The practice of buying promotions inside the military is now so widespread, Liu noted, that even outgoing President Hu Jintao, who also leads the military from his position atop the CMC, had vented his frustration. "When Chairman Hu severely criticised ‘buying and selling official posts,' can we sit idle?"
Liu's revelations are not necessarily good news for China's would-be foes. Foreign government strategists are starting to worry that corruption and byzantine internal politics may amplify the known difficulties in communicating with the PLA and adroitly managing crisis situations. Despite the risks inherent in China's growing arsenal, expanding ambitions and spasmodically aggressive rhetoric and actions, military cooperation between the United States and China is almost nonexistent. Diplomats say American officials are given less access to PLA officers than colleagues from other Western embassies, who themselves are kept largely in the dark. Senior Western government officials have told me that U.S. military leaders have less knowledge of command systems, and far fewer avenues of communication, than they had with their Soviet counterparts during the Cold War. Michael Swaine, a China security expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes that the "fragmented and stove-piped structure" of the Chinese system means it has great trouble communicating even with itself, especially in crisis situations. He, like most other analysts, does not study corruption in the PLA because of the difficulty in measuring it.
In some ways, though, it's hiding in plain sight. Outsiders can glimpse the enormous flow of military bribes and favours in luxury cars with military license plates on Changan Avenue, Beijing's main east-west thoroughfare, and parked around upmarket night clubs near the Workers' Stadium. Business people gravitate toward PLA officers because of the access and protection they bring. PLA veterans told me they are organising "rights protection" movements to protest their inadequate pensions, which they contrast with the luxury lifestyles they observe among serving officers. Retired officers have told me that promotions have become so valuable that it has become routine to pay the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to even be considered for many senior positions.
The February address, the second and most detailed of Liu's corruption speeches, suggests the problems run much deeper than anecdotal evidence suggests. "Certain individuals exchange public money, public goods, public office and public affairs for personal gain, flouting the law and party codes of conduct, even resorting to verbal abuse and threats, clandestine plots and set ups," he said. "They physically attack loyal and upstanding officials, kidnap and blackmail party leaders, and drag in their superiors to act as human shields. They deploy all of the tricks of the mafia trade within the army itself." The way Liu describes it, the web of military cliques, factions, and internal knots of organized crime sounds more like the workings of warlord armies before the communist revolution than the rapidly modernizing force that is currently rattling China's neighbors.
Chairman Mao spoke of "curing the disease to save the patient" in the times of discipline and austerity before the revolution. Perhaps because Liu was talking about the PLA -- where putrefaction appears more advanced than elsewhere in China's sclerotic bureaucracy -- he took the metaphor beyond its usual graphic limits. In his February speech, Liu recalled a childhood tale about a surgeon in Siberia who saved himself from acute appendicitis by using a mirror to guide a knife into his lower abdomen.
"How many people on this earth are really able to operate on themselves?" he said, according to sources who verified the speech. "No matter if it is an individual or an organisation, to fix a problem when it arises requires this type of guts and nerve."
Liu's legendary pedigree gives him license to do and say things that others cannot. He is the sole surviving son of former President Liu Shaoqi, who had been Mao's anointed successor for 20 years until Mao turned on him at the start of the Cultural Revolution. Arrested and publically beaten, the elder Liu died in 1969 in a cold concrete prison cell -- naked, emaciated, and caked in vomit and diarrhea. One of his brothers died when his head was forced onto a railway track; the other lost his sanity in jail and died shortly after his release. In 1979, Liu's mother was released after a decade in jail; his father was posthumously rehabilitated the next year in the lead up to a great show trial for the family's old assailants, including Mao's wife Jiang Qing. Liu Yuan and his friend Xi Jinping, who also suffered during the Cultural Revolution, resolved to be grassroots officials in the countryside and began ascending through government ranks.