How Combat-Ready is the Chinese Military?

As part of Xi's ambition to transform the PLA into a "world-class" fighting force, China has invested billions of dollars in purchasing and upgrading equipment

by Sededin Dedovic
How Combat-Ready is the Chinese Military?
© China Photos / Getty Images

After months of intense speculation and official reticence, China has finally confirmed that its two former defense ministers who disappeared from the public eye last year are under investigation for corruption. Their dramatic downfall has exposed deeply entrenched malfeasance in the military sector crucial to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, despite his decade-long war on corruption, raising questions about the country's combat readiness amid heightened geopolitical tensions, CNN reports.

Li Shangfu, who was abruptly removed from his position as defense minister in October after just seven months in office, and Wei Fenghe, who served from 2018 to 2023, have been expelled from the ruling Communist Party following an investigation, with both cases handed over to military prosecutors, state media reported on Thursday.

This duo is part of a comprehensive purge of China's defense establishment since last summer, which has drawn in over a dozen senior generals and executives from the military-industrial complex. The upheaval in the upper ranks of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) comes as President Xi Jinping seeks to make China's armed forces stronger, more combat-ready, and more aggressive in asserting its disputed territorial claims in the region.

At the height of their careers, former defense ministers Li and Wei often struck a harsh tone before the world's top military officials. At regional security forums, the two generals warned that the Chinese military would fight "at all costs" if anyone dared to "separate" Taiwan from China.

Chinese military delegates arrive at the second plenary session of the National Peoples Congress at the Great Hall of the People© Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

They also took thinly veiled shots at the United States, vowing to counter "hegemony" in the contested South China Sea.

Both were promoted under Xi. However, their dismissal comes despite the Chinese leader's more than decade-long anti-corruption campaign, highlighting, according to analysts, the difficulties in preventing corruption at the highest levels of the military.

"While Xi's anti-corruption campaign has had some success, the lack of proper civilian oversight and an independent legal system means that the PLA relies on its internal investigators for supervision," said James Char, a research fellow at the S.

Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. "This is challenging, so corruption will definitely continue," he believes.

Corruption in Weapons Procurement

As part of Xi's ambition to transform the PLA into a "world-class" fighting force, China has invested billions of dollars in purchasing and upgrading equipment.

Xi has also built the rocket forces, an elite branch that oversees the country's rapidly expanding nuclear and ballistic missile arsenal. Most of the generals who were dismissed or disappeared without explanation last year were connected to the rocket forces or military equipment, including Li and Wei.

Before becoming defense minister, Li headed the PLA Equipment Development Department for five years. An engineer by education, the 66-year-old spent decades launching rockets and satellites in southwest China before being promoted to the PLA headquarters to handle military equipment procurement.

Wei (70) was the inaugural commander of the rocket forces. In late 2015, Xi promoted him. Wei's two successors in the rocket forces were also dismissed.

Chinas Standing Committee Members Of The 20th CPC Central Committee Meet With Press© Lintao Zhang / Getty Images

The charges against Li outlined in the 24-member Politburo statement clearly indicate corruption in weapons procurement.

Besides taking and giving bribes and abuse of power, Li was also accused of "seriously polluting the political environment and industrial practices in the military equipment sector," state television CCTV reported. Joel Wuthnow, a senior research fellow at the National Defense University at the Pentagon, said that the carefully crafted phrase points to collusion between state-owned weapons manufacturers and the PLA procurement system.

"We know there's some collusion, but it's unclear – and the CCP would not admit – that critical weapons are actually substandard or unreliable," Wuthnow said. "If proven, that would be even more serious for Xi, as it would cast doubt on actual military readiness." A study conducted in 2018 by the Chinese Naval University, the Navy Equipment Procurement Center, and the Audit Office of the Central Military Commission had already analyzed bid-rigging practices in PLA equipment procurement and called for improvements in the bidding system, Char noted.

"These procurement issues raise questions about the quality of equipment the PLA has previously acquired. How well do they perform in the field? I think it's quite debatable," Char observes. As a sign that China's top military leadership might be concerned about the quality of its equipment, General He Weidong, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), which oversees the armed forces, promised in March to combat "fake combat capabilities" within the military, Char points out.

'Lost Confidence'

Li and Wei are the highest-ranking military figures to be brought down in the past six years due to Xi's relentless anti-corruption campaign. The Chinese leader has made eradicating bribery and corruption a hallmark of his rule since coming to power in 2012, toppling powerful generals once thought untouchable.

"The cases of Wei and Li show that Xi's vetting processes and the vaunted anti-corruption campaign over the past decade have failed to prevent corruption at the top of the system," Wuthnow said. "I think this once again shows that Xi has lost confidence in his appointees." Xi must feel personally betrayed by this high-level corruption, wrote Bill Bishop, a China watcher and author of the Sinocism newsletter.

But Xi remains determined to root out corruption and disloyalty. Last month, he convened the military top brass at a political work conference where he told PLA elites: "The barrel of the gun must always be in the hands of those loyal and reliable to the party.

It is clear that strictness is needed to achieve combat effectiveness. There must be no place to hide for corrupt elements in the military." Char believes that in the long run, Xi's cleansing of the military and its procurement system is a good sign for China's combat capabilities.

"Problems are being rectified, and there will always be ongoing scrutiny on how Xi Jinping can actually expedite the PLA to achieve his dream of modernizing the PLA by 2035," he stated.