President Xi Jinping of China has replaced two military officers of an elite unit in charge of the country’s nuclear arsenal, sparking rumours of another purge. General Li Yuchao, commander of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Rocket Force unit, and his deputy had “disappeared” for several months.
As replacements, former deputy navy chief Wang Houbin and party central committee member Xu Xisheng were nominated. This is the most significant unanticipated change in Beijing’s military leadership in nearly a decade.
“The latest purge is significant… [as] China is undertaking one of the most profound changes in nuclear strategy in decades,” said Lyle Morris, an Asia Society Policy Institute foreign policy and national security scholar.
“[President] Xi [Jinping] has consolidated control of the PLA in unprecedented ways, but this does not imply complete control.” “Xi is still concerned about corruption in the ranks and has indicated that absolute loyalty to the [party] has yet to be achieved,” he said.
Xi is also the chairman of the Central Military Commission, China’s highest military leadership.
President Xi emphasised the importance of “addressing prominent issues faced by party organisations at all levels, such as maintaining the party’s absolute leadership over the military” at a meeting late last month, according to Chinese official media.
The removal of China’s Rocket Force officers is the most erratic change in military leadership in nearly a decade.
Beijing has not commented on the whereabouts of Gen Li and his deputy General Liu Guangbin, but a story last week in the South China Morning Post stated that the commission’s anti-corruption arm had opened a probe into the two officials, as well as Gen Li’s former deputy Zhang Zhenzhong. The report referenced two unidentified sources.
Mr Wang and Xu’s new positions occurred just one day before the PLA’s 96th anniversary on August 1. They were announced at an event at the commission’s Beijing headquarters.
Both have been promoted from lieutenant general to full general, the highest rank for active service commanders in China.
Mr Morris believes Gen Li’s demise, along with the recent removal of former Foreign Minister Qin Gang, confronts Mr Xi with one of the most significant leadership problems in recent memory.
Mr Qin had been absent from public appearances for a month until being replaced last week by his predecessor Wang Yi. There was no explanation for his removal.
Former Central Military Commission deputy chairman Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong were deposed and prosecuted for corruption in 2014 as part of a widespread crackdown among China’s military ranks. A military court convicted Guo to life in prison, but Xu died before his trial.