When he talks of a "life-and-death" struggle to save the PLA and the Communist Party system his father helped create, few would doubt that Liu means it. What is less clear, however, is whether the PLA can simply remove its own rotten parts as if they were an infected appendix, and whether the divided and compromised civilian and military leadership, reeling over Bo Xilai's downfall, can provide so much as a scalpel to enable Liu do the surgical work.
Liu's Dec. 29 "life-and-death" speech heralded what could become the biggest expose of PLA corruption since former president Jiang Zemin opened an investigation into the Yuanhua Group in 1999. In that scandal, widely covered in official media, Yuanhua used military connections to evade a staggering $6.3 billion in taxes by smuggling everything from cigarettes and luxury cars to fully laden oil tankers. The case brought down hundreds of provincial and military officials, including the head of a major PLA intelligence division. It also enabled Jiang to consolidate his grip on the military.
The outside world caught another limited glimpse of military corruption in December 2005, when the deputy commander of the navy, Adm. Wang Shouye, was detained for unspecified "economic crimes." Official reports said he was brought down by a mistress, while Hong Kong's Asia Weekly said he kept five mistresses and stole almost 20 million dollars. At the time, the PLA Daily, the military's official newspaper of the PLA, said the PLA's two historic tasks were fighting wars and eradicating corruption, but no one took visible action on corruption for a further six years. The subject was pushed back out of sight and all that seems to have changed is that the sums have grown much bigger.
In late January, Liu followed up his tough talk by ripping out one allegedly cancerous node, the deputy director of his Logistics Department, Gu Junshan, after a protracted internal struggle. Gu was the first military official of such a high rank to be toppled since Admiral Wang in 2005. A source with direct knowledge of the case described General Gu extorting county officials with threats of violence and buying his way up through the PLA hierarchy. The source, whose allegations could not be independently confirmed, said that Gu, together with friends, relatives, and patrons in and beyond the military, profited immensely from a property development in Shanghai, distributed hundreds of PLA-built villas in Beijing as gifts to his friends and allies, and generally ran his construction and infrastructure division like a mafia fiefdom. He lists a bewildering array of personal assets, beginning with Gu's own villa, which stands outside the usual military compounds behind a high wall next to Beijing's East Fourth Ring Road, called the General's Mansion.
"Gu's problem is extraordinary big," said the source. He said Gu had arranged chartered flights for his domestic and international flights even when he had been a one-star major general, which is unheard of for someone of that rank. Gu could not be reached for comment.
In February, official military websites and news agencies confirmed Gu's removal, but only in passive terms: "Gu Junshan no longer holds the position of deputy director of the General Logistics Department." The leadership, it seemed, was still battling over the fate of Gu and those who have protected him.
The Department of Defense, which represents the PLA when dealing with foreign bodies, did not respond to faxed interview questions. But all Chinese observers interviewed for this article agreed that the PLA's corruption and discipline problems are growing worse. Military corruption is a more "imminent" threat to the PLA than the U.S. armed forces, said Zhu Feng, a professor international relations at Peking University. Others say the problems have multiplied in the decades after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, as the formal PLA budget has climbed to $106 billion a year while civilian leaders are struggling to assert control.