Written by Samantha Hoffman.

On 31 March, state media reported that General Gu Junshan, former deputy director of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Logistics Department, had been charged with “suspicion of corruption, bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power”. This gives Gu the distinction of becoming the highest-ranking PLA official to be publicly charged in the current anti-corruption drive— although, if speculation is true, he may not be the last. International media reports preceding the announcement claimed former vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission General Xu Caihou was taken into custody and placed under shuanggui, the CCP’s internal detention system. Adding to the intrigue, on 2 April an unusual spread appeared in the PLA Daily newspaper in which eighteen military officers declared allegiance to President Xi Jinping.

Corruption in the PLA is known to be widespread, but information is scarce given the obvious sensitivity of the issue. That said, high-profile corruption campaigns targeting the PLA are not unprecedented. The last major case involved Admiral Wang Shouye in 2006 [1]. The current anti-corruption drive is not expected to address the root of the PLA’s corruption problems, which is not the driving force behind the campaign. While it aims to contain corruption, the goals are to strengthen the legitimacy and effective administration of the Party, as well as a further means to Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power. Analysis of the anti-corruption drive in the PLA should use these goals as a framework for understanding its political implications.

Gu was removed from office in early 2012. The announcement came shortly after General Logistics Department political commissar Liu Yuan purportedly called for a clean up in the PLA. An article in Foreign Policy in April 2012 claimed that Liu had pushed for Gu’s ouster. It speculated that Hu Jintao ordered Gu’s removal in late January via the central discipline inspection commission. Apparently, two previous attempts to do so via the PLA’s discipline inspection commission had failed. According to the report, “Gu’s key patron high in the PLA hierarchy” had blocked these earlier attempts. It is possible that the individual who allegedly blocked the two failed attempts was in fact Xu Caihou, who has been reported to be “one of Xu’s closest subordinates”. It is beyond doubt that both were heavily involved in widescale corruption. Both allegedly made millions buying and selling military ranks. When Gu’s compound was raided in January 2013, items seized reportedly included a large gold statue of Mao Zedong.

Both Generals made themselves easy targets, but it is highly unlikely they were the only potential scapegoats in the anti-corruption campaign. Why then, have they become Xi’s ‘tigers’ in the PLA? One possible reason is an alliance with former politburo standing committee member Zhou Yongkang. A case against Zhou has not been publicly acknowledged (notably it has never been denied), but gradually over the last few months dozens of members of Zhou’s personal and political network have been investigated. The charges could be announced in due course, pending successful negotiation that is likely going on within the Party. Another question to consider is why have more than two years passed between the time Gu was initially detained and the public announcement of charges against him? This could indicate significant internal debate on how to handle the cases— he is presumably very well connected. It takes time to build the political consensus needed to handle such a sensitive case. More generally, the need to maintain the PLA’s public image requires that cases be built in a way that best mitigates the risk of harming the Party’s legitimacy.

The PLA Daily spread mentioned above was unusual because it involved numerous high-ranking individuals from across the armed forces. It might indicate the existence of divisions among military leaders concerning Xi Jinping’s military reform goals. The PLA Daily and other state media outlets regularly feature editorials calling for the armed forces’ absolute loyalty to the CCP. This notably increased in early 2012. Articles calling for adherence to Xi Jinping’s vision of a ‘strong army’ have also regularly featured in the PLA Daily over the past year. The motivation might be linked to the need for Xi to build consensus for reform, which could explain why the corruption campaign includes high-ranking military officials as targets. ­

Unlike his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Xi was immediately appointed as head of the Central Military Commission and therefore has had more direct control from the start. Xi’s position might be more certain than that of his predecessors, but building the consensus to implement reforms is still a difficult process, especially considering the military context. An important development came on 15 March, when Xi announced that he would head a new leading small group on the reform of national defence and the armed forces. The announcement was significant given the key role leading small groups have historically played in the policy formation and implementation processes [2]. The planned reforms are structurally focused, but specific details remain vague. A state media report in January said a new joint operational command system would be set up ‘in due course’, aimed at building a coordinated and combat-capable armed forces. Even though the details are vague, the formation of a leading small group signifies that military reform is a key priority. It also suggests two possible scenarios. First, Xi has amassed sufficient political capital to overcome vested interests opposed to reform, and to push ahead with his own policy agenda. Alternatively, forming a leading small group was necessary in order to help Xi to consolidate power and push forward with his agenda. In my view the leading small group probably indicates that Xi is still involved in a difficult consensus-building process and, at this point, is still dealing with powerful interests opposed to the proposed structural reforms.

While the corruption campaign does target corruption, it is only aimed at containing it. The anti-corruption campaign in the PLA is unlikely to be far-reaching at the highest level. Before Xi can proceed with the ‘tiger’ cases, overcoming vested interests through consensus building is required. In addition to Gu Junshan, if Xu Caihou and Zhou Yongkang, are taken down, Xi probably does not possess the additional political capital to further expand the campaign at the highest levels of the Communist Party, as that would put the Party’s legitimacy and internal stability at risk. The corruption campaign may be limited within the PLA, but if successful it could contribute to Xi’s ability to push ahead with intended structural reforms.

Samantha Hoffman is a PhD student at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham, a CPI blog Emerging Scholar and an independent contractor providing research and analysis on China/APAC. She tweets @He_Shumei

References:

[1] For example, see: James Mulvenon, “So Crooked They Have to Screw Their Pants On: New Trends in Chinese Military Corruption.” China Leadership Monitor, no. 19 (2006): 1-8.

[2] For example, see: Alice Miller, “The Work System of the Xi Jinping Leadership.” China Leadership Monitor, no. 41 (2013): 1-13.