Over the past two months, says Joel Wuthnow in Foreign Affairs, several senior Chinese generals have “disappeared from public view”. First came the removal of the two top officials in the army’s “rocket force”, responsible for China’s intercontinental ballistic missiles – perhaps in response to rumours about “corruption and the sale of military secrets”. Next to be ousted was the head of China’s military court, dismissed by the National People’s Congress. Then it emerged that Defence Minister Li Shangfu is under investigation for graft in the procurement system. That’s a big deal: Li is one of only six uniformed officers who sits on China’s Central Military Commission, and the country’s top military diplomat.
These scandals have taken China-watchers by surprise. Xi Jinping tends to be portrayed as “the most powerful head of the Chinese military” since Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s: he is the son of a Red Army commander, and his military treatises have become “required reading for service members”. Yet now the feeling is that his hold over the People’s Liberation Army might be “less complete than imagined”. This is good news for the West. If corruption is a problem for the Chinese military – particularly in procurement – Xi will have less confidence about the quality of its kit. And that could affect his decision-making on Taiwan – you don’t want to launch an invasion, only to find that none of your equipment actually works. The US has long worried about how best to deter Chinese aggression. “The critical constraint might be one much closer to home.”