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Politics & Security

The Qin Gang Saga: What Happened to the Top Commanders of China's Missile Force?

Could a purge of the highest ranks of China's Rocket Force, perhaps triggered by data leak suspicions, provide clues into the disappearance of Qin Gang?

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

On June 26, 2023, China's Foreign Minister, Qin Gang, disappeared from view. The Chinese government has offered no information about his whereabouts. Instead, former foreign minister Wang Yi was re-appointed to his, and Qin's, old post with no explanation.

What happened to Qin Gang? In part one of this series, I covered two of the three major theories that have been offered for Qin's disappearance. First, I discussed whether Qin might have met his downfall due to a love affair he is alleged to have been carrying on with a famous journalist. Second, I examined the theory that Qin's disappearance might have had something to do with struggles within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Second of three parts

First part: The Qin Gang Saga: From Viral Speculations to the Internal Struggle Theory

Below I cover the third major theory about Qin's sudden departure from public view. Namely, whether the purge of high-ranking officials in China's Rocket Force might be linked to Qin's case.

3. Qin Gang's Downfall Related to the Rocket Force's Purge

News about the purge of the CCP's Rocket Force began circulating on Chinese social media at the end of June 2023. I reported on it on July 11.

On July 28, 2023, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) ran a piece on the Rocket Force. The English media outlet is often chosen by the CCP to release messages to the outside world. It published an article confirming for the first time that Li Yuchao, Zhang Zhenzhong, and Liu Guangbin had been arrested for corruption.

At the time, Li was the commander of the Rocket Force and Liu was the deputy commander. Zhang had been deputy commander until 2022. The three men remain under investigation for corruption, an investigation which reportedly started after March of 2023.

On July 31, 2023, the CCP suddenly reported that the Central Military Commission held a promotion ceremony for Rocket Force Commander Wang Houbin and Political Commissar Xu Xisheng. Both men were promoted to the rank of general.

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Through this report, we learned for the first time that the Rocket Force has a new commander. We learned also that the political commissar responsible for ideological work in the CCP's military had been changed. This indicates that the previous political commissar had stepped down.

Rocket Force Purge Deeper Than Many Understand

In fact, the scope of the Rocket Force's purge is quite extensive. Yao Cheng, a former colonel in the People's Liberation Army Navy, stated that the purge had reached units even at the company level.

The purge of the Rocket Force also led to the suicide of Wu Guohua, a former deputy commander who had been retired for three years.

Zhang Xiaoyang (second from the right) and Wu Guohua's widow Xu Aiping (far right) at the memorial hall set up at Wu Guohua's home on July 23. (Weibo via Jennifer Zeng blog)

There is a photo of a memorial hall for Wu Guohua. There are only two wreaths in total. One is from Wu Guohua's wife Xu Aiping. The other is from Zhang Xiaoyang, Wu's former superior, and others. That means that a deceased former deputy commander received just one wreath from his colleagues.

Zhang Xiaoyang is the son of former CCP Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Zhang Zhen. Zhang posted the news of Wu Guohua's suicide on social media.

Screenshot of Zhang Xiaoyang's post. (Weibo via Jennifer Zeng blog)

According to Zhang, Wu Guohua hanged himself in the third-floor bathroom of his home on July 4, 2023, citing work pressure and family discord as reasons.

But note that Wu had been retired for three years. So, where did this "work pressure" come from?

Wu Guohua's obituary dated July 25. (Weibo via Jennifer Zeng blog)

Moreover, Wu died on July 4. But his death notice was never officially announced. Only a eulogy, dated July 25, circulated online, stating that he "passed away due to illness."

If he indeed died of illness, then why was the death notice not made public? And why was the eulogy delayed for 21 days before being released?

Qin Gang and a Serious Rocket Force Leak Incident

According to The Epoch Times, Qin Gang's downfall is related to the purge of the Rocket Force. The specific details are that a serious leak incident occurred in the Rocket Force, and that Qin Gang was aware of it. However, it is reported that Qin didn't report this affair quickly enough. As a result, Xi Jinping started to suspect his loyalty.

As for the specific leaks in the Rocket Force, there are two explanations circulating online.

One explanation is that on October 24, 2022, the "China Aerospace Studies Institute" (CASI) at the United States Air University released a 255-page report. This report contained information from the Rocket Force's high-level command system to logistics and production bases. The detailed information includes Rocket Force base addresses, main functions, names of responsible personnel in both Chinese and English, and unit numbers, among other data.

Yao Cheng believes that such comprehensive information can only be known by insiders, indicating a leak from within the Rocket Force.

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The CASI report states, "All information was sourced from publicly available information and documents." However, the report does not list the sources of all the information, especially regarding the data on 2,135 individuals, military unit numbers, or locations mentioned in the report. Therefore, Yao Cheng believes that at least half of the information in the report does not come from publicly available sources.

More Leaked Information Exposes Rocket Force Capabilities

Another explanation for the Rocket Force leaks comes from classified documents disclosed by 21-year-old Jack Teixeira. Teixeira was arrested by the FBI in the US on April 13, 2023, for leaking classified information.

An undated picture shows Jack Douglas Teixeira. (Social Media Website/via Reuters)

The leaked documents include test data on the CCP's new type of hypersonic ballistic missile, "Dong-Feng 27," or DF-27. This data was apparently held by US intelligence agencies.

According to these classified documents, on February 25, 2022, this new "Dong-Feng 27" was test-fired and traveled 2100 kilometers in just 12 minutes. The average speed was Mach 8.6, and the estimated terminal speed was over Mach 10, making the DF-27 a standard hypersonic missile.

At that time, many media outlets reported this news.

The CCP was shocked to see such specific and accurate data. How did the US obtain this information? Was there a leak from someone within? 

The military immediately launched an internal investigation. However, they could not find any possibility of high-level leaks.

The Chips Are Down

Ultimately, Chinese authorities traced the leak back to the chips used in the DF-27 missile. It turned out that the chips were not domestically produced as required, but were foreign-made.

It is said that Xi Jinping had long demanded independent production of China's high-end military equipment, including chips, to prevent being controlled by others and to avoid leaks.

However, in recent years, the United States has tightened its control over China in the chip field. This has severely restricted the use of control and navigation chips in the Rocket Force's missiles.

The Rocket Force complained to the Central Military Commission, stating that the Rocket Force couldn't obtain suitable chips. But Xi Jinping did not heed their warning, clearly demanding that the Rocket Force find ways to overcome their difficulties on their own.

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So, what solution did the Rocket Force come up with? 

It is said that the Rocket Force sourced chips from joint ventures in Suzhou City through some civilian companies like Gree and Haier. After obtaining foreign chips, the Rocket Force erased the original data and input their own programs before installing them on the missiles. 

However, the underlying data of the chips cannot be erased. The technical details of how it would be possible are not entirely clear, but it is speculated that this led to the United States acquiring clear test data of the Dong-Feng 27 missile.

Read part three: The Qin Gang Saga: Under Xi Jinping, the Way Up Is the Way Down, Too

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Author: Jennifer Zeng

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