China Brief
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China Replaces Top Rocket Force Commanders

The apparent purge comes amid a renewed crackdown on corruption in the military.

Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and other leaders pose with military officers who were promoted to the rank of general in Beijing.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and other leaders pose with military officers who were promoted to the rank of general in Beijing.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and other leaders pose with military officers who were promoted to the rank of general in Beijing on July 31. Li Gang/Xinhua via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: China replaces two top generals in charge of land-based missile defense, record rainfall causes deadly floods in Beijing, and Fiji extradites two Chinese nationals to the United States on fentanyl trafficking charges.


China Ousts Rocket Force Generals

In an apparent purge, China has replaced two top generals at the top of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force, with corruption charges likely. The new chief of the Rocket Force, which oversees land-based missile defense, is Wang Houbin, the former deputy commander of the Navy. He will work alongside Xu Xisheng, a political commissar brought over from the Air Force. (Beijing maintains a dual-control system over the military.)

The PLA Rocket Force, which officially emerged from the Second Artillery Corps in 2016, has become a major component of China’s armed forces. It controls China’s massive arsenal of land-based tactical and strategic missiles. The purge reflects another crackdown by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to assert control over its leadership. Opaque as the details are, the move offers a glimmer of insight into the recurring problem of military corruption.

The previous PLA Rocket Force commander, Li Yuchao, and his deputy, Liu Guangbin—along with a former deputy, Zhang Zhenzhong—were all reportedly detained in June. China has not yet made a formal announcement of a corruption investigation. The lack of information recalls the disappearance of former Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who was replaced last month. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs restored references to Qin on its website last week after deleting them the day before; there remains no sign of Qin himself.

Missiles are a crucial military asset for China. They stand as a threat to Taiwan and could be used to target U.S. military bases or warships in the event of a conflict in the Asia-Pacific region. The creation of the PLA Rocket Force came with a big influx in funding. The increased cash flow would have offered golden opportunities for officials. According to one unnamed source who spoke to the South China Morning Post, Li and others took advantage of the unit’s headquarters in Beijing to schmooze with the defense industry.

The CCP wields strong control over the PLA, but it lacks oversight, despite recent purges. Corruption scandals seem to be just as common within the Chinese military as in the rest of the party, but with potentially devastating consequences for national security. Poorly engineered bridges or schools as a result of skimmed funds or shoddy standards are deadly; discovering that missiles don’t work because the maintenance funds were stolen could mean losing wars—and thereby threaten the survival of the CCP.

The Chinese military offers many opportunities for graft, from selling military license plates for toll evasion to renting military helicopters to businesspeople. Beijing rarely reports on the damage caused by military corruption, but around 2014, a well-placed U.S. source told me that logistical problems were common, and that due to poor maintenance, some units kept only a few missiles in working order for inspection. In 2017, a Chinese government source also described recurrent problems with the sale of ammunition overseas.

Although Chinese journalists can sometimes uncover and report on regular corruption scandals, they—along with most civilian officials and the police—cannot touch the PLA. Military reporters at the People’s Daily and the Global Times, both owned by the CCP, have complained to me in the past about the strict security around even banal information about the military.

However, it’s clearly possible to get away with a lot of stealing in China and still keep one’s job, raising the question of what the PLA Rocket Force generals did to cross the line. In the purge of officials involved in the state-backed semiconductor Big Fund last year, the prompt was the body’s failure to meet ambitious targets as part of the Made in China 2025 program. That led to an investigation into where all that money had gone; multiple former executives were arrested on corruption charges. It’s possible that the Rocket Force also fell short of some high-level goals.

The purge does not mean China is preparing for an imminent invasion of Taiwan, as some Chinese exiles have suggested. Military readiness is a constant concern, and fears that corruption could threaten the nation go back centuries. Military thinkers still reference the destruction of China’s Northern Fleet due to rampant corruption, including ammunition supplies filled with sand instead of gunpowder, during the First Sino-Japanese War. Back then, some of the funds were siphoned off in part to restore a marble pavilion in the shape of a boat for the empress. Perhaps China’s watchdogs should look out for expensive homes in the shape of warheads.


