The Chinese military, a once unassailable symbol of strength, is now facing a crisis of readiness and reliability, primarily due to entrenched corruption within its ranks. This disturbing reality came to light following a series of revelations by US intelligence and subsequent actions by Chinese President Xi Jinping, aimed at purging the military of its corrupt elements.
The severity of the situation was starkly illuminated when reports emerged that Chinese missiles, crucial to the nation’s defense and offensive capabilities, were filled with water instead of fuel, as per US intelligence findings. This alarming discovery not only questioned the operational integrity of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) but also exposed deep-rooted corruption undermining the military’s effectiveness. It was a shocking revelation, indicating not just a lapse in oversight but a profound betrayal of trust within the military apparatus.
In response to these revelations, President Xi Jinping initiated a sweeping purge within the military. As reported by Joe Saballa, this drastic measure was seen as an urgent effort to root out corruption and prepare the military for combat, particularly the Rocket Force, which oversees China’s arsenal of conventional and nuclear missiles. The PLA Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese military, acknowledged the Rocket Force’s “shortcomings” following field exercises, a rare admission that underscored the gravity of the situation.
The corruption within the PLA wasn’t limited to the Rocket Force but permeated throughout the defense industrial base. Such was the extent of the corruption that, according to US officials, it significantly diminished Xi’s likelihood of contemplating major military action in the near future. The implication was clear: China’s military might, once feared and respected, was now compromised.
The purges led to dramatic changes in the PLA’s upper echelons. As Chun Han Wong reports, unexplained and abrupt shifts in senior military personnel, including the removal of the defense minister, raised serious questions about the PLA’s combat readiness. High-ranking officers, some of whom were involved in arms procurement—a sector notoriously susceptible to corruption—were removed from their positions. These changes signaled a deep and systemic issue within the PLA, reflecting a crisis that went beyond individual misdemeanors.
Analysts, including Lyle Morris of the Asia Society Policy Institute, observed that the arms-development and procurement agency had long been a potential hotspot for corruption. Yet, surprisingly few senior officials had been targeted by Xi’s antigraft campaign until these recent purges. The scale of the crackdown suggested a firm resolve by Xi to cleanse the military of corrupt elements and reaffirm his authority.
However, these sweeping changes have brought into question the immediate operational readiness of the PLA. Western scholars, such as James Char of the Nanyang Technological University, speculate that the focus on rooting out corruption might lead to greater scrutiny in personnel appointments and procurement processes, potentially slowing down military modernization efforts.
The situation is further complicated by geopolitical tensions, particularly in the South China Sea. Despite maintaining high operational tempo through aerial sorties and naval drills, the PLA seems to be avoiding actions that could escalate these tensions, possibly due to the internal upheaval.
Xi likely knew about the corruption in the military before his purges, but he may be finding that more of that shell is empty than full. He wants full combat readiness but it may be very expensive to get there, if it is possible at all.
Could this be why he has yet to invade Taiwan? Could it be that his navy, the largest in the world by number of ships, just wouldn’t standup in combat against forces like the U.S. or even India should those scenarios arise? Has their air force been properly prepared and vetted to withstand a major air assault? Are their military officers up to the task of combat and will they stay loyal to Xi?
But purges will not likely “reaffirm” Xi’s authority, more likely the opposite