Taipei Times

China’s Lessons—and Fears—from the Wagner Revolt in Russia

Senior Fellow and Director, China Center
Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers an important speech during his inspection of the headquarters of the People's Liberation Army PLA Eastern Theater Command on July 6, 2023. (Li Gang/Xinhua via Getty Images)

For over a century, tumultuous events thousands of miles away in Russia have impacted China profoundly. Mao Zedong (毛澤東) famously said that the cannon sound of the October Revolution brought Marxism-Leninism to China. Now Xi Jinping (習近平) fears that last month’s Wagner revolt may provide a model for the Chinese Communist Party’s undoing.

The revolt, initiated by the Wagner private military group and its recalcitrant chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was as short-lived as it was shocking. It nonetheless represented the biggest threat to Vladimir Putin’s rule in over 20 years in the Kremlin. The rebels captured the headquarters of Russia’s Southern Military District and halted their charge a mere 200 kilometers from Moscow.

Yet the fears and forces the rebellion unleashed were also felt in Beijing. CCP elites lose sleep over the precedent of a mercenary army with limited loyalty to a regime, establishing an alternative power center that could win popular support. In an era of joint proclamations of “no-limits partnership” between China and Russia, Xi Jinping and his ruling cadre realize these concerns acutely. Xi is likely to draw two important lessons from Prigozhin’s aborted putsch.

The first lesson Xi will likely derive from this month’s mutiny is the importance of centralized political control over the military. The relationship between Moscow and Wagner’s fighters was merely contractual, rooted neither in ideological commonality nor in mutual understanding. Months before the Wagner revolt, Chinese military analysts publicly noted the danger of Putin’s mercenary bargain. According to some CCP analysts, the root cause of Russia’s struggles in Ukraine has been its military leaders’ failure to install political commissars at all levels of command to ensure the lower ranks’ loyalty to the regime.

Xi has been working for years to build a system without this vulnerability. During his ten-plus years in power, he has mercilessly purged nearly one hundred senior general officers of the CCP, unprecedented in the history of the party. Virtually the entire senior leadership of the People’s Liberation Army under Xi’s predecessor has been wiped out. Many of these men are either dead or languishing in China’s prisons for life, including the PLA’s two highest-ranking uniformed officers, Generals Xu Caihou (徐才厚) and Guo Boxiong (郭伯雄). Xi has also arbitrarily removed or shuffled around theater commanders, reflecting his growing paranoia over dissent within the ranks. While carrying out large-scale military purges, he has sacrificed professional competence for ideological trustworthiness. He follows the CCP’s political playbook for regime survival, striving to avoid coups, military revolts, and civil uprisings at all costs.

The Wagner revolt has only deepened Xi’s belief in the Leninist and Maoist diktat that the Party must command the guns. After Prigozhin’s march on Moscow, the possibility of a military mutiny has been a hot topic in the inner circles of the CCP, and among ordinary people in the streets. Therefore, Xi is likely to further strengthen the political commissar system and enhance the PLA’s program of ideological indoctrination, viewing any depreciation in warfighting skills as a worthy trade-off for the reassurance of ideological purity.

The second lesson that Russia’s predicament is likely to reinforce for Xi is the necessity of inhibiting the growth of alternative power centers before they are strong enough to challenge his rule. Putin realized the threat from the Wagner juggernaut only after it had grown strong. Worried that its mercenaries would join hostile foreign forces to establish a more popular anti-Kremlin alternative on Russian soil, he dispatched his junior partner, Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, to forestall Prigozhin’s coalescence with potential outside actors. Despite this eleventh-hour intervention the Wagner rebels came close to establishing a potentially viable political alternative to the Putin regime.

This stirred Beijing to alarm. It knows all too well that the emergence of an appealing alternative to its rule could precipitate revolt and defections on a large scale. This possibility, unlikely as it may seem, is not without precedent in the annals of the communist Chinese armed forces. PLA officers and soldiers alike, once given an alternative, have historically seized the opportunity to defect to an enemy’s camp. During the Korean War, many front-line combat officers quickly fled the battle for refuge behind American or UN lines. After the cessation of hostilities, two-thirds of all those Chinese POWs — 14,000 of 21,300 — refused to return to communist China and instead defected to freedom. It is therefore no surprise that preventing defections has always been one of the CCP’s primary concerns. It has invested significant manpower and financial resources in this endeavor.

After the Wagner revolt, there is no doubt those investments will deepen. Even more draconian measures are likely. Xi Jinping has recently dialed up his warnings of insidious foreign forces operating within China to carry out a “color revolution.” The CCP could, like Putin, curtail professional contacts between all senior military personnel in the PLA and their foreign counterparts, and could go even further. Senior PLA leaders have certainly been purged before on suspicion of international collusion: In 1959, Mao’s defense minister Marshal Peng Dehuai (彭德懷) was suspected of close contacts with Soviet military leadership and given a slow and tragic death, with thousands of Peng’s subordinates receiving similar punishment. Washington must understand this deadly Chinese military ethos and cease harboring romantic illusions about the prospect of establishing a US-China military hotline.

Political earthquakes in Moscow will always make waves in Beijing. Time will tell whether Xi Jinping has prepared well enough for the moment those waves arrive.

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