Trouble in the ranks?

Details of grafting general set to be released

Trouble in the ranks?

Every Chinese leader seeks to stamp his authority on the 2.3- million strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Most analysts agree that Jiang Zemin eventually managed it but that Hu Jintao tried but largely failed. Xi Jinping, however, is well positioned to succeed, and has given the military an important role in his vision for China’s future (see WiC192 for more on Xi’s Chinese Dream). He also benefits from the strong ties he shares with the military through his father, the revolutionary leader Xi Zhongxun.

Yet the case of Gu Junshan – head of the PLA’s logistics department until early 2012 – will be good test of Xi’s sway with his generals. Likewise it will reveal whether the “tigers and flies” anti-corruption campaign – which Xi launched in 2012 – is applied as stringently in the military as it has been to corrupt government officials.

Gu, a 58 year-old lieutenant general, was back in the news last week when Century Weekly (also known as Caixin) published details of a raid on one of his palatial properties in the northern city of Puyang.

The raid yielded 20 crates of expensive booze, a gold statue of Mao Zedong, a golden washbasin and even a golden boat, the article claimed. The property itself is said to have been modelled on an imperial palace in Beijing and was referred to as ‘the General’s House’ by locals, the report added.

The timing of the article is perhaps more interesting than its content. The magazine was initially prevented from publishing the story when the raid was conducted a year ago, according to the journalist and editor who worked on the story.

But in the last month it became clear that Century Weekly had got the official all-clear to run it, the article’s author said on its website.

Many are taking this as a sign that the Gu case is reaching its final stages and that the military is coming under new pressure to make public the case’s finding. “Gu’s case shows the need for supervision and transparency,”  a commentary in the Chinese language Global Times proclaimed last week.  “In the past, because of the need for secrecy, the military was not a subject for public debate. But overprotection can be a double edged sword.”

The last time that someone of Gu’s rank was investigated for corruption was 2006. The man held the same position as Gu and the PLA made his demotion public – but little else.

The result, say commentators, is that history is repeating itself.

“People are offended that two senior officers, Gu Junshan, and the person before him (Wang Shouye), have been investigated for the same crime,” PLA historian Gong Fangbin told the People’s Daily last year.

Wang, who was said to have embezzled Rmb160 million ($26.4 million), was rumoured to have received a death sentence with a two-year reprieve – but the military has never confirmed the details.

Gu’s crimes are similarly vague, though Century Weekly has reported that they involve creaming hundreds of millions of dollars from the sale of PLA equipment, accruing a massive property empire and keeping several mistresses.

The fact that the magazine’s story has been widely repeated by the state media lends credibility to the theory that the circulation of this information has been sanctioned by China’s leaders.

Domestic sources, many within the PLA itself, have long complained about graft at the heart of the world’s largest army.

General Liu Yuan, a princeling and supposedly a close friend of Xi Jinping, was quoted by the Southern Weekend in 2012 as saying that corruption “had put both the Party and the PLA in danger”. A fuller version of the same speech, leaked to Foreign Policy Magazine, said groups within the military had “deployed all the tricks of the mafia”.

General Liu’s solution? He called on the army to “operate on itself” by citing a story in which a doctor in Siberia carried out his own appendectomy by using mirror to guide his scalpel.

It is also Liu, said the same magazine, that has forced the investigation into Gu by taking the unprecedented step of going through the Party’s discipline inspection commission rather than the normal practice of calling in the army’s own graft investigators.

Since then the Central Military Commission (CMC), headed by Xi Jinping, has issued new guidelines aimed at curbing  extravagance and waste within the army, and formed a new commission to help root out corrupt practices.

The CMC has also decreed that all officers shall spend at least two weeks on the “front lines”, banned them from driving expensive cars and begun to compile an inventory of the military’s real estate.

But the challenge of reforming the PLA is a colossal one. Georg Heinrich Berenhorst – an adjutant to Frederick II – once observed that Prussia was unique as “an army which has a country” (an inversion of the more common situation when it’s the country that has an army). It was a comment that pointed to the military’s overriding influence in that state’s power hierarchy.

In modern times, few nations can be said to mirror this Prussian extreme. But when you consider that the PLA brought about the Chinese revolution in 1949, it’s a reminder that it also continues to enjoy a unique place within the state. Not only is it integral to the People’s Republic’s founding story but likewise it is the body that ensures – via the threat of force – the Communist Party’s rule.

(Perceptions of its power have even led to a wave of scams – as reported in WiC219 – where conmen have posed as officers. Again, the similarities with Germany’s Prussian officer class spring to mind. The deference for its power allowed an enterprising swindler named Wilhelm Voigt to pull off a heist in 1906. A petty criminal, Voigt bought a second-hand officers uniform and marched into an army barracks where he fooled a unit into obeying his orders. He then used them to rob Kopenick’s city hall, an act that became famous throughout Europe for its madcap effrontery.)

As such it remains to be seen whether Xi has the will or even the means to force real change on a body that still exerts such power.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.