China's air force 'burned missile fuel to make hotpot': ex-officer

The story follows a US media report of missile fuel tanks filled with water, amid widespread military graft.
By Gu Ting for RFA Mandarin
2024.01.08
China's air force 'burned missile fuel to make hotpot': ex-officer A missile-armed Chinese fighter jet flies near a U.S. Navy P-8 aircraft, Aug. 19, 2014.
AFP/Department of Defense/Handout

Rampant corruption and funding shortfalls are eating away at the People's Liberation Army's ability to equip its own forces, according to a former People's Liberation Navy Lieutenant Colonel, who described air force personnel taking away chunks of solid missile fuel to use as fuel for meals of traditional Chinese hotpot during his time as a serving officer.

PLA Navy Lt. Col. Yao Cheng, a former staff officer of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force Command who fled to the United States in 2016, said corruption is rife throughout the Chinese military, and is often driven by a lack of adequate supplies or equipment.

"The budget for dinners and gifts is taken from the equipment department," Yao told RFA Mandarin, responding to a recent report from Bloomberg blaming ruling Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping's recent purge of the People's Liberation Army rocket chiefs on their failure to keep the nation's missiles fueled and at the ready.

"Some military departments have no money, and if they need money, their chief has to allocate some from the equipment budget," Yao said. "The equipment budget would have been sufficient, but not after being misappropriated."

He added: "When I was in the military, we would ... drain fuel from aircraft fuel tanks for cooking, which burns green and has no smell at all."

"When we would eat hotpot, we would take out the solid fuel in the missiles piece by piece, because there were insufficient supplies," Yao said. "I would often go along to the armory and ask them for a small round piece of solid fuel when we wanted to have hotpot."

Traditional Chinese hotpot is eaten out of a communal table-top pot that is kept constantly on the boil, as guests throw in raw meat, seafood and other delicacies to cook on demand. Pots can be fueled with anything from electricity to camping stove fuel.

Military purge

Bloomberg cited US intelligence assessments as saying that Xi's military purge came "after it emerged that widespread corruption undermined his efforts to modernize the armed forces and raised questions about China’s ability to fight a war," quoting people familiar with the assessments.

"The corruption inside China’s Rocket Force and throughout the nation’s defense industrial base is so extensive that U.S. officials now believe Xi is less likely to contemplate major military action in the coming years than would otherwise have been the case," the agency reported.

It cited examples of missiles filled with water instead of fuel, as well as vast fields of missile silos in western China with lids that don’t function in a way that would allow the missiles to launch effectively.

Chinese military vehicles carrying DF-5B intercontinental ballistic missiles participate in a parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Oct. 1, 2019. (Greg Baker/AFP)
Chinese military vehicles carrying DF-5B intercontinental ballistic missiles participate in a parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Oct. 1, 2019. (Greg Baker/AFP)

Xi replaced Li Yuchao as commander of the People's Liberation Army Rocket Corps – which controls the country's nuclear missiles – in July, as state media reported that Li and his former deputies Zhang Zhenzhong and Liu Guangbin had been placed under investigation by the Chinese Communist Party's disciplinary arm, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu was reportedly being investigated for corrupt procurement of military equipment after being out of the public eye since Aug. 29, along with several other senior officials from the Chinese military's procurement unit, media reports said at the time.

Chinese lawmakers on Friday approved the appointment of Adm. Dong Jun, the former commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to the position of defense minister, state Xinhua news agency said.

Adm. Dong Jun replaced Li Shangfu, who was removed from office in October, as defense minister last month.

A person familiar with the Chinese military who gave only the surname Duan for fear of reprisals said he was unable to verify the content of the Bloomberg report, but agreed that corruption is rife in the military, which he described as a "closed and independent system."

"Corruption in the military is far worse than in local government," Duan said, citing the investigations in recent years into two former vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission, Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, along with a number of other high-ranking Commission officials.

"Overseas media report that missiles are filled not with fuel, but with water," Duan said. "While we can't get conclusive proof of such a thing happening, it's entirely possible that it did."

Defense Department's report to Congress

Requests from Bloomberg for comment from the U.S. Department of Defense resulted in a referral to its 2023 report to Congress into China's military and defense capabilities.

In that report, the department said Xi had "strengthened and accelerated" his anti-corruption campaigns in the People's Liberation Army shortly after taking office, consolidating his grip on power in the process.

"Military discipline inspectors led by the CMC Discipline Inspection Commission have targeted individual power networks and occupational specialties historically prone to corruption," it said, citing probes into officers connected to Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong and former Chief of Joint Staff General Fang Fenghui. 

"In mid-2023 ... the PLA launched an inquiry into corruption linked to the procurement of military equipment, indicating that the PLA’s anti-corruption campaign remains incomplete."

China’s Defense Minister Li Shangfu, shown at a conference in August 2023, was removed from office in October. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP)
China’s Defense Minister Li Shangfu, shown at a conference in August 2023, was removed from office in October. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP)

The report estimated that China’s stockpile had more than 500 operational nuclear warheads as of May 2023, and would likely expand that number to more than 1,000 by 2030.

"The PRC probably completed the construction of its three new solid-propellant silo fields in 2022, which consists of at least 300 new ICBM silos, and has loaded at least some ICBMs into these silos," the report said, referring to silo fields at Yumen in Gansu, Hami in Xinjiang and Ordos in Inner Mongolia.

"This project and the expansion of China’s liquid-propellant silo force is meant to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear force by moving to a launch-on-warning (LOW) posture," it said.

A Jan. 5 commentary in the official Liberation Army Daily called for "strict management to create combat effectiveness," particularly at grassroots level, to "prevent small problems from turning into big problems."

"We must be soberly aware that violations of laws and disciplines by individual officers and soldiers at the grassroots level still occur from time to time," the paper said.

"Some still refuse to restrain themselves ... and embark on illegal and criminal paths."

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Roseanne Gerin.

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