It was reported this week that Chinese general Fang Fenghui was “transferred to the military prosecution authority on suspicion of offering and accepting bribes.” Fang had reportedly been under investigation since late last year. Gen. Fang had been a senior member of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Central Military Commission – the entity that heads China’s armed forces. Before that, he led the Joint Staff Department – an organization that succeeded the General Staff Department and is effectively in charge of China’s warfighting and war-planning organizations.
Fang’s fall began at the same time that his counterpart Gen. Zhang Yang, former head of the PLA’s Political Work Department (previously the General Political Department), was also placed under investigation. Zhang hanged himself last November.
Fang and Zhang join a growing list of senior PLA officers that have been arrested, expelled from the Party, and imprisoned on corruption charges. These have included Gen. Guo Boxiong and Gen. Xu Caihou, former vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission (and therefore the most senior uniformed officers in the PLA), Gen. Li Jinai (another former head of the General Political Department), and Gen. Liao Xilong (former head of the General Logistics Department). Gen. Du Jincai, head of the Central Military Commission’s Discipline Inspection Commission (and therefore top graft-buster), had also retired, reportedly due to corruption charges as well.
All told, since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, over 100 PLA general officers have reportedly been forcibly retired or placed under investigation. In another sign of the extensiveness of these probes, perhaps 90 percent of the PLA officers that attended last October’s 19th CCP Party Congress were first-time attendees. As long-time China leadership observer Cheng Li noted, this marks an unprecedented turnover in the top ranks of the PLA.
It may be that the PLA is a massively corrupt organization. Having enjoyed nearly a quarter century of double-digit growth in its budget, the military has enjoyed an enormous influx of resources, which means greater opportunities for graft. In this regard, the PLA is not alone — Xi Jinping’s entire first term since 2012 has been marked by a massive, ongoing anti-corruption campaign aimed at both the military and civilian systems.
This large-scale uprooting, however, is also likely to be driven in part by Chinese internal politics. Many of the senior officers that have been summarily fired and imprisoned are linked to Xi Jinping’s predecessors, both Jiang Zemin (who was China’s leader from 1992 to 2002) and Hu Jintao (2002 to 2012). As with Xi’s anti-corruption efforts against various civilian leaders, those targeted appear to be political rivals, although this is not to say they may not also be corrupt.
Intriguingly, some of the most senior officers thus far removed (Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong) were accused by a senior Chinese official of planning a coup. At the 19th Party Congress last October, Liu Shiyu, chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission declared that Xu and Guo, along with Bo Xilai (former Party Secretary for Chongqing), Zhou Yongkang (former member of the Politburo and head of the Ministry of Public Security), and Ling Jihua (former head of the General Office of the Chinese Communist Party) had been plotting “to usurp the party’s leadership and seize state power.” The other person Liu listed was Sun Zhengcai, Party Secretary for Chongqing until this past summer and rumored to be among the short list for future leaders of China.
The fall of Sun, his linkage to Bo Xilai, General Guo and General Xu raises questions about the extent of internal dissension, and how far that dissent might extend within the PLA.
That, in turn, may also overlap with professional considerations. Xi Jinping unveiled a massive overhaul of the Chinese military at the very end of 2015. This represented perhaps the most fundamental reformation of the PLA since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. It included the formal establishment of three new services; a consolidation of seven military regions into five war zones; and an expansion of the Central Military Commission to include 15 departments, subordinate commissions, and offices. At the same time, Xi has redoubled efforts to push the PLA’s doctrine and approach to warfare completely into the 21st century.
Such efforts undoubtedly entailed the disruption of a variety of bureaucratic stove-pipes, as well as cozy relationships, which most likely would have engendered slow-rolling and other forms of organizational resistance. By wielding and openly applying the cudgel of anti-corruption (and publicly breaking senior officers such as former vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission), Xi may well have ensured that his professional efforts to overhaul the PLA would meet with minimal resistance (if not enthusiastic cooperation).
As the PLA continues to push its modernization program towards its first milestone of 2020, it is likely to be much more thorough-going and successful than might have been expected, as a result of high level support and pressure, including the neutering of bureaucratic resistance.
Implications for American Decision-Makers
Coming out of the 19th Party Congress, Xi Jinping has consolidated his public hold on power. The Politburo and its Standing Committee, constituting the top leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, are now staffed by Xi’s own picks. Yet, the fate of Sun Zhengcai, who became Party Secretary of Chongqing under Xi, and whose program was praised by Xi in 2016, suggests that there is limited certainty under Xi.
For the PLA, this is likely to mean a redoubled focus on implementing military reform and modernization. Whereas lining one’s nest and engaging in political machinations could lead to being cashiered, or worse publicly disgraced, executing the ambitious reform effort is more likely to lead to accolades. Given the extensive reforms that are underway, including further deepening joint interoperability, improving training, and extending civil-military integration, there is plenty of work to occupy the PLA’s officer corps. By 2020, when it is believed that the first phase of these reforms should be completed the PLA will be fielding more ships, naval infantry, and modern fighters. As important, they are likely to be better trained, more integrated, and have the support of a massive industrial and human capital base.
For American and allied planners in the Indo-Pacific region, this means they will be facing a much more capable potential adversary in a few short years.
Dean Cheng is the Senior Research Fellow for Chinese Political and Security Affairs at the Heritage Foundation. Prior to joining Heritage, he worked at the Center for Naval Analysis and SAIC.