Connect with us

Politics & Security

[All Politics is Global] The Great Xi Jinping Military Purge and CCP-PLA Loyalty

The PLA has been the CCP's bastion of political and ideological loyalty, but purges by Xi Jinping raise questions about how true this will be in the future.



China's President Xi Jinping reviews PLA troops in Beijing on October 1, China's National Day in 2019. (Adapted from ©Xinhua via Kyodo)

Drama, secrecy, reshuffles, dismissals, and missing former defense and foreign ministers. These were China's top domestic political headlines as 2023 drew to a close. Xi Jinping followed with a major and brutal purge of the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) top brass.

Under its all-powerful general secretary, Xi, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dismissed as many as nine senior PLA generals from the National People's Congress (NPC). The NPC is China's so-called parliament and top political advisory body. Among those sacked were five top commanders of the PLA Rocket Force. They were in charge of the country's missile and nuclear arsenals. A former air force commander was also dismissed.

Former Navy Chief as PLA Leader

The announcement by the NPC Standing Committee did not attribute any reason for the disqualifications. Nevertheless, the move is being widely seen as Xi's purge within the PLA. The high-profile dismissals captivatingly came days after the appointment of China's new Defense Minister. He is the former head of the Chinese navy and ex-submariner, Admiral Dong Jun.

Xi chose a former naval chief to head the PLA for the first time in history. The move indicates the Chinese leader's increasing tilt towards accentuating maritime power. This is regarding Beijing's military targets in the Indo-Pacific, East China Sea, South China Sea, and Taiwan. As per the latest sackings and subsequent reshuffle, many senior naval flag-rank officers have been rerouted into China's Rocket Force. That includes the Commander of the Rocket Force.

The appointments and expulsions followed the dismissal of then-Defense Minister, General Li Shangfu. His public disappearance in August 2023 caused quite a stir within and outside China. Interestingly, it turned out that most of the high-profile dismissed military officials are directly or indirectly linked to Li. More so, Li's mysterious disappearance and ouster was the second such major incident within a month's span. In July 2023, Qin Gang, the then-Chinese foreign minister was removed in a bizarre manner. The fates of both Li and Qin remain unknown.

Former Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang looks down during a press conference on April 14, 2023 in Beijing. (©Reuters)

The PLA as the Bastion of Loyalty

The ongoing tumult within the top ranks of China's military suggests nothing short of a rigorous probe into military corruption, targeting weapons procurement and the Rocket Force. 

More tellingly, at a deeper level, it also underlines more profound issues of political loyalty from the land army towards Xi, as the latter emerges as China's most powerful leader in decades.

The PLA army has been the strongest bastion of political and ideological loyalty for the CCP. However, the situation has reached a point where a naval commander has been appointed head of this predominant land army. That is unlikely to receive a warm welcome from the land army. After all, it was the army that led the fight for the creation of a communist China in 1949. This only underscores the power politics of the PLA's continuing loyalty as the CCP's armed wing. The PLA is the ultimate guarantor of its political survival.


There is a predominant question arising from the commotion in the highest ranks of China's military establishment. Is Xi Jinping turning to the navy to assure loyalty, given that Chinese naval officers are supplanting the army? Unlike expelled General Li Shangfu and previous ministers of defense, Admiral Dong Jun has not yet become a member of the Central Military Commission (CMC). The CMC is China's most powerful decision-making body on matters military. Dong's appointment as the least powerful military figurehead in CCP's history only confirms the extent of Xi Jinping's military purge, and perhaps his rising insecurity.

Qin Gang, then-foreign minister left) and Li Shangfu, then-defense minister (right) take the oath after being elected as State Councilors at the plenary session of China's National People's Congress. March 12, 2023, in the Great Hall of the People. (©Kyodo)

CCP-PLA Relations

What caused this precipitous shift could perhaps be Xi's apprehensions concerning political loyalty between the CCP and the PLA. My 2011 book China: Military Modernization and Strategy examines the inter-relationship among party, state, and army in the PRC today. It considers several longstanding and unique features of civil-military relations in China. 

Throughout the 20th century, from the late imperial to the post-Deng era, a major characteristic of CCP-PLA relations was strong ideological control. It was an integral part of a firm party hand on the PLA. Consequently, the PLA was then pronounced a class-based ideological model for Chinese society. This is put forth by Zheng Yongnian in the 1998 book Discovering Chinese Nationalism in China.

CCP Military Authority

The standard textbook used for "political work" in the armed forces is the National Defense University Party History and Party Building Research Office (Zhongguo Renmin Jiefangjun Zhengzhi Gongzuoxue, ed). The textbook was published after the promulgation of China's National Defense Law. It explicitly outlines the CCP's relationship with the PLA, stating unambiguously:

The party's absolute leadership over the army is a fundamental feature of army building […] The CCP should be our army's only and independent leader and commander […] If the Communist Party loses its military authority, it will have no status […] Our army is an armed group to carry out the party's political tasks.

Since coming to power in 2012, Xi Jinping has effectively used the anti-corruption plank to bluntly silence his critics and rivals within the CCP. He has done this in the name of targeting graft and abuse of power.

The CCP's past inclination for PLA support created an intertwined relationship in which the party became indistinguishable from the gun. The CCP and PLA clearly have common interests in that each of them benefits from the CCP's monopolization of political power. 

This is occurring during the reign of perhaps the strongest leader in communist China's history. The CCP is making its best efforts to conceal the current turmoil in the highest ranks of China's military establishment. However, that too, raises serious questions regarding the future of ideological and political loyalty in 21st-century China's civil-military relations.


Author: Dr Monika Chansoria

Dr Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo and the author of five books on Asian security. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which the author is affiliated. Follow her column, "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on X (formerly Twitter).


Our Partners