Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is also the party chief as General Secretary as well as the Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), has waged a war against corruption extending it to the military or the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
After taking over as party chief and CMC chairman in November 2012, Xi quickly unveiled the war on corruption. The popularity of the Chinese Communist Party was hitting rock bottom among the people, and its reputation was in tatters. Corruption at high levels was the main issue. The internet gave protestors an avenue to air their grievances and connect with each other. The Chinese leaders fear people’s movements the most. Efforts to block the internet completely failed.
A high profile war against corruption was first launched against Bo Xilai, Chongqing party secretary and member of the party’s politburo and a princeling to boot. Both Bo Xilai and his wife have been sentenced and put away for life. But the fight has extended to Zhou Yongkang, last politburo’s standing committee member and the security chief of China. The powerful Zhou had extracted a huge budget for public security in 2011-2012 to the tune of US $ 107 billion approximately, which was bigger than the published defence budget. With the budget Zhou expanded his security empire both in terms of personnel and manpower.
What Zhou Yongkang did with his immense clout is not clearly known at least publicly. But it is the Zhou Yongkang-Bo Xilai nexus that appears to have been a major cause for his downfall. Zhou protected Bo and was against his trial. But he was outvoted.
According to recent reports coming out of Beijing the authorities have seized around US $ 14.5 billion of assets from family members and associates of Zhou. More than 300 members of his family are reported to have been taken into custody. The 71 year old Zhou is under house arrest. Xi Jinping had promised to go after not only “flies” but also “tigers” and Zhou seems to be the biggest tiger he has landed. Never before has such a big leader been charged with corruption in the history of communist China. Politburo standing committee members have been generally immune to prosecution under an unwritten law.
Apart from Zhou’s wife Jia Xiaoye and other immediate relatives, several of his protégés are currently suspended and under investigation. They include Jiang Jiemin, former chairman of Petrochina and its parent company China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), former Vice Minister of Security Li Dongsheng, and Ji Wenlin, ex-governor of Hainan province.
Known as the petroleum faction, leaders connected with the petroleum group have been traditionally powerful in Chinese politics because of their control over energy, and huge wealth. Petroleum and agriculture were once linked to Mao Zedong’s Dachai (agriculture) and Daching (oil) campaign. Zhou Yongkang was the leader of the petroleum faction.
Almost in step Xi launched the attack against the corrupt at high levels in the military. Corruption had seeped into the PLA following Deng Xiaoping’s market economy and the PLA was asked to earn, too. Premier Zhou Rongji applied himself to divest the military of its business empire. His success was not insignificant.
Unfortunately, the proclivity of President Jiang Zemin and his successor President Hu Jintao to appease the PLA to bolster their positions led to the relaxation of commerce rules for the armed forces.
The official China Daily (Apr 01) reported that the CMC had found problems concerning cadre discipline, construction projects, land transfers, affordable or low cost housing projects and health care systems in the commands during a recent inspection, quoting the military’s flagship newspaper the Liberation Army Daily (LAD). CMC Vice Chairman Xu Qiliang announced this after disciplinary (audit) teams visited Beijing and Jinan Military Regions (MR) from December 10 to March 13.
The official news agency the Xinhua (Apr. 01) reported that the trial of Gen. Gu Junshan, former deputy head of the General Logistics Department (GLD) would start. Gu is reported to be one of the most corrupt officers in the PLA, amassed immense wealth, and is reported to have “bought” his own promotion. Even more important, Gen. Xu Caihou, vice chairman of last CMC may have been arrested on corruption charges. Xu would be the highest ranking PLA leader to be tried for corruption in the history of the People Republic of China.
To follow up on his anti-corruption agenda Xi Jinping needs wide ranging powers. He has done so. The official Global Times (March 17) quoting the Xinhua revealed that Xi was heading a “leading group” for deepening reform on national defence and the armed forces. He now holds nine titles which include party chief, President of the country, chairman of the CMC, head of the leading groups in deepening reform, and cyber security and internet development of China’s central government. Specifically, Xi heads the newly formed National Security Council and overall economic development body. Leading groups are very important as they are small and power concentrated bodies and can circumvent larger institutions. Xi’s positions illustrate the important areas that need urgent attention.
Top level military leaders have voiced open support to Xi Jinping’s instructions of building a strong army (Xinhua April 03) and win wars. Eighteen PLA high-level generals including air force chief Gen. Ma Xiaotian, commander of the seven military regions and others supported Xi Jinping’s thoughts on defence and military strategy. The LAD carried excerpts of these speeches. Xi has strengthened his hold on the military and his thoughts on defence and military strategy have entered history books. Credible foreign media reports from Beijing, however said, that former President Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao have advised Xi to restrict his anti-corruption campaign in the military. They would not want their protégés in the military to be purged in this wide ranging anti-corruption drive. A new rule has reportedly been introduced that an audit would be made of the wealth of senior military leaders when they retire.
From one angle Xi Jinping is correct that corruption led to easy life and indiscipline, resulting in low morale when fighting a real war. In Xi’s calculations, muscle-flexing with the small countries who are claimants to the Spratly Islands is not real war. A study of Chinese official writings and statements made it clear that China’s approach to Japan is different from the other countries. From China’s point of view it would be better to put the Diaoyu Islands issue in the freezer and improve relations with Japan. Despite show casing of new military equipment including missiles and stealth aircraft periodically China is not in a position to confidently fight a war in the Asia-Pacific region if the US gets involved. In such a scenario, Russia will not come to China’s aid. President Vladimir Putin is pursuing a new relationship with Japan. Russia and Vietnam are strengthening military cooperation.
On the other hand the US-Japan security alliance, the US-Philippines defence agreement, and US commitment to Taiwan cannot be ignored. A serious question needs to be asked. Is Xi Jinping, in chasing the “Chinese dream” trying to build a military power pole like that of the Soviet Union, but with economic integration with the world?
Xi Jinping’s wide ranging anti-corruption drive may be viewed from another angle. In China, usually corruption charges are brought against senior leaders when they fall foul of the powers that be, politically. In pursuing reform and opening up and market economy almost all senior leaders especially their families and close friends made money. Even the last Premier Wen Jiabao and his family figure in the list. Therefore, why not a clean sweep but selected targets?
Bo Xilai and his wife were the first “tigers” to fall. Bo was carving out a new power center. Zhou Yongkang was his mentor. Jiang Zemin was also connected but agreed that Bo be prosecuted.
Bo openly despised some of the top leaders for their apparent weakness against the west. He had expanded his network among the PLA up to the major general level. It is not known whether this group included even higher levels in the military. Was there a conspiracy of a coup against Xi Jinping? Time will reveal more information. But even if a part of this is true, China’s top leadership is fighting a major war within.
(The writer, Bhaskar Roy, is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail email@example.com)