This past week, retired Chinese general Xu Caihou was detained in the course of an investigation into corruption within the senior ranks of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
What is striking is that Xu was previously one of the vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission (CMC), the body that actually runs the PLA. Moreover, Xu was apparently removed from a hospital where he was receiving treatment for bladder cancer.
Xu is believed to be linked to Lieutenant General Gu Junshan, the deputy head of the General Logistics Department, who was placed under investigation nearly two years ago. Reports suggest that the two officers, and perhaps others, were involved in not only corruption involving read estate but also the sale of promotions.
The announcement of Xu’s detention was made at the same time that Xi Jinping chaired the first session of a new “leading small group” that is focused on “deepening national defense and military reform.” “Leading small groups” typically bring together the key stakeholders in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and from throughout the Chinese bureaucracy to coordinate and oversee policy implementation. What is striking is that the top members of this “leading small group” are Xi and the two uniformed vice chairmen of the CMC, General Fan Changlong and General Xu Qiliang. This replication of the top military leadership suggests that this leading small group’s activities are of the highest priority—and will directly impact national security.
This would suggest that the focus of this leading small group may be on deepening military reform by cracking down on corruption within the ranks, a message reinforced by the decision to arrest General Xu despite his medical conditions.
If Xi is heading a major effort aimed at rooting out corruption from within the PLA, it is a reminder that the civilian leaders of the CCP remain firmly in charge of the military. By going after entrenched interests and powerful key figures, the current crackdown is yet another indication that the CCP continues to control the gun. This, in turn, has significant implications for Chinese activities such as incursions across its southwest border with India, incidents involving U.S. and other ships in the South China Sea (e.g., the USS Cowpens incident), and tests of advanced weapons including anti-satellite systems.
Far from the actions of a rogue military or indicative of a break between the military and civilians, such actions should be seen as occurring with the authorization of the civilian leadership.