In 2023, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China, the world’s largest military, found itself engulfed in a storm of political upheaval. Within the secretive confines of government and military compounds in Beijing, a series of high-profile generals vanished from public view, only to be removed from their posts without any public explanation.
This series of disappearances reached its apex last Friday when nine high-ranking PLA officers were ousted from China’s top legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC), which typically provides its members immunity from arrest and prosecution.
Such abrupt expulsions often precede further legal or disciplinary actions, hinting at a major internal shakeup. The absence of official explanations for these removals has led to intense public speculation and evasive responses from government spokespersons.
However, experts familiar with the PLA suggest that these purges likely stem from a corruption crackdown, particularly in the procurement and development of advanced military equipment. This area has been a focal point of Chinese leader Xi Jinping's agenda to modernize the PLA and elevate it to a “world class” fighting force.
The Focus on the Rocket Force and Implications for China’s Military
At the center of this purge is the PLA’s Rocket Force, an elite unit that Xi has significantly bolstered to manage China's growing arsenal of nuclear and ballistic missiles.
This branch has been described by Xi as a “core of strategic deterrence” and a “cornerstone” of national security. James Char, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, notes that the leadership of the Rocket Force appears compromised, which could have serious implications for the PLA’s combat capabilities.
Among the nine officials expelled from the legislature, five had ties to the Rocket Force, including Gen. Li Yuchao, the Force’s former commander, and others involved in equipment procurement. Their dismissal underscores the potential scale of corruption within this high-stakes and secretive sector, which has seen significant financial investment since 2016.
The PLA Rocket Force, formerly known as the Second Artillery Corps, underwent a transformation under Xi’s military reforms. It saw an unprecedented expansion, with an increase in missile brigades and the introduction of new ballistic missiles.
Satellite photos have revealed the construction of silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles in Chinese deserts, and the US Defense Department predicts a significant increase in China's nuclear warheads by 2035. The purges within the PLA, particularly in the Rocket Force, reflect Xi’s ongoing campaign against corruption and disloyalty, a campaign that has been a hallmark of his rule since 2012.
The scale and depth of these latest purges are reminiscent of the early years of Xi's tenure, which saw the downfall of numerous senior generals. Carl Schuster, a former director at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, suggests that Xi’s focus on military developments might have exposed the extent of corruption, triggering a cleanup effort that also serves to dismantle patronage networks potentially challenging his authority and plans.