Corruption in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been the subject of great attention in the Chinese and international media for several years. The PLA, like the rest of the Chinese government and Communist Party, is currently engaged in an important battle to eliminate, or at least reduce, a wide range of corrupt activities that plague the nation and the military. Some observers see this as an existential fight to maintain the Party’s legitimacy and its leading role in the country.
But does the alleged “malignant morass of theft, bribery, extortion and mistrust” actually mean “China’s military offensive capabilities must be lower than many overseas strategists fear,” as some observers have speculated for years? While corruption may be “a matter of ’life and death for the Communist Party and the PLA,’ requiring a ‘do-or-die struggle,’” as the General Logistics Department political commissar Liu Yuan reportedly warned in 2012, what evidence exits to support such dire predictions about its impact on PLA operational capabilities?
Granted, graft and corruption undermine discipline and morale in any military and must be weeded out for the good of military forces in China and elsewhere. However, from the evidence available, the vast majority of corruption in the PLA is found within the political officer system (mostly involving promotions and assignments), the logistics and armaments systems (among those who handle official funds and property and are involved in the procurement of supplies and equipment), and potentially in low-level local headquarters responsible for conscription/recruitment (but likely involving relatively small sums of money). There is little indication that the PLA’s frontline operational leaders, those in command of the units tasked to do the fighting, have been smitten by the scourge of corruption to the degree that some rear area personnel have been.
Recently, the PLA Daily announced “4,024 officers with the rank of lieutenant colonel or above, including 82 generals” have been subjects of investigation since 2013, resulting in 21 officers removed from their posts, 144 demoted, and 77 reprimanded. In 2014, 16 senior officers were named as under investigation, and their duty positions were revealed. No numbers for lower-level officers and enlisted personnel involved in corrupt activities have been made public.
Ninety percent of “duty crimes” in China were reported to involve “personnel and finance management, construction, oil management, material and armament procurement, health care, real estate, and reception services.” The category of “personnel management” implies the buying (offering bribes) and selling (accepting bribes) of officer promotions and assignments within a personnel system overseen by the General Political Department. Finances, construction, fuels, health, and real estate (especially management of PLA housing) are under the purview of the General Logistics Department, while arms procurement is the responsibility of the General Armaments Department. Functions relating to the command of units and operations are under the jurisdiction of the General Staff Department and were not mentioned as among the 90 percent of duty crimes. This omission implies that while there may be some trouble among operational commanders and staff officers, it has not risen to the level present in the other internal PLA systems.
Of the senior officers recently identified as involved in corruption, the most prominent is former vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and director of the General Political Department Xu Caihou. Though Xu is sometimes called a “commander” because he was appointed to the Central Military Commission, according to his biography, his entire career was spent in the General Political Department system, and he was never a commander of any unit at any level. Other senior officers identified include deputy director of the PLA General Logistics Department Liu Zheng; deputy commander of the Chengdu Military Region Yang Jinshan; deputy political commissar of the Second Artillery Yu Daqing; deputy commander of Second Artillery Base 55 Chen Qiang; deputy commander of the Heilongjiang Military District Zhang Daixin; and deputy chief of staff of the Jinan Military Region Zhang Qibin. Of the 16 senior officers under investigation in 2014, nine were associated with the General Political Department, two with the General Logistics Department, and five were part of the command and operations system overseen by the General Staff Department.
Of the five senior officers who were part of the command and operations system, two previously served in logistics and armaments positions. Before Yang Jinshan became commander of the Tibet Military District and then deputy commander of the Chengdu Military Region, he was the Armaments Department Director of the Chengdu Military Region. Though Zhang Daixin rose to become deputy commander of the Heilongjiang Military District, he came up through the ranks as a member of the logistics system, and likely was tasked to oversee logistics activities when he was deputy commander of the Military Region. No specific details of the charges against any of the newly named officers, however, have been revealed yet.
Previously, another deputy director of the PLA General Logistics Department, Gu Junshan, had been charged with embezzlement, bribery, misuse of funds, and abuse of power. Likewise, Wang Shouye, a deputy commander of the PLA-Navy, but who had moved up through the logistics system, was also sacked for abuse of power and taking bribes. The latest officer to be caught in the anti-corruption net is Major General Liu Hongjie, said to be “in charge of logistic support,” but without further explanation.
Another likely area for corruption, but as yet unexplored by the media, exists at the lowest level PLA headquarters scattered throughout the country – people’s armed forces departments, which are responsible for conscription and recruitment, among other duties. These functions fall under the supervision of the General Staff Department. Low ranking uniformed officers and civilians in these offices may be tempted by bribes from those seeking either to get into the PLA to improve their economic standing, or to stay out of the PLA because they have better opportunities in the civilian world.
Despite the high priority the PLA has given to the fight against corruption and the high-profile nature of the crimes, if only about 4,000 lieutenant colonels and above (estimated to amount to less than one percent of all PLA officers) have been investigated in the past two years, and if only 242 of that number have been punished in any way (six percent of those under investigation) does corruption actually represent a major problem to PLA readiness?
To date, very few (if any) operational combat unit (i.e., divisions, brigades, regiments, etc) commanders and staff officers are known to have been caught in the corruption dragnet. As the PLA increases the pace of its modernization and the intensity of its training, unit command assignments are becoming increasingly stressful, requiring personnel who have been properly educated and trained and who have acquired experience by rising through the ranks of their functional specialties. An unqualified person buying a job as a brigade commander or even political commissar would likely be discovered very quickly as incompetent by professionals in positions above and below. Rather, corruption appears to be much more prevalent among the ranks of those performing rear area personnel and logistics duties than among those who will lead the PLA in any future battles it may fight.
If bribery is prevalent in the conscription/recruitment process, it increases the chance that unqualified personnel will enter the PLA’s lower ranks. Some of these people may be weeded out during induction training, but some will likely move into operational units and become problems for the platoon and company-grade officers as well as the noncommissioned officers who command them. Dealing with “leadership challenges” like this would not be unique to the PLA and could be overcome by dedicated officers and NCOs.
The PLA’s campaign to fight corruption should be seen as part of the broader military modernization process as well as an example of the military’s obedience to the Communist Party. The PLA’s fight against graft is part of its commitment to maintaining the Communist Party’s ruling position in China. Corruption’s effect on operational readiness is a secondary consideration; many other factors have a much more direct impact on the PLA’s combat capabilities. Like the problem of corruption, the PLA leadership is well aware of the force’s operational shortcomings and is committed to identifying and solving problems in the PLA’s organizational structure, personnel qualifications, logistics system, and training methods. This multi-dimensional modernization process, however, is a long-term endeavor, programed to continue until the mid-21st century – the year 2049 and the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic.
We should expect to see the PLA to continue to clean its ranks as best it can of those who indulge in corrupt practices. However, there are many other problems facing the PLA that have a more immediate impact on its combat and deterrence capabilities.
A follow-up article, “Ten Reasons Why China May Have Trouble Fighting a Modern War,” will address some of the other factors that probably affect the PLA’s operational capabilities to a greater degree than corruption.
Dennis J. Blasko, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army (Retired), served 23 years as a Military Intelligence Officer and Foreign Area Officer specializing in China. Mr. Blasko served as an Army attaché in Beijing and Hong Kong from 1992-1996; in infantry units in Germany, Italy, and Korea; and in Washington at the Defense Intelligence Agency and Headquarters Department of the Army (Office of Special Operations). Mr. Blasko graduated from the United States Military Academy and Naval Postgraduate School and is the author of the book, The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century.