And many are relieved that someone is at least trying to arrest the rot. "He says the Communist Party is in crisis and has to change," Chen said of Liu. "Some people question his intentions. I say I don't care about intentions; I say if he's against corruption then I support him."
There are signs Liu may be making progress. Although General Gu was not detained after his sacking, in recent weeks a formal investigation was finally approved, according to the official source close to the case. Last week the military director of Liu's department, who had supported his efforts to unseat Gu, was empowered to convene a new PLA-wide corruption-fighting audit committee. "Thoughts and actions must be united to the decisions and instructions made by Chairman Hu and the Central Military Commission," the military director, General Liao Xilong, said in official military media, adding to the chorus of calls for unity after recent upheavals.
Liu's surgical work could alter the delicate balance of factional power involving President Hu, his predecessor Jiang, and his anointed successor Xi. If Liu succeeds, he could vault into the vice chair position of the CMC, officially reporting to his friend Xi Jinping when Xi becomes CMC chairman. Some observers believe Liu is enabling Hu to make his move to assert authority, as Jiang had done with the Yuanhua corruption investigation, also late in his own term. "The formation of the audit committee in the military finally signifies a decisive move by the current civilian leadership to assert more control over the military," said Victor Shih, a political scientist at Northwest University. "For a variety of reasons, it has taken Hu Jintao almost his entire administration to prepare for such a move."
Few analysts believe the PLA can seriously tackle its own corruption problems without decisive intervention from the civilian leadership. Whether Hu or his likely successor Xi will have the political capital to spend remains an open question. And if the PLA is the malignant morass of theft, bribery, extortion and mistrust that Liu and other well-placed princelings say it is, then China's military offensive capabilities must be lower than many overseas strategists fear. "The impact of corruption on the PLA's war-fighting capabilities is likely to be serious," said Tai Ming Cheung, a China security expert at the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, San Diego.
Behind the PLA's shiny exterior is a world where information is not trusted, major decisions require cumbersome bureaucratic consensus, and leaders fear their subordinates will evade responsibility or ignore directions. This entails a different array of risks than the ones that have troubled China's neighbors and the United States. And Liu, like several other active princelings, is not sure whether the PLA is capable of self-surgery in the age beyond ideals and strong leaders. "We are falling like a landslide!" Liu said in one of his speeches. "If there really was a war," he asked his subordinates, "who would listen to your commands or risk their life for you?"