Turmoils are not new to Chinese president Xi Jinping. However, the rapidly-spreading turmoil within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) raises grave questions on Mr Xi’s ability to lead China from the front. Even his capacity to fight his assorted wars has come under a cloud. Quite symptomatic of his waning power over the PLA, Mr Xi is now trapped in a web of mysterious disappearances. Latest to join the long scary list of high-profile disappearances is General Li Shangfu.

Not Seen for Three Weeks

The General was named China’s defence minister and a state councillor only in March this year. If he could vanish so soon, it cannot be a simple disappearance. It is a serious reflection on Mr Xi’s diminishing powers of judgement, personnel selection and picking the right Generals. This mental diminishing is patently dangerous to Mr Xi’s authority as he has built his fortress of power through rejigs of the PLA over the years.  https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia- china-66369136

Just when it seemed everything was working fine, tremors began to rock PLA’s top echelons in September. As the tremors rose in intensity, they pushed Mr Xi’s authoritarian leadership under the scanner. General Li was detained for a probe, allegedly on an issue of corruption, on September 14th. The mystery is that the General has not been seen after that and it is three weeks now. He failed to attend even the September 7th annual meeting with Vietnam, China’s de facto ally.

Video Courtesy: YouTube/WSJ News

None Untouched by Inner Turmoil

Unfazed, China explained his absence saying that the General was indisposed. The swiftness of the excuse said it all. The General’s disappearance was not an accident, but a stage-managed shocker. Again, the explanation for the vanishing was the same as before: ill health. Yet, General Li’s disappearance is unique and differs on many aspects. Importantly, this is the first-ever disappearance of a powerful member of the Central Military Commission (CMC). https://www.ft.com/content/6dca8dea-c7bf-436a-919e- 99fe4a6c1e3c

The disappearance is unique also because the CMC is a key arm of the Chinese Communist Party and controls the PLA. So strategic is this arm that it is headed by Mr Xi himself. The vanishing of General Li, the silent revamps of the PLA and the tremors they are setting off indicate that no one remains untouched by the inner turmoil. This includes even the Rocket Force, the PLA arm that controls China’s missiles, both conventional and nuclear.

Shock Shake-Ups Rocking the PLA

As a shouting proof, Rocket Force’s commander General Li Yuchao and its political commissar General Xu Zhongbo were asked to leave in July. Again, no reason was given. As speculation surges over these dismissals, reports insist that they may be under probe for hawking military secrets. Similar is the plight of another PLA officer, Major General Cheng Dongfang, who too is said to have been removed from his job. https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Caixin/Head-of-China-s-top- military-court-removed-after-just-8-months

Major General Dongfang’s case is indicative of the shock shake-ups rocking the PLA now from within. As the Major General was dismissed around September 1st, his sacking has left the PLA’s military court headless. The Major General was the president of the court merely for eight months. Again, no reason was offered for his ouster. His sacking has surprised global military experts as the Major General was eminently qualified.

Theories Put up for Distraction

A bigger picture is emerging meanwhile and it is clear. Generals Li Shangfu, Li Yuchao, Xu Zhongbo and Cheng Dongfang are all parts of mysterious revamps, which are more in the nature of turbulent shake-ups. These heads could not have rolled out sans nod from Mr Xi. Yet, the changes in the PLA are raising serious questions over Mr Xi’s decision-making abilities. The questions will continue to hang over Mr Xi as the Sword of Damocles. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/commentary/china-military- pla-rocket-force-nuclear-service-leadership-shakeup-3761851

It is worth remembering that Qin Gang was abruptly sacked as foreign minister in July. Again, the excuse offered was that he was unwell. Soon, it became clear that it was not true. The actual reason was that Mr Qin had fallen out of favour with Mr Xi. For distraction, theories are now being put up on how the current tremors and shake-ups in the PLA have got to do with the ills plaguing Rocket Force, whose budget is ballooning.

Shortcomings Rise to the Fore

With a rapidly-expanding outlay came charges of kickbacks. This is one major reason why Mr Xi could be effecting changes at Rocket Force’s top. He might be taking decisive steps in stymieing the patronage networks within the Force. Perhaps Mr Xi thinks these steps should wipe the Force clean and make it kickbacks-free. Moreover, as an authoritarian, Mr Xi is always exploring ways and means to ensure his diktats are followed, both in letter and spirit. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/china-replaces-rocket- force-generals-nuclear-xi-rcna97705

Yet, the sudden sackings of top-level officers and the unexplained disappearances of ministers are sapping the morale of the PLA. Add to this Mr Xi’s inability to transform the PLA into a super-clean force, mysterious disappearances are only helping the army’s structural shortcomings rise to the fore. This is bound to affect the PLA’s ability to fight Mr Xi’s wars on multiple fronts. Whether Mr Xi likes it or not, a broken PLA cannot help him realise his expansionist dreams.

Beset by Economic Problems as Well

So, the turmoil within the PLA is real, as the vanished General Li proves. Worse, Mr Xi is beset by economic problems as well. The economy is going through tepid times, growth is slowing down, public debt is rising, real estate crisis is deepening and population is ageing fast. These too will rob Mr Xi of his ability to fight wars. Yet, he is humouring his countrymen and the PLA by telling them that China’s is the most ideal form of government in the world. https://edition.cnn.com/2023/08/21/economy/china-economy- troubles-intl-hnk/index.html

The Poliphoon’s Last Word

Bad luck for Mr Xi. Soon, no one in China will believe him. It is Mr Xi’s 11th year in power. Despite reigning over a decade, he has not been able to provide corruption-free governance. He will not be able to shift the blame on to his predecessors. As long as Mr Xi is in command, China will be an epitome of opacity and sudden disappearances of dissenting officers will continue. China is an inward-looking system and will turn more so in the days to come. The system Mr Xi prides itself on is self-destructive.