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  • Martin Day

Xi’s corruption crackdown is a countdown to war

BY MARTIN DAY


Generally, politics in China is shrouded in a veil through which very little information escapes. That’s why recent scattered reports of an increasingly widespread purge of senior military and political officials have generated such ripples amongst watchers of China in the West. Having begun in July with the sensational fall of President Xi Jinping’s protégé - the Foreign Minister Qin Gang - the scope of the apparent cull has widened to include nuclear officers, a military court judge, members of the Central Military Commission and, in September, the Defence Minister Li Shangfu.


Such an unusually severe series of cuts has predictably set hares running amongst the Western press. In August, The Washington Post highlighted the “potential cracks in Xi’s hold on power”, whilst The Japan Times solemnly diagnosed “turmoil in Xi’s government”. Even the BBC wondered whether such a purge spelt trouble for the President’s future. Such articles highlight the eagerness amongst Western pundits for signs of weakness in the leader of their growing rival. Yet, unfortunately, such an optimistic interpretation is likely to be off-the-mark. Instead, the purge can be seen to point to a far grimmer conclusion.


It is important to consider the wider context: in March, Xi Jinping was granted a third term as president by the National People’s Congress – an unprecedented move that solidified his legacy as the country’s most consequential leader since Mao and Deng Xiaoping. In Hong Kong, the appointment of Police Chief John Lee to the post of Chief Executive marked for many a symbolic end to the territory’s tenacious resistance to Chinese encroachment, giving Xi a massive domestic victory. Abroad, meanwhile, the consolidation of an anti-China axis – the so-called ‘Quad’ of India, Japan, Australia and the US, alongside the latter’s pre-existing allies – has, contrary to what might have been expected, greatly strengthened the Chinese president at home, hardening an “us-and-them” attitude amongst the Chinese people that has inflamed a nationalist fervour. Far from a leader on the way out, President Xi seems perhaps as secure as he has ever been – what, then, is the reason behind this new destabilising crackdown?


The answer for the military purge lies in Xi’s ambitions for further conquest, namely his aspirations over Taiwan. With Hong Kong suppressed and efforts in Xinjiang ongoing, it remains the last obstacle on the road to total unification, and it is no secret that this is Xi’s great objective. To finally bag the white whale of every Chinese leader before him would be the crowning glory of his presidency, securing his legacy as arguably the nation’s greatest ever leader.


Indeed, the preparations have already begun: in March, Director of the CIA William Burns claimed “as a matter of intelligence” that the deadline had been set for an invasion of Taiwan in 2027. That year aligns with the projected end-date of a major overhaul of the Chinese navy, including the completion of the country’s fourth aircraft carrier, rumoured to be nuclear-powered. The British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly recently spoke out against what he called “the biggest military build-up in peacetime history” being carried out by China.


On the surface, these preparations may seem like exactly the reason not to clean-house at the top. To install a host of inexperienced new commanders and damage officer morale right before such a huge operation seems spectacularly miscalculated. However, one only has to look at other current world events to see Xi’s reasoning; things become clearer when you consider the parallels between China’s desire for Taiwan, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.


It wouldn’t be unfair to say there are clear similarities between the Chinese president and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Both are despots pursuing an ultranationalist concept of supposed reunification, to be achieved through force. Both rule vast countries boasting huge armies. And until recently, both seemed untouchable, the unopposed strongmen of their nations. That no longer applies for Putin. If you were to tell a Muscovite two years ago that Putin was destined to face an attempted military coup from his own chef, they would have laughed in your face, and yet here we are. You would receive the same reaction today from a Beijinger warned of a similar fate awaiting Xi. Yet Ukraine has been a parable for the Chinese president of just how dangerous wars become when supposed military might is exposed as a mere paper-tiger.


Much of the narrative of a Russian and Chinese rebirth has relied on the notion of achieving military parity with the West – so that the regimes could stand toe-to-toe with America and therefore credibly call themselves superpowers. The total humiliation of the Russian army in Ukraine has stripped away the illusion of strength created by Putin, and forced his citizens to confront the fact that in many ways little has changed from the crisis of the 1990s. In China, where the scars of the Century of Humiliation still sting seventy years later, if all the country’s progress were to be undone by yet another blow from the West, it would likely topple Xi Jinping, regardless of his strength beforehand.


All this is to say that Xi’s anti-corruption crusade has almost certainly been done so that when he finally does invade Taiwan, he can avoid the disastrous campaign which seems to have doomed his Russian counterpart. Tearing corruption root-and-stem from the Chinese army is a recognition of, and a serious attempt to address, the problems facing his military. Far from signs of a regime about to collapse, it should be taken for the warning it is: nothing less than a countdown to war.



Image: Flikr/Paul Kagame

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