Xu Caihou case shows Chinese leaders must clean up the military

Hu Shuli says the corruption case of PLA general Xu Caihou must be only one milestone in a wider and more sustained crackdown

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 July, 2014, 1:57pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 September, 2014, 6:57pm

Last week's announcement that Xu Caihou will face charges for corruption was major news, undoubtedly one of the most important in recent times.

Speculation about Xu's fate had been rife for months after Gu Junshan , the former deputy logistics chief of the People's Liberation Army, was charged with bribery and embezzlement in March. Although Xu was widely expected to be the next to fall, the news still came as a shock. The 71-year-old top general was, after all, the vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission. This made him the most senior PLA officer ever to be caught for corruption, and reflects the government's determination to catch the "tigers".

Xu has been expelled from the party and has yet to be formally charged. But some details of his case have already been published. By contrast, though Gu has been indicted, little about his case has been officially revealed. This reflects a growing level of transparency on the PLA's part.

In fact, it's possible to reconstruct how the Chinese military has conducted its recent crackdown on corruption.

  • From December 10 last year to March 13, teams of discipline inspection officers were sent to the Beijing and Jinan military commands on orders of chairman Xi Jinping . Officers reportedly found irregularities involving officers' promotion, infrastructure construction, land transfer, housing sales and health care.
  • On March 15, the central government ordered an investigation into Xu.
  • On March 28, evidence of infractions were handed over to the CMC's Commission for Discipline Inspection and party headquarters.
  • On March 31, military prosecutors charged Gu with corruption, bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power.
  • In early May, the CMC published guidelines on rooting out and preventing corruption.
  • On June 30, Xi chaired a Politburo meeting to hear the case against Xu, after which the top leaders decided to expel him from the party and handed over his case to military prosecutors.

The speed of the anti-graft campaign has been breathtaking of late.

Corruption is perhaps inevitable in any society that is rapidly urbanising and industrialising; that has been the experience of many advanced economies. To confront the problem, we must first acknowledge it, then resolve to root it out so China can be steered onto a path of healthy development.

The Chinese military must heed these words. Unfortunately, the very nature of their organisation often works against such efforts; this includes traits such as the military's necessity for secrecy, and its emphasis on protocol and hierarchy.

In recent years, signs of corruption within the military have become harder to ignore, yet efforts to curb it have progressed in fits and starts. After the fall from grace of vice-admiral Wang Shouye in 2006, for example, there was a lull until recently. Take Gu's case: he was detained in 2012, yet it took two years before his case was turned over to the prosecutors.

The military must uphold the highest discipline and standards, and there must be zero tolerance for corruption. Xu is the biggest tiger caught yet. The involvement of the highest levels of China's leadership in his case showed its determination to deny the corrupt a hiding place. This is a major victory for the fight against corruption.

There's a price to pay of course, not least in terms of the military's reputation. Xu spent 51 years in the army, had been a senior officer for nearly 20 years, and was CMC vice-chairman for nine years. Any bribery and abuse of power could be extensive and involve many other parties. Exposing these misdeeds could seriously stain the army's image.

But the costs of corruption are higher still. If corruption is not checked, especially if it involves top-ranking officers like Xu, it will surely spread throughout the military. A corrupt army is a weak one. Cleaning it up is the only way to strengthen it.

Xu's sacking is a sign that the corruption crackdown will get even more intense, and more heads will roll. In fact, leaders should ensure that the crackdown is broader in scope, and more sustained.

In 1998, Beijing's orders for the military to divest its businesses acted as a dampener on corruption by cutting the opportunities for rent-seeking. But as recent examples show, corruption is still rampant today. The military's rich assets and massive budget for infrastructure and procurement, to name but two areas, provide plenty of opportunities for abuse.

Without a healthy system of supervision of power, corruption will be inevitable.

On the day of the announcement of Xu's sacking, the Politburo notably released guidelines to strengthen the system for enforcing party discipline. We can only hope that, in the days to come, the rule of law will provide the framework for such efforts.


This article is provided by Caixin Media, and the Chinese version of it was first published in Century Weekly magazine. www.caixin.com