Corruption in People’s Liberation Army poses test for China

By Jane Perlez  /  NY Times News Service, BEIJING

Mon, Nov 19, 2012 - Page 9

An insider critique of corruption in China’s military, circulating just as new leadership is about to take over the armed forces, warns that graft and wide-scale abuses pose as much of a threat to the nation’s security as the US.

Colonel Liu Mingfu (劉明福), the author of the book Why the Liberation Army Can Win, is not a lone voice.

Earlier this year, a powerful Chinese army official gave an emotional speech describing corruption as a “do-or-die struggle.” Days later, according to widely published accounts, Lieutenant General Gu Junshan (谷俊山), a deputy director of the logistics department, was arrested on suspicion of corruption. He now awaits trial. The general is reported to have made huge profits on illicit land deals and given more than 400 houses intended for retired officers to friends.

Those excesses may be mere trifles compared with the depth of the overall corruption, the speech by General Liu Yuan (劉源), an associate of the new Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平), suggested.

For Xi, who boasts a military pedigree from his father — a guerrilla leader who helped bring former Chinese leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東) to power in 1949 — China’s quickly modernizing army will be a bulwark of his standing at home and influence abroad.

Yet the depth of graft and brazen profiteering in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) poses a delicate problem for the new leader, one that Liu Yuan and others have warned could undermine the status of the CCP.

As part of the nation’s once-a-decade handover of power, Xi assumed the chairmanship of the CCP’s 12-member Central Military Commission immediately. Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), the departing party leader, broke precedent and did not retain his position atop the body that oversees the armed forces for an extended period after his retirement, unlike previous leaders.

Recent territorial disputes with Japan and Southeast Asian neighbors have raised nationalist sentiment in China, and the popular desire for a strong military could make it politically dangerous for Xi to embark on a campaign that unmasks squandering of public funds.

‘MARITIME POWER’

In his opening speech to the CCP’s 18th Party Congress, Hu said China would aim to become “a maritime power.”

It was one of the few references in the address about foreign affairs and suggested the government would continue the double-digit increases in expenditures for the military.

However, along with the modernization and bigger budgets has come more corruption, a problem that pervades China’s ruling party and its government.

For the first time in the history of the People’s Liberation Army, the land-based army has had to give up its dominance of the military commission, Chinese analysts say.

The former People’s Liberation Army Air Force commander Xu Qiliang (許其亮) will be a vice chairman, giving the air force new weight in big decisions, they said. An army general, Fan Changlong (范長龍), the former commander of the Jinan Military Region, will also be a vice chairman.

These two men will run the day-to-day operations of the military, Chinese analysts said.

In his book, Liu Mingfu, a former professor at China’s National Defense University, wrote that the army had not been tested in decades and had grown complacent.

“As a military that has not fought a war for 30 years, the People’s Liberation Army has reached a stage in which its biggest danger and No. 1 foe is corruption,” he wrote.

Liu Mingfu first became prominent in 2010 with the publication of his book The China Dream, an ultra-nationalist tract arguing that China should build the world’s strongest military and move swiftly to supplant the US as the global “champion.”

In his new work, the colonel drew a parallel with 1894, when China’s forces were swiftly defeated by a rapidly modernizing Japan, even though the Chinese were equipped with expensive ships from Europe. Historians often attribute the defeat to corruption.

Another retired army officer, and a member of the aristocratic class known as the “princelings,” said that corruption existed throughout the military, but that the new commission would probably refrain from a sustained campaign against it.

“It won’t be a big campaign against corruption,” the retired officer said in an interview. “You can’t do it too much, otherwise the party comes out too black and the leaders won’t like it.”

Indeed, the arrest of Gu was probably just another example of sporadic efforts against big names in the army rather than signifying a concerted campaign, James Mulvenon, a US analyst of the Chinese military, said in a recent article for the China Leadership Monitor.

“Before Gu Junshan’s arrest, there had not been a high-profile PLA corruption case in more than five years, which says more about the political constraints on corruption enforcement than the actual level of corruption in the PLA,” Mulvenon wrote.

RUFFLED FEATHERS

The new lineup of the military commission suggests that being too outspoken about corruption is detrimental to career advancement.

Liu Yuan did not win a seat on the military commission, although supporters had tipped him as a likely new member. Some analysts speculated that Liu Yuan, who is the son of former Chinese president Liu Shaoqi (劉少奇), may have taken a step too far in his anti-graft speech and ruffled enough feathers that even his friendship with Xi was not enough to secure him a berth.

The Chinese military also faced outmoded methods of organization that hamper its ability to fight, said a Western diplomat who specializes in the study of China’s army.

One of the most striking shortcomings of the Chinese military was the failure to develop a system that would give the Chinese a method of joint command to assure overall coordination in war fighting and reduce rivalries among the navy, air force and army similar to that in the US and other Western countries, the diplomat said.

Chinese military officials have debated placing four directors on the military commission under a joint commander — something akin to the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, he added.

However, a joint commander had clearly been rejected as the new commission was formed.

“Why?” the diplomat asked. “Because the individual at the head of a joint command would be more powerful than one person on the [Politburo] Standing Committee,” the innermost decisionmaking body in China that Xi will lead as party chairman.