In many fields of international competition,
China is less sanguine about its abilities than outsiders. Chinese leaders often
remind Westerners that China is a developing country, with hundreds of millions
of people living in poverty, an unbalanced economy, and high social tensions. What
should most worry Beijing, and provide some comfort to those who fear Chinese
military expansionism, is the state of corruption in the People's Liberation
True, the world underestimated
how quickly a four-fold jump
in Chinese military spending in the past decade would deliver an array of new
weaponry to prevent the United
States from interfering in a regional
military conflict. Top American generals have worried
publicly about "carrier-killer" ballistic missiles designed to destroy U.S. battle
groups as far afield as the Philippines,
and beyond. Last year, China
tested a prototype stealth fighter and launched its maiden aircraft carrier, to
augment new destroyers and nuclear submarines. What is unknown, however, is
whether the Chinese military, an intensely secretive organisation only
nominally accountable to civilian leaders, can develop the human software to
effectively operate and integrate its new hardware.
Judging from a recent series of scathing
speeches by one of the PLA's top
generals, details of which were obtained by Foreign
Policy, it can't: The institution is riddled with corruption and
professional decay, compromised by ties of patronage, and asphyxiated by the
ever-greater effort required to impose political control. The speeches, one in late December and the other in mid-February, were given by Gen. Liu Yuan, the son of a former president of China and one of the PLA's rising stars; the speeches and
Liu's actions suggest that the PLA might be the site of the next major struggle
for control of the Communist Party, of the type that recently brought down former
Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai. Liu is the political commissar and the most powerful official of the PLA's
General Logistics Department, which handles enormous contracts in land,
housing, food, finance, and services for China's 2.3 million-strong military.
"No country can defeat China," Liu told about
600 officers in his department in unscripted comments to an enlarged party meeting
on the afternoon of Dec. 29, according to sources who have verified notes of
his speech. "Only our own corruption can destroy us and cause our armed forces to
be defeated without fighting." This searing indictment of the state of China's
armed forces, coming from an acting full three-star general inside the PLA, has
no known modern precedent.
There is no way to independently verify Liu's withering assessment of the
extent of corruption in the PLA,
but he is well-positioned to make it. His professional experience includes a
decade in the government of the central Chinese province of Henan and a decade
in the paramilitary, taking him beyond narrow lines of command and patronage. His
logistics department is integrated with all other arms of the Chinese military
and his status as the descendant of a high-ranking leader, or princeling,
enables privileged informal networks across military ranks and the civilian
side of the party-state. Some Chinese
and diplomatic PLA watchers believe
Liu, the highest born of all the princelings now climbing into power, is on his
way to the very top of China's military as a vice chairman of the Central
Military Commission (CMC) after the current leadership retires following this
year's 18th Party Congress, the first large-scale transfer of power in a decade.
It helps that he is a close
friend of the princeling president-in-waiting, Xi Jinping.
While Chinese leaders regard the United
States as a likely future adversary,
Liu is more worried about what the PLA,
which hasn't seen significant combat since a militarily disastrous invasion of
Vietnam in 1979, is doing to itself in times of peace. In his February speech,
he described the army beset by a disease of "malignant individualism" where
officers follow only orders that suit them, advance on the strength of their
connections, and openly sell their services at "clearly marked prices."
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.
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
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
"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
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.
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
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.
Other signs of PLA
power struggles are bubbling to the surface. Three weeks ago, a Chinese defence
attaché informed a foreign military academy that that another of the PLA's rising stars, Gen. Zhang Qinsheng, would not
attend a conference because he had been "replaced" in his position as first deputy
chief of the General Staff Department, the PLA's
operational headquarters, according to a source at the academy. The information
appeared to confirm swirling rumours at the time. Chinese defense officials
then scrambled to tell foreign diplomats that there had been "a misunderstanding"
and General Zhang's position was, in fact, secure. The false information of
Zhang's demise was followed by false
rumors of a military coup, which a surprising number of citizens thought to
top brass has responded to the rumours of a coup and the ongoing political
struggle -- including in relation to the ongoing purge of Bo Xilai, who has military
supporters -- by demanding
unity and further
isolating its officers from the outside world. "Whenever the party and country
faces major issues, and reform and development reach a crucial juncture,
struggle in the ideological arena becomes even more intense and complex," warned
an editorial in the PLA Daily.
Alluding to the recent chatter, the editorial also told soldiers to ignore rumours
on the Internet. "We must pay close attention to the impact of the Internet,
mobile phones and other new media on the thinking of officers and troops."
The PLA has made huge
efforts to politically indoctrinate its officers in order to ensure their
loyalty, according to Chen, at the expense of parallel efforts to
"professionalize." He does not believe the political campaigns are working. "Maybe
one day they will not be willing to obey their higher authorities because they
are corrupt," he said. "Maybe the young generation of officers don't want to
serve anybody and just want to take their own advice."
Meanwhile, Liu is generating enemies as he
drives his corruption campaign deeper into entrenched networks of factions and
patronage, and reveals his ideological views and political ambitions more
openly. "Liu Yuan has gone mad," said the princeling who has recently retired
from a ministerial position, and who is close to the Jiang family. Liu spent
less than a decade in the PLA, and some officers resent being led by a man who
lacks a professional military background, according to a source close to a
rival princeling general. Others are suspicious of his personal ambition and
believe his political
comments have overstepped the boundaries of military discipline: Liu, like
Bo, has suggested China
should return to Mao-era ideals. Many see Liu's challenge to their financial and
political interests as an existential threat.
Already, Internet rumors have spread that
Liu is battling cancer, which sources close to him deny (he has annual checkups
after an earlier scare). Other rumors speak of business links between Liu's wife,
a glamorous nurse named Wei Zhen, and Bo Xilai's wife, who is under
investigation. Sources close to Liu says his wife does not engage in business.
Liu knows what he's up against. "Those who
work against corruption are out-competed by those who are corrupt," he said in
his February speech. "Justice is under pressure and people fear retaliation
while the scum congratulate each other on their great career prospects, get
promoted and become rich."
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,
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?"
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images