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Xi Jinping draws army into breath-restricting embrace

In a stunning move, this year in January and February alone, 30 generals were placed under detention for investigation on corruption charges.

JAYADEVA RANADE  New Delhi | 6th Jun 2015

Members of People’s Liberation Army coastal defence force carry a machine gun during a drill to mark the 87th Army Day at a military base in Qingdao, Shandong province last year in July. Reuters

By mid-2015 there has been no reduction in intensity of the anti-corruption campaign unleashed by Chinese President Xi Jinping within weeks of the 18th Party Congress in November 2012. It continues to be vigorously implemented and remains unprecedented in duration and scope. It has also impacted on the economy with a flight of capital abroad estimated at over US$145 billion, with the accompanying austerity drive adversely impacting restaurants, hotels, jewellery sales etc., resulting in a nearly 2% drop in GDP.

At the Third Plenum of the National People's Congress (NPC) — China's version of a Parliament — in November 2013, Xi Jinping brought China's 2.3 million-strong People's Liberation Army (PLA) within the purview of the Party's anti-corruption watchdog body, the Central Discipline Inspection Commission (CDIC). With a single bold, deft move Xi Jinping immeasurably tightened his and the Party's grip on the PLA and diminished the PLA's sense of privilege. No PLA officer can now ignore the Party's directives with impunity. The fact that the CDIC is chaired by Wang Qishan, a fellow "princeling", school friend and member of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), who outranks all members of the Central Military Commission except for its Chairman Xi Jinping, ensures that there can be no interference with CDIC investigations. This move was followed by stringent rules on financial discipline and audit teams were sent to inspect PLA headquarters and Military Regions.

CDIC investigations have been swift and thorough. Within weeks, China's official media reported that Major General Gu Junshun was under investigation and that he was part of a network, which included senior officers. Numerous PLA generals were soon listed by the CDIC's official website as either under detention or investigation. Many, like Vice Admiral Ma Faxiang and Rear Admiral Jiang Zhonghua, committed suicide to avoid shame and allow their families to receive post-retirement financial benefits. In a stunning move, this year in January and February alone, 30 generals were placed under detention for investigation on corruption charges. Considering that the PLA has 32 generals, 134 lieutenant generals and 978 major generals in service, the number is sizeable. A total of 4,300 officers, or 30% of the PLA's officer cadre are currently under investigation.

The campaign certainly has political overtones. Many of those under investigation are linked with Generals Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, former Vice Chairmen of the Central Military Commission, who owe loyalty to former Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin and whom Xi Jinping's predecessor Hu Jintao found difficult to remove. The vacancies created will undoubtedly be filled by Xi Jinping loyalists.

One area which Xi Jinping has been pushing is modernisation and reform in the PLA. This entails downsizing the PLA by another 800,000 personnel and reorganising the present seven Military Regions. There are indications of reluctance in the PLA to implement the reforms, but the ongoing anti-corruption campaign can be expected to lend strength to Xi Jinping's exhortations to advance military reforms. He has simultaneously enhanced and enlarged the authority and role of political commissars in the PLA. Image 2nd

Discontent at the rising incidence of corruption and ostentation in the PLA has been voiced by senior PLA officers for a long time. In the late 1980s, a Hong Kong TV documentary depicted luxury limousines being towed underwater to China under PLA Navy protection. Jiang Zemin had also tried to divest the PLA of its numerous business enterprises. In the run-up to the 18th Party Congress, which was in many ways a watershed event for China, numerous "princelings", who normally keep a low profile, spoke out against the ostentatious lifestyles and extravagance of PLA officers. One "princeling" observed that in a particular year the expenditure on purchase of luxury limousines exceeded the national defence budget.

The high-risk anti-corruption campaign in the PLA has undoubtedly created uncertainties. While the anti-corruption campaign will undoubtedly strengthen Party control over the PLA, some observers worry it could blunt the PLA's fighting capability at least in the short term. Credible reports additionally state that Chinese President Xi Jinping and CDIC Chairman Wang Qishan have both received assassination threats. One indication is the report disseminated by Boxun, a US-based news service, on 4 March 2015 — the opening day of China's two big political meetings, the NPC and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). It claimed that a plot by the Central Guards Ninth Unit 8341, entrusted with the task of protecting the senior leadership, to assassinate Xi Jinping had been foiled. Though the report erroneously misinterpreted the promotions of the commander and other senior officers of the Central Guard Unit, it nonetheless adds credence to reports of dissatisfaction with the campaign. Xi Jinping, though, appears determined to push ahead with his agenda and further tighten his already firm grip on the PLA.

Jayadeva Ranade is a former Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. He is president of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.

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