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Jan 8, 2024, 11:11am EST
securityEast Asia
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Semafor Signals

What to know about China’s military purge

Insights from Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal

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REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo
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The News

Over the past six months, a widening shake-up of China’s defense establishment has raised questions about leader Xi Jinping’s ability to root out corruption in the armed forces and modernize the country’s military. The purge, which has reached as high as the defense minister, ratcheted up at the end of 2023: A dozen senior Chinese defense figures were abruptly removed from their roles.

U.S. intelligence believes Xi’s crackdown came after it became clear that widespread corruption has weakened China’s military readiness, Bloomberg reported. China’s military corruption is reportedly so endemic that missiles have been filled with water instead of fuel and many silos in western China have lids that do not work in a way that would allow missiles to be fired effectively, U.S. intelligence shows, according to Bloomberg.

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SIGNALS

Semafor Signals: Global insights on today's biggest stories.

Corruption has been a long-standing problem for the PLA

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Sources:  
RAND Corporation, Foreign Affairs, Reuters

In Xi’s first years in office from 2013-2016, when he was undertaking a widespread anti-corruption crackdown, at least 60 military officials fell victim to efforts to reform and gain oversight over the People’s Liberation Army. While Xi has asserted more influence over the military than his predecessors, the PLA remains a “self-guarding institution” where even Xi has limits to his power, an expert in Chinese military affairs wrote in Foreign Affairs. Analysts expect corruption problems to continue to plague the PLA as long as low salaries and opaque military budgets persist.

Reports sparks conflicting conclusions among U.S. foreign policy establishment

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Sources:  
Lyle Morris on X, John Krempasky on X, Elbridge Colby on X

The reports of endemic corruption sparked a debate about whether the threat from China is lower than previously believed among U.S. foreign policy experts. “It’s mind-boggling that such egregious mistakes could be found in the PLA in 2024,” one wrote, saying that he was reconsidering China’s military capabilities. Even so, a military analyst warned that Beijing still had “an unbelievable array of highly advanced missiles that are part of an absurdly frequent test program and the vast majority appear to work really, really well.” Elbridge Colby, an influential Republican China hawk, wrote that the reports seem anecdotal rather than revealing widespread problems, and that inferring that Xi was less likely to conduct military operations because of this alone was “dubious.”

The U.S. has retained its ability to spy on China despite intelligence purge

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Sources:  
The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times

The intelligence assessments have come to light at a moment of uncertainty about the U.S. intelligence community’s ability to know what is going on in China. Beijing uprooted the CIA’s network of Chinese agents a decade ago, and the U.S. has struggled to regain human sources among China’s leadership, The Wall Street Journal reported. “We have no real insight into leadership plans and intentions in China at all,” a former senior intelligence official told the Journal. Chinese counterintelligence has set up advanced artificial-intelligence systems that track possible U.S. spies and other foreign officials in Beijing, U.S. officials told the New York Times. But the U.S. too has ramped up its intelligence efforts, doubling spending on China at the CIA since Biden came to office in 2021.

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