L’affaire Shangfu: A Hole In China’s Arms Capability And The Party’s Unity Façade – Analysis


By Kalpit A Mankikar and Aqib Rehman

The case of China’s political elite is getting curiouser and curiouser. Close on the heels of the disappearance and political eclipse of Foreign Minister Qin Gang, reports have emerged that Defence Minister and Central Military Commission member Li Shangfu and some of his erstwhile associates are under a cloud over corruption charges. The defence ministry and foreign office are among the big offices of the state, and any kind of uncertainty here does not augur well.

In the recent past, there has been a steady churn among the People’s Liberation Army’s upper echelons. Significantly ahead of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Foundation Day, its elite Rocket Force that is in charge of the nation’s nuclear arsenal witnessed a leadership shuffle on both operational and ideological fronts.

Wang Houbin and Xu Xisheng were pitchforked as Rocket Force’s chief and political commissar, a crucial position that deals with maintaining the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) control over an institution. The Rocket Force’s erstwhile leadership—former commander General Li Yuchao, and his deputies Zhang Zhenzhong and Liu Guangbin—are also under investigation for alleged corruption. Significantly, Li Yuchaowas embedded in the Party’s power structure being a member of its Central Committee, and a deputy to the National People’s Congress. The abrupt leadership rejig of an important military unit accompanied by an investigation against its former leadership is unusual, and represents a deeper malaise.

The intermeshing of the PLA’s and CPC’s power structures and the opacity of the system are key factors that breed corruption. The PLA has representation in China’s decision-making bodies—the Politburo and the Central Committee. Two senior PLA generals sit on the Politburo, whereas in the Central Committee, the military establishment accounts for around 20 percent of the 205 permanent and 171 alternate members. The kin of the CPC elite had considerable stakes in China’s defence industrial complex. For example, the relatives of senior Chinese leaders Deng Xiaoping, Ye Jianying, and Yang Shangkun had ties to large defence companies in China.

L’affaire Li Shangfu does leave behind some uneasy questions. First, there is the issue of evaluating China’s intent behind building up its military muscle and its subsequent behaviour. At the 20th Party Congress, Xi promised rapid modernisation of the PLA, and beefing up of its capabilities to “win local wars”. Subsequently, a powerful apex institution like the Central Military Commission, which maintains the CPC’s control over the PLA, was packed with generals having experience in combat.

Xi has been touring military installations, inspecting facilities there and exhorting his generals to train troops in actual combat conditions. However, of late, the focus has shifted from the preparedness of personnel to the quality of PLA’s hardware—armaments and equipment. CMC vice-chairperson General Zhang Youxia (Li Shangfu’s colleague) called for improvement in PLA’s weapons acquisitions, and upgrading the quality of weaponry. In a separate incident, the People’s Daily front-paged a report of a CPC inspection team that unearthed “glaring shortcomings” in the Rocket Force units in charge of conventional and nuclear missiles.

These assessments seemed to be a stinging indictment of Li, who served in the CMC’s Equipment Division. Some rightly argue that in his capacity as the PLA’s supreme commander, Xi is bound to assess defence preparedness, but the question is what has merited this spring-cleaning exercise? Since last year, China has resorted to military drills in the Taiwan straits, giving the pretext of visits by American leaders to Taiwan or the trips of Taiwanese politicians overseas. Have these PLA manoeuvres revealed the proverbial chinks in the armour? Another possibility is that repeated “stress tests” in the form of cross-straits war games to gauge the efficacy of personnel and weaponry revealed the shortcomings, in which case, is there a bigger military game plan in the near future?

Second, there is considerable speculation regarding policy directions in the Xi regime. Reports recently surfaced that Xi had been censured at the Beidaihe conclave—a key institutional intra-party dialogue mechanism—that sees participation from CPC seniors. In recent times, Xi has ratcheted up tensions that have led to deteriorating relations with the United States (US), which has responded with curbs on technology access and capital inflow.

In addition to this, Xi’s Zero-COVID strategy which led to several cities being shut down for long spells last year has wrecked the economy, causing rampant unemployment. The US assessment of the situation is that there are divisions between those within the CPC who are keen to kickstart economic engagement with the US versus Xi acolytes who stress on the importance of national security over economic considerations. Have the factional fights now transformed into more serious cloak-and-dagger intrigues as evidenced by the mysterious demise of General Wang Shaojun, who was in charge of security of Zhongnanhai, China’s leadership compound? Is opinion within CPC ranks turning against Xi, who is responding by unleashing a purge against prodigies with doubtful loyalties?

Lastly, to conclude, data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reveals that Chinese defence companies are making a killing, accounting for 80 percent of arms sales in the Asia-Oceania region. There was a sense of triumphalism with a Chinese academic downplayed India’s defence manufacturing capabilities in comparison to China’s during this year’s Shangri La Dialogue. Now, if indeed Li’s fall is on account of shoddy defence equipment, then nations buying Chinese weaponry may have to re-assess their efficacy.

In light of the deteriorating US-China relations, Xi has warned that China was facing the most “complicated internal and external factors in its history”, and that the challenges were “interlocked and mutually activated”. There are fears that Western powers may instigate regime change in the nation. Given this background, there is a substantial change in the Party’s conceptualisation of corruption from being seen as a mere social evil to that having implications for regime stability. The anxiety remains that if Chinese generals are susceptible to bribes and allurements, then they may offer hostile powers a new opening to breach the Bamboo Curtain.

About the authors:

  • Kalpit A Mankikar is a Fellow with the Strategic Studies programme at the Observer Research Foundation
  • Aqib Rehman is a research intern with the Strategic Studies programme at the Observer Research Foundation

Source: This article was published by Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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