What We’re Following

Floods devastate Beijing. In Beijing’s worst flooding since the 2012 storms that killed at least 79 people, torrential rainfall from Typhoon Doksuri has left parts of the Chinese capital underwater. At least 20 people are dead, and 27 are missing. Beijing has notoriously shallow drainage, in part owing to the city’s extensive use of groundwater, which includes the digging of illegal wells. Heavy storms often leave a foot of water on the road—a problem seen in cities across China, which often rely on poorly designed and maintained 1980s-era water systems. (The centuries-old drainage system in the Forbidden City, however, worked perfectly.)

After 2012, Beijing invested in some improvements in the center of the city, but the heaviest rainfall this time was in the underdeveloped western sprawl of the city, particularly the mountainous area of Mentougou. Dramatic scenes of collapsed roads and new urban rivers have captured attention; more than 52,000 people—a small drop in Beijing’s population of 22 million—were evacuated from their homes. The floods aren’t limited to the capital: Around 35,000 people were displaced in neighboring Tianjin, and Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for an “all-out” rescue effort.

The disasters may raise public awareness around the threat of climate change in China. The country has responded to recent heat waves by doubling down on coal-fired energy to meet demand. China is by far the world’s biggest carbon emitter; it is making strides in renewable energy while ramping up fossil fuel use. As I argued recently, that makes climate diplomacy a shaky platform for U.S.-China relations.

Chinese nationals extradited to U.S. There is another crisis brewing in U.S.-China relations, this time over two Chinese nationals extradited from Fiji to the United States on fentanyl trafficking charges.. China has lodged a formal complaint, saying the pair were deprived of proper diplomatic or criminal representation in Fiji as a result of U.S. interference. Washington has held the case up as a model of action against the fentanyl trade.

This might seem like a small issue, but it has the potential to blow up. To be sure, neither of the detained Chinese nationals is a figure like Meng Wanzhou—the Huawei executive whose arrest in Canada led China to detain two Canadians in retaliation. But extradition through third countries is a live issue between Beijing and Washington. China often uses third countries to target dissidents or exiles and sees that as a right it holds over virtually anyone of Chinese descent.

If the case grows bigger, it’s possible U.S. citizens could be targeted in China, especially given a renewed push on Tuesday to mobilize the whole nation for anti-espionage measures.


FP’s Most Read This Week


Tech and Business

Italy ditches BRI. As expected, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni plans to take Italy out of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Under a previous administration in 2019, Italy became the only G-7 country to join the initiative; one of Meloni’s ministers called the move an “atrocious” act. Legally negotiating a way out of the BRI may be a challenge for Italy, which primarily objects on the grounds that Chinese exports to Italy have dramatically increased without a similar rise in Italian exports to China.

Italy is trying to walk a tricky line: pulling out of the BRI without damaging the relationship. But that seems impossible. Beijing will probably see the move as a slap in the face, despite Meloni’s efforts to say that U.S. pressure played no role in the decision. The United States is doing a good job of persuading developed countries such as South Korea to move away from China as the new cold war gets colder, while China is pushing India, the largest developing nation, toward the U.S. camp.

Property crisis rumbles on. Chinese property sales continue to fall sharply despite the government’s best efforts to prop up the real-estate sector. In July, they dropped by more than 33 percent. State-backed developers, previously less vulnerable than private companies thanks to deep funding reserves, are feeling the bite as the crisis hits its third year. The national government has responded with plans to further ease the housing markets in major cities.

The underlying problem here is that China’s real-estate market remains a bubble. The country’s housing price to income ratio is between 20:1 and 35:1; compare that to the high end of the U.S. ratio: 3:1. Beijing has an interest in popping the bubble—but even more of an interest in propping it up, since the urban upper-middle class holding the property is also the bedrock of party support. In a country that hasn’t experienced a modern property crash, the psychological impact of such an event would be tremendous.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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