Chen Xiaolu, a princeling and former PLA colonel who has many powerful princeling friends including General Liu, declined to repeat the "terrible stories" about PLA corruption he hears from recently retired generals (except to confirm the broad thrust of stories about Gu Junshan, whom Liu deposed). Chen, the son of one of China's 10 great marshals and son-in-law of a legendary commander, Gen. Su Yu, runs a successful infrastructure investment firm, Standard International. He opted out of the government and military system after the Tiananmen massacres. He told me the 1989 bloodshed left a vacuum of purpose and integrity within the PLA, which money has rushed to fill. "The problem has really got out of hand in the last 20 years," he said. "After the June 4 movement, when 'opposing corruption' was the protestors' slogan, some of the officers no longer cared about anything. They just made money and broke all the rules."
A second princeling who has recently retired from a ministerial-level position told me discipline and unity in the PLA has deteriorated in the past decade. He said an unprecedented leadership vacuum has opened up at the top of the military because President Hu never consolidated his grip, even after more than nine years at the helm of the Communist Party and seven years chairing the Central Military Commission. Unlike under Mao, Deng Xiaoping, and the latter years under Jiang Zemin, China no longer has a paramount leader who can hammer down authority at crucial junctures. "Gangs" of patronage and bribery are congealing together, he said, adding that "Corruption is the glue that keeps the whole system together, after the age of idealism."
A third princeling, whose father once ran China's security apparatus, blames Jiang for sabotaging the last leadership transition in 2002 by refusing to relinquish control of the military. He said Jiang promoted dozens of generals who are, as he put it, either "henchmen" or "morons." The result is that nobody is really in control, he said.
On the civilian side of the Communist Party, Bo's spectacular demise has punctured the conventional wisdom that China's power transitions are "institutionalised" and will flow smoothly. The Bo episode showed, once again, that there are no enforceable rules, nor independent arbiters to decide who governs the world's most populous nation and how they do it. Bo is now officially being investigated for "serious discipline violations" and his wife for murder.
Liu's battle against PLA corruption has opened a new field of elite political struggle, adding uncertainty at a time when old patronage bonds are breaking down, a new generation of princelings led by Xi Jinping are taking power, and the princelings themselves are not united. Gu Junshan's case "reveals serious struggle between those already in power and the new forces in the PLA," said Chen Ziming, an independent political analyst in Beijing. "Princelings like Liu Yuan represent the new force but who are those in power now?"
The official with direct knowledge of the Gu Junshan case told me that Liu succeeded in taking Gu down only after Liu had appealed personally to President Hu, who had three times issued instructions to handle it. The source said the first two orders had been blocked by Gu's key patron high in the hierarchy, whom the source did not name. "It was as if President Hu was making a show of his impotence," said the official.
Several sources with indirect knowledge of the case said that Gu was removed late in January only after Hu took the highly irregular route of asking the party's civilian apparatus to do the job. "With Hu's direct instructions, they bypassed the PLA discipline inspection commission and asked the central discipline inspection commission," said Chen Ziming, the political analyst. "This means the case faced major resistance inside the PLA."
Gu's networks and patrons in the Central Military Commission and beyond remain in place. The source with direct knowledge of the Gu case said that three of the top four members of the Central Military Commission expressed strong support for Liu Yuan's move against Gu; Xu Caihou, the fourth member of the CMC, and others, did not. Liu may have been alluding to this resistance in his speeches, when he spoke darkly of those who acted as "shields" and "umbrellas" for corrupt officers. He also spoke mysteriously of "hostile forces" who tried to use last year's uprisings in the Middle East "as a spear to attack our army" and sow "discord between the party and the army," suggesting another dimension of struggle.