, it is a response to technological development and the rise of modern warfare, which requires “better deployment” of satellite systems, cyberspace, and electronic warfare. According to the Japanese Defense Ministry, “the Strategic Support Unit alone had a limited ability to handle all aspects of information, space, and cyber operations. The reorganization is likely intended to make each arm independent and increase its level of specialization.”

However, it is worth mentioning that the whereabouts of Ju Qiansheng (巨乾生), the abolished SSF commander rumored to have been involved in a corruption scandal, remain unknown. Last July, he did not attend a reception celebrating the 96th anniversary of the PLA’s founding but then made a subsequent public appearance to deny the rumors.

 

Why it matters?

It remains to be determined whether corruption or a need for PLA restructuring to modernize and improve the effectiveness of its forces is the main reason behind the establishment of the ISF. Yet, a crucial takeaway is that recent developments within the Chinese armed forces suggest that Xi Jinping and the CCP at large seek to invest additional resources to ensure that the PLA becomes combat-ready.