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Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption purge takes aim at China’s military

Tom Mitchell and Gabriel Wildau
Feng Li, Getty Images News, Getty Images

Not long after Chinese president Xi Jinping launched his anti-corruption campaign in 2013, a western military delegation invited its People's Liberation Army hosts out for beer and hamburgers at the Great Leap Brewing, a popular nightspot near Beijing's embassy district.

According to two people familiar with the visit, the PLA officers declined the invitation because the brewery had no underground car park and they did not want to leave their cars, bearing military licence plates, in plain sight outside a bar.

From such seemingly harmless interactions to purges at the highest levels, Mr Xi's war on corruption is shaking the PLA to its core. While Mao Zedong famously observed that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun", it is Mr Xi who has dared to turn the gun on the military.

On Monday night the Chinese Communist party's Central Military Commission published the names of 14 senior officers who had been placed under investigation for corruption.

The CMC's anti-corruption body launched inquiries into five of the officers between August and November, while the rest were placed under investigation during the first two months of this year. Following the publication of a similar list in January, the number of senior officers brought down by Mr Xi has reached at least 30.

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The announcement, which comes just ahead of the annual "two meetings" of China's national parliament and a separate political consultative body, shows that not even the country's most august and entrenched institutions are immune from the anti-corruption drive.

"This purge represents the consolidation of Xi Jinping's grip over the military," says Zhang Lifan, a historian and political commentator. "The mantra that the party must maintain absolute control over the PLA has been around for nearly half a century since Mao, but in history there have been times when the PLA managed the party."

The PLA restored order just as the party seemed on the verge of losing control of the country during the Cultural Revolution, and infamously came to its rescue in 1989 by bloodily reclaiming Beijing's Tiananmen Square from student protesters.

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Mr Xi, whose father was a veteran of the Communist revolution and rose to become a senior party cadre, is steeped in the relationship between the two institutions. He also served as personal secretary to China's defense minister in the early 1980s, at the beginning of his political career.

"As the child of a party elder, Xi knows better than anyone how important the military is," Mr Zhang said. "He can only feel safe when he has absolute control over the PLA."

Not even former members of the CMC, arguably China's most powerful body after the Communist party's seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, are safe from the purge. Last year Mr Xi shattered a taboo when a former PSC member, Zhou Yongkang, was detained on corruption charges. Mr Zhou's arrest — for charges ranging from corruption and leaking state secrets to womanising — was preceded by that of a former CMC vice-chairman, Xu Caihou.

When investigators searched Mr Xu's home, they found so much cash and precious gems they needed a week to count the loot and 12 trucks to haul it away.

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No officers of Mr Xu's rank were snared in the latest CMC corruption announcement, but analysts noted that one of those purged — Guo Zhenggang from the Zhejiang provincial military region — was the son of a former CMC member. While Mr Guo's father has not been charged with any wrongdoing, analysts say the arrest of the scion of such a powerful military family is another example of how much tougher Mr Xi has been on the PLA than his predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin.

"Guo's arrest sends a warning to all generals to declare their allegiance to Xi," said Willy Lam, a Sinologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "Compared to Hu and Jiang, Xi has been much more effective in attacking PLA corruption."

Mr Xi's campaign is motivated in part by his fear that a corrupt military will be incapable of asserting China's territorial claims in the East and South China seas.

Last May Major General Kun Lunyan wrote in the state-run Global Times that "military corruption is at a dangerously unprecedented level" and warned that it was compromising the country's war-fighting ability.