The Communist Party of China (CCP) announced on 27 June that it has expelled two former defence ministers with ties to the Rocket Force, the fourth branch of the People’s Liberation Army tasked with operating China’s arsenal of land-based ballistic, hypersonic, and cruise missiles, including conventional and nuclear payloads.

Wei Fang, a former commander of the Rocket Force, served as Minister of Defence from March 2018 until his retirement in March 2023, when he was replaced by Li Shangfu, who was then removed in October 2023. Both men were ejected from the CCP for association with bribery, though neither has been seen publicly since leaving post. 

Li is accused of accepting “a huge amount of money and valuable in return” for seeking “benefits for others” and “improper befits in personal arrangements for himself and others”. The Central Military Commission (CMC) investigation into these charges also found that he had offered monies to seek undue benefits. As such, he is suspected of giving and receiving bribery, both criminal offences.

The release from China’s Ministry of National Defence uses softer language to describe the graft-related crimes of Wei, accused of taking bribes, accepting “money and gifts” in violation of relevant rules. However, the announcement goes on to stress crimes of disloyalty, saying he had “severely contaminated the political environment of the military, bringing enormous damage to the Party’s cause, the development of national defence and the armed forces, as well as the image of senior officials.”

The US Department of Defence annual report into China published in October 2023 references ongoing corruption inquiries in to the PLA Rocket Force. Chinese media reports from mid-2023 announced the PLA Rocket Force leadership was being replaced and an inquiry into corruption was being launched around corruption linked to the procurement of military equipment.

Meia Nouwens, senior fellow for Chinese security and defence policy at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, believes that the loyalty of these two former ministers plays a huge role in the decision to expel them from the CPC. 

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Nouwens draws attention to the allegations that Wei had damaged the ‘image of senior officials’, and points out that both Li and Wei were “handpicked” by Chinese President Xi Jinping as Ministers for Defence, and that Xi is the Chairman of the CMC. 

“I think the expulsion is a combination of corruption, disloyalty to Xi and the nature of both men’s positions . . . [the reference to damaging the image of senior officials] points to disloyalty in particular – not just letting down the military and the party, but also Xi Jinping himself.

“One thing to note, though, is how incredibly public this whole affair is being treated. That has to be a conscious decision by Xi and the Party. It might be the case that it is being done so as a warning to others, or as a show of strength by Xi Jinping of just how much power he has amassed.”

Euan Graham, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategy Policy is doubtful that the public expulsion is motivated by corruption on the part of Li or Wei as he sees that as “endemic to CCP governance”.

Graham supports Nouwens’ view that the expulsion may be “a demonstration about the importance of loyalty,” but notes that neither Wei or Li were defence ministers with the influence and stature of defence secretaries within the US system, for example, but were “more like front men, than real decision makers, within the CMC”.