Hu Moves to Exert Added Control over PLA

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 19

President Hu Jintao has adroitly played the disciplinary and anti-corruption cards to boost his stature in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as well as to exercise control over the top brass. Given that a large-scale reshuffle of the policy-setting Central Military Commission (CMC) is due at the 17th Communist Party Congress next year, officers formerly deemed close to ex-president Jiang Zemin have been currying favor with the current leader.

After adopting a relatively low profile since taking over the CMC chairmanship from Jiang in late 2004, Hu has taken aggressive steps to enhance his clout over perhaps the one aspect of the polity on which his grip is least certain. Given ex-president Jiang’s notoriously cavalier attitude toward disciplinary lapses among military officers, it is not surprising that the new commander-in-chief should have chosen to assert his authority by cracking the whip on corruption and dereliction of duty.

Officers in the 2.5 million-strong military forces were caught off-guard earlier this month when the CMC announced stiff punishments for senior brass responsible for two accidents that occurred just a few months ago. In early June, a PLA Air Force (PLAAF) transport plane crashed in Anhui Province, killing all 40 on board. An investigation ordered by Hu discovered that officers at both headquarters and operations failed to take into account the fact that the aircraft had been spending too much time that day in an ultra-cold environment. As a result, the entire plane became frozen in mid-air and the key engines and equipment completely malfunctioned. Three officers—the vice-commander and vice-political commissar of the Nanjing Military Region (MR), as well as the commissar of the Nanjing MR Air Force—were reprimanded. They also had a “demerit” entered into their dossiers, meaning that future promotions would be unlikely (Xinhua, September 7). The other equally serious mishap in July this year resulted in the death of nearly 50 soldiers in Jiangxi Province in the wake of typhoon-induced flooding. One leader of the brigade in question was fired while another was demoted for failing to take requisite precautions in abnormal weather conditions.

Hu’s unusually speedy handling of these two incidents demonstrated a new style of leadership that is radically different from that of Jiang and even Jiang’s predecessor as CMC chairman, Deng Xiaoping. During Jiang’s 14 years as commander-in-chief, the PLA went through scandal after scandal. These included participation by the PLA Navy (PLAN) and the People’s Armed Police (PAP) in the multibillion-dollar smuggling and corruption case of the mid-to-late 1990s, which centered on the seaport of Xiamen in the Fujian Province. Beijing is still seeking the extradition of Lai Changxing, the alleged ringleader, who is seeking political asylum in Canada (People’s Daily, June 2). Moreover, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, at least 24 senior officers were caught selling intelligence to the United States, Taiwan and other parties. The Jiang-led CMC was surprisingly slow to close what appeared to be large gaps in the army’s internal security firewall.

A Beijing source close to the PLA said that Jiang turned a blind eye to the illicit activities perpetrated by the PLAN and other units because the then-commander-in-chief was aware that overall pay was too low and feared that he might face a revolt if both officers and enlisted personnel were denied a substantial “sideline income.” An additional reason underlying Jiang’s tardy handling of PLA-related economic crimes was that many of the crimes were committed by the sons of senior cadres, including those who were the ex-president’s associates or members of his Shanghai Faction. In the case of the Xiamen scandal, then-premier Zhu Rongji—whose portfolio did not cover military affairs—personally traveled to the port to intervene in the investigations into the smuggling ring.

While Hu, who only became CMC chairman less than two years ago, has failed to establish close personal ties with the top brass, he is hoping to impress officers with his no-nonsense style. As the CMC chairman stated while touring Xinjiang earlier this month, all officers and enlisted personnel “must solidly implement [the leadership’s] demand for running the army in a strict and disciplined manner” (Jiefangjun Bao, September 11). The Beijing source said that the commander-in-chief also wanted to make it clear that he had the wherewithal to target officers who failed to toe the Hu line.

Hu has also made significant modifications to the archaic PLA command-and-control as well as anti-corruption bureaucracy. Soon after taking over the CMC, Hu made it possible for the Administration of the Auditor-General—a unit of the central government—to investigate corruption and other irregularities committed by military officers. The Communist Party’s Central Commission of Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI), China’s top anti-graft watchdog, has also been empowered to look into PLA cases. In the Deng and Jiang eras, most army-related crimes and misdemeanors, including graft-related transgressions, were merely investigated by disciplinary units within the PLA General Political Department (GPD), which has a track record of meting out lenient punishments, particularly to politically well-connected officers.

Hu and his close aides, such as former Fujian party secretary Song Defu—one of the few senior members of the president’s Communist Youth League (CYL) Faction who has high-level military experience—are also mapping out personnel changes to take place at the 17th Party Congress. (In the Communist-Chinese system, major reshuffles in party organs such as the Central Committee, the Politburo and the CMC usually take place at the party congresses that occur once every five years.) Of the three CMC vice-chairmen, General Cao Gangchuan will turn 71, while Generals Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou will be 65 and 64, respectively, at the congress. While there is no official retirement standard for top military officers, since coming to power in 2002 Hu has been pushing for a retirement age of around 65 for all civilian and military cadres except for the members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC). It is likely that all three vice-chairmen may be forced into retirement by October of next year and, therefore, it is understandable that CMC members with a history of having close relations with ex-president Jiang are particularly anxious to demonstrate their loyalty to Hu.

For instance, under Jiang, General Xu, a former chief political commissar whose responsibilities included “making propaganda,” played a pivotal role in erecting a quasi-personality cult around the Third-Generation leader. For the past year, however, General Xu has begun to ingratiate himself with Hu. Earlier this month, the chief military propagandist wrote a long article in commemoration of the publication of the Selected Works of Jiang Zemin. In theory, the general was heaping praise on Jiang’s “revolutionary spirit, wisdom and boldness as a Marxist statesman, military expert and tactician.” The 5,500-character essay, however, cited Hu 10 times, and was replete with calls to “rally behind the Party Leadership with comrade Hu Jintao as General Secretary” (People’s Daily, September 16). It is evident that even while apparently eulogizing Jiang, General Xu placed an emphasis on glorifying the “supremo of the day.”

At the same time, Commander-in-chief Hu is consolidating his grip over the People’s Armed Police (PAP), sometimes called the “third pillar” in China’s labyrinthine military-cum-security apparatus. While the authorities have never publicized either the budget or the staff establishment of this paramilitary police force, it is estimated that the PAP has nearly one million men and women in uniform. Given that this formidable force is in charge of maintaining law and order in the cities and countryside as well as looking after the safety of senior party and state leaders, Hu could not afford to lose the personal loyalty of PAP officers; the CMC recently announced that 28 PAP officers had been promoted to the rank of major general (Xinhua, August 29). This unexpectedly large number has meant that unlike the regular PLA, this special force is still expanding, enabling Hu to install more of his protégés in key slots.

While Hu’s fast-expanding clout in the military and security apparatus may spell stability for the country—and for economic development—the president has already betrayed tendencies of building a personality cult around himself. Hardly a day passes without major media such as CCTV, Xinhua, People’s Daily and Jiefangjun Bao extolling one aspect or another of the Fourth-Generation titan’s extraordinary abilities or exploits. This hardly bodes well for the success of a number of reforms, particularly those relating to the modernization of political and governmental institutions and structures that Hu promised the nation when he first stepped into the limelight almost four years ago.