The status of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as the armed wing of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, as opposed to an army subject to civil authority, severely hampers its effectiveness despite drastic attempts by the Chinese regime to improve the PLA’s warfighting capabilities.
While the army may be subservient to the Party, both bodies enjoy privileges that, in practice, allow them to operate outside national law and oversight.
The predictable result is massive abuse of power, and as is the case with the Communist Party itself, corruption in the PLA has, especially in recent years, proved a rampant and potentially crippling habit among China’s officers.
Systemic corruption, born of the army and Party’s special status, remains to this day an unsolved Achilles’ heel that experts have said could severely hinder the force’s ability to fulfill its strategic and tactical objectives.
A Gun in the Wrong Hands
Mao Zedong is quoted in the “Little Red Book” as saying, “Power grows from the barrel of a gun.” He emphasizes the need for the Communist Party to maintain control over the gun, or military force.
As the military arm of the Chinese Communist Party, the PLA is subject to little oversight from civil government authorities, according to a recent report published by the National Security Research division of RAND, an American think tank.
Analyzing the PLA’s military structure, the report notes that in comparison to Western nations, the PLA is relatively isolated from civilian government bodies. The weak links between the civil and military spheres could hamper logistical and support work during a potential conflict or crisis, in addition to the lack of oversight and transparency being a breeding ground for corruption.
The For-Profit Army
Similar to China’s bloated state-run industries and banks, the PLA and its assets are handled by high-ranking regime officials and their family members as tools in their personal quests for endlessly increasing power and fortune.
With ample prestige and little regulation from civil agencies, the PLA became a hotbed of corruption and illicit business under Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader known for his introduction of market economics to the country under the so-called time of reform and opening up. This trend only worsened with the rise of Deng’s successor, Communist Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin.
Graft and embezzlement in the armed forces reached rampant levels under Jiang. At a conference held in September 1998, then-premier Zhu Rongji described the situation.
Zhu said, “Of late, 800 billion yuan ($129.537 billion) is smuggled annually, of which the military plays a huge part, smuggling at least 500 billion yuan. Money from tax evasion is about 160 billion yuan, none of which is used for the military. More than 80 percent enters the private pockets of military generals.”
During and after Jiang’s time in power, personnel in the PLA General Staff, the General Logistics Department, the General Political Department, and other departments have regularly indulged in escorts and prostitutes. According to mainland Chinese media reports, the Third Department of the General Staff once hired 476 women to accompany officers for partying and sexual favors.
Additionally, ever since Jiang Zemin launched his persecution of the Falun Gong spiritual practice in July 1999, forced organ harvesting became a frequent act carried out at PLA hospitals. The large number of people incarcerated for practicing Falun Gong provided the military with a ready supply of fresh organs and and this crime was, according to one Chinese officer, condoned by the Communist Party head himself.
Jiang Zemin’s Desk Generals
Rot in the communist regime’s armed forces became further entrenched when Jiang used his authority to place his cronies into powerful posts, including those in the military. In October 1997, Jiang promoted 152 generals in one day. Between 1993 and 2004, he promoted 79 people to the rank of general and several hundred to major general and lieutenant general.
Jiang’s clout in personnel and policy continued for at least a decade after he formally left office in 2002. The extent to which the former leader’s personal network pervaded the regime and army’s structure is still being revealed as purges, started by current Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, run their course.
Xi recently announced that military officials will need to live off their salaries, noting there shouldn’t be any “gray income.”
Around the same time of Xi’s announcement, 16 Chinese generals were placed under investigation.
Gen. Xu Caihou and Maj. Gen. Guo Boxiong of the 47th Army, are two prominent examples of high-ranking officers who have been caught up in Xi Jinping’s disciplinary campaign. Xu was until recently the vice chairman of the Communist Party’s Central Military Commission. Promoted by Jiang Zemin, Xu and Guo accumulated vast fortunes and even bought and sold promotions to other PLA staff.
“Xu Caihou was promoted by Jiang Zemin, and under him, Xu was himself in charge of promoting a lot of military officials. Many military officials that didn’t want to follow orders were promoted by Xu Caihou,” said Cheng Xiaonong, a political analyst who used to work in a mainland Chinese think tank.
No Viable Solution
Many arguments, mostly those articulated in overseas media, suggest that nationalizing the PLA would be the logical thing to do. According to Chen Kuide, chief editor of the journal China in Perspective, the Chinese Communist Party is the world’s only ruling body that explicitly denies the military as being subservient to the nation.
Even in China, Chen points out, such a stance violates the constitution, which stipulates the armed forces as belonging to the Chinese people.
Even those in the PLA itself are becoming more conscious of their roles. In an interview with Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV held last November, PLA Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan described challenges the Chinese military faces as public expectations shift. The people, according to Luo, expect the PLA to distance itself from Maoism and communist ideology.
It is not an expectation the Chinese regime is likely to meet anytime soon.
On Aug. 6 last year, a PLA newspaper warned that “hostile forces” were attempting to use the “nationalization of the military” to shake its resolve, On Aug. 11, a report by the PLA Daily quoted the PLA General Political Department as calling on the military to “resolutely prevent political liberalism.”
Although the Party considers the PLA’s status unnegotiable, some consider this policy untenable and potentially catastrophic.
Zheng Jiwen, editor of Taiwan’s Asia-Pacific journal Defense International, told a Voice of America reporter, “If the military cannot stay away from infighting among political factions and instead answers to a few individuals or one Party, that would create lots of unimaginable barriers and problems when a country is striving toward democratization and modernization.”
According to an article published last July in a state-run publication written by PLA Gen. Liu Yazhou, the military was held back by blind adherence to past practices. Liu wrote that this blindness, which contributed to the 1911 collapse of the last imperial dynasty, the Qing, could result in a “fate even worse.”
Gen. Liu warned, “Large-scale, protracted warfare could break out inside the country and spill out along the borders.”