Chinese intrigues

The Chinese are not strangers to their ministers disappearing or being dismissed.
Last Updated : 05 November 2023, 01:14 IST

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In a sign of chinks in President Xi Jinping’s armour, there is, of late, turbulence in China’s political landscape. This is in sharp contrast to the signals of solidarity and unity put out a year ago at the 20th Communist Party Congress. While Xi jettisoned rival political factions in the all-powerful 7-member Politburo Standing Committee and the 24-member Politburo, there is definitely a push back, as can be seen from the fact that Xi has forced two of his close confidants out of office.

Qin Gang was dismissed as Foreign Minister on July 25. On October 24, it was the turn of Defence Minister Gen Li Shangfu, with both suddenly disappearing from public gaze for a couple of months after very short tenures, before being dismissed. Both were also State Councillors -- a position equivalent to a deputy prime minister. While all the previous 12 Defence Ministers were from the ground forces, Li came from the strategic support forces. Earlier, in July, the PLA Rocket Force chief Li Yuchao was dismissed, along with his deputy Liu Guangbin and former deputy Zhang Zhenzhong. Li’s troubles probably were related to his role in procurement of military equipment, in which his son allegedly had a role, too.

Li was under US sanction since 2018 for his military procurement dealings with Russia. In June this year, he picked a spat with the US delegation at Singapore’s Shangri-La defence ministerial dialogue and declined to meet his US counterpart Lloyd Austin, even grandly declaring, “When friends visit us, we welcome them with fine wine. When jackals or wolves come, we face them with shotguns.” Li’s hawkish tone toward the US was reflected in stalled military dialogues, aggressive postures, and PLA exercises in East and South China Seas, etc. With his removal, the US-China dialogue process could restart, as news about Xi’s visit to the US this month suggests.

Li and Qin were no strangers to India, though they were unable to make any breakthrough on the vexed border mobilisation since 2020. Both were unable to keep the promise of resolving problems in “all friction points” across the Ladakh border.

Nor are the Chinese strangers to their ministers disappearing and being dismissed. During the Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s, the whole of the apex Central Military Commission disappeared, with Red Guard pulverisations. Defence Minister Peng Dehua was removed after the Lushan conference in 1959 for questioning Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward movement. Peng was sent away to the backward provinces in China’s west.

Later, Lin Biao, Mao’s heir-apparent, after having served as defence minister for 12 years – the longest-serving so far -- disappeared forever while flying to Mongolia, after an alleged coup attempt on Mao. No official probe reports were published in this regard.

The tenure of Geng Biao as defence minister was eventful – for Xi Jinping, who served under Geng in the early 1980s, which provided the legitimacy for him to head the Central Military Commission (CMC) over the last decade.

The second-longest serving defence minister Chi Haotian, who served for nine years, is now a “party elder”. Chi reportedly combined with former Vice President Zeng Qinghong at Beidaihe meeting this July to criticise Xi Jinping for the economic decline in recent times.

While many rival factional leaders -- both civil and military -- were subjected to Xi’s anti-corruption drive over the past decade, rival factions belonging to Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were targeted the most. While over 5 million people are said to have been “investigated” so far in the anti-corruption drive since 2012, many of these belonged to the rival factions of Xi. It was reported that over 14,000 military cadres were also dismissed for their involvement in corruption -- given the general practice in the PLA to bribe higher-ups for promotion. In the light of this, Li Shangfu -- who was appointed by Xi only in March this year -- raises a number of questions and the possible influence of other political factions.

The highest military officials to have been put under “investigation” were CMC Vice Chairmen Guo Boxiang and Xu Caihou who are said to have Jiang Zemin’s men. Chief of Joint Staff Fang Fenghui was removed from the Party and sentenced to life in prison for corruption in 2019. Fang was involved in the Doklam escalation with Bhutan and India.

These, along with the more recent removal of Qin and Li point to the rot in China’s top echelons and to the vulnerabilities of an opaque system of political leadership and governance.

Published 05 November 2023, 01:14 IST

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