Several high-profile purges are said to have happened in China over the past few months. What do they mean? Do the mysterious removals of cabinet ministers and generals signal weakness? Paranoia? Or something else?
Because China is a tightly controlled totalitarian nation, getting good information on it is difficult. China even ceased issuing certain reports about its economic performance last August while criminalizing the gathering of basic corporate performance data necessary to make sound investment decisions.
In this context, everything coming out of China should be viewed with extreme skepticism: Is this true, or is this something China wants us to think is true?
In World War II, Winston Churchill counseled, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” For the Chinese Communist Party, rulers of the People’s Republic of China, it’s always wartime, and the truth must be hidden.
Deng Xiaoping, a hardened revolutionary under Mao, ran China for most of the ’80s. His strategy versus America was to “Hide your strength, bide your time.” It paid off when, in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Union two years later, the U.S. neglected to revise its Cold War marriage of convenience with China and instead granted China permanent most favored nation trading status in 2001, along with its accession to the World Trade Organization.
Lack of Good Information
China is largely an enigma, a black box by design. It’s simultaneously weak and strong: enormous government debt, a sluggish economy, huge youth unemployment — but with a ship-building capacity some 232 times that of the U.S. supporting a massive expansion of the navy, a rapid nuclear weapons buildup, and increasingly bellicose rhetoric and actions against Taiwan and in the South China Sea, mainly focused on the Philippines.
It is said that paramount leader Xi Jinping has purged his defense minister months after his disappearance from the public eye, allegedly for corruption. This is in addition to the purging of multiple senior military commanders. Just after the New Year, this news was linked to a report from a midlevel Chinese military defector that military personnel routinely steal rocket and jet fuel for use in heating food. Further, it was leaked that U.S. intelligence agencies believe many Chinese rockets have had their fuel replaced with water and that their silo hatches don’t work — again, all due to corruption.
But absent the ultimate test of war, we don’t really know if that was ever the case, or is now the case, or how widespread the problem is.
The purged officials might have been removed over legitimate charges of corruption. We don’t know for sure. If not, some might have been cashiered over differences in defense policy.
But perhaps some of these high-ranking men might not have been removed at all. Consider the case of Gen. George S. Patton. Supposedly “purged” from command for 11 months after it was revealed he slapped two soldiers for cowardice (they were likely suffering from PTSD), Patton was put in charge of the First United States Army Group (FUSAG), an entirely fictional command. FUSAG was composed of inflatable tanks and dummy headquarters pumping out voluminous amounts of radio traffic.
Of course, it helped that Patton had a flair for putting on a public display. This showed the Germans what they wanted to see: that the Allies’ best general was at the head of a big army at the narrowest spot in the English Channel, across from Calais in occupied France. It helped that German military culture could not conceive of an aggressive, successful general ever being punished for slapping a soldier. Patton was forced to maintain the charade until he was unleashed once again against the Germans on Aug. 1, 1944, at the head of the very real Third Army.
China’s Cooperation on Climate
The realm of China’s supposed cooperation on reducing greenhouse gas emissions offers another example. Biden’s climate czar, former Secretary of State, presidential candidate, and U.S. Sen. John Kerry, cites China’s willingness to work with America on climate change as a major area of agreement with the one-party dictatorship. Yes, China is building solar and wind power and producing millions of electric vehicles for its domestic market as well as export.
But China is also massively expanding its use of coal, with construction underway and plans to build the equivalent of America’s entire coal fleet. Its coal fleet is already about 5 times larger than the U.S. coal fleet.
Recall that China also snapped up a significant chunk of America’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve when Biden was selling it off in 2021 and 2022, all while China was also importing large amounts of sanctioned Russian and Iranian oil.
Thus, while China seeks to convince useful idiots like Kerry of its green intent, another way of looking at China’s actions yields a more sinister picture: preparing for war by making the nation largely immune to a cutoff in oil imports through the Strait of Malacca in the event of war with the U.S.
China has done this by stockpiling oil and by electrifying a large portion of its transportation infrastructure with what are, in effect, coal-powered vehicles. This reserves oil for more valuable uses: fueling combat jets, naval vessels, and armored vehicles.
Numbing the Enemy’s Senses
Lastly, even China’s relentless runs at Taiwan’s airspace, with frequent flights of dozens of fighters, bombers, and drones, as well as increasing naval exercises, are dismissed by many as merely clumsy efforts to intimidate Taiwan and influence its domestic politics. But these exercises serve another purpose. They deaden Taiwan’s senses to what could be the opening stage of an actual attack. Egypt successfully used this same tactic in the run-up to the 1973 Yom Kippur War with Israel.
Unfortunately, China’s widespread and successful effort to “capture” American elites in politics, academia, business, and the foreign service has served to deaden the senses of too many of those we rely on to defend the nation.
China might be weak — or it might wish us to think so.