August 1, 2023
BEIJING – President Xi Jinping on Monday installed a new commander and a deputy to the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) elite Rocket Force unit, after weeks of speculation that its top leaders were in trouble.
In an unusual move, Mr Xi, who is also chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), China’s top military command, presided over a ceremony promoting two officers to generals within the same force.
Former deputy navy chief Wang Houbin was named by the state media as commander of the Rocket Force, while Southern Theatre Command deputy political commissar Xu Xisheng has been promoted to the unit’s political commissar, who is the second in command.
The appointments reinforce recent reports that the commanders of the Rocket Force, which controls the country’s nuclear and conventional missiles and plays a critical strategic role, were under investigation by the authorities.
Rumours had swirled in the past weeks that the unit’s chief, General Li Yuchao, was taken away by the authorities in late June for suspected espionage involving his son, who was studying in the United States. Gen Li was also reportedly absent from the Rocket Force’s promotion ceremony at the end of June.
“This development would have caught most PLA watchers by surprise considering the three previous PLA Rocket Force commanders – Wei Fenghe, Zhou Yaning and Li Yuchao – were artillery officers,” said Dr James Char, who studies China’s military modernisation at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
“This is an unusual development and would only have further reinforced suspicions that something ominous is afoot within the PLA Rocket Force.”
Last Friday, the South China Morning Post, citing two unnamed sources, said the CMC’s anti-corruption arm, the Discipline Inspection Commission, and its audit bureau had launched a probe into Gen Li and his current and previous deputies Liu Guangbin and Zhang Zhenzhong.
There has been no announcement of any investigations so far.
But the three men were absent from a gala dinner on Monday night ahead of PLA Day on Aug 1, commemorating the founding of the Chinese army in 1927.
Unconfirmed reports that another Rocket Force deputy commander, Lieutenant-General Wu Guohua, had died also surfaced in recent weeks.
A report by Chinese news outlet The Paper last Thursday, citing family members, said he had died of illness on July 4. It was later deleted, prompting speculation by Chinese netizens that all was not well within the Rocket Force.
Formed in 2015 as part of Mr Xi’s ambitious military reforms, the unit has been described by him as a “core of strategic deterrence, a strategic buttress to the country’s position as a major power, and a cornerstone on which to build national security”.
After taking power in 2012, his sweeping anti-corruption campaign took down more than a hundred military officers including top-ranking generals, shaking up the entire PLA.
Mr Xi has repeated a call to the military in recent days that it needed to “adhere to the principle of strict discipline… and continue to promote the integrity of discipline and anti-corruption”.
This comes as the CMC is investigating possible corruption related to the purchase of equipment dating back to 2017, according to a statement by the commission’s Equipment Development Department last Wednesday.
The appointments of senior military officials from outside the Rocket Force signal an effort by Mr Xi to clean the house thoroughly, said defence experts.
Dr Char said there has been evidence to show that the Rocket Force has integrated well with its army, navy and air force counterparts in each of the military’s five theatre commands covering different regions. “Thus, we should not dismiss out of hand Wang Houbin’s and Xu Xisheng’s ability to lead the service given that they would have had familiarity with Rocket Force operations.”