Beijing (dpa) – China’s Red Army, founded in 1927, holds a lofty place in Chinese Communist Party lore as a band of peasants, bandits and idealists who used guerilla tactics to stave off Japanese invasions and win the Chinese civil war.
It was during those conflicts that Mao Zedong rose through the ranks to become chairman of the Communist Party of China, proclaiming the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and renaming the army the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Since Mao, all successive Party leaders have sought to secure similar loyalty from the PLA, often by reshuffling senior officials aligned with the previous leader and promoting trusted allies.
But Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is also commander of the country’s 2.3 million-strong army, navy and air force, has done more than any of his successors to ensure allegiance from the armed wing of the Party.
PLA headquarters must have “absolute loyalty and firm faith in the Communist Party of China … and make sure all decisions from the central leadership are fully implemented,” Xi said in a speech in September.
By December dozens of top military brass were reshuffled to different posts. Then, in January, the PLA took the unprecedented step of revealing that it had launched corruption investigations into 16 senior officers, including Xu Caihou, vice chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission, who was reportedly found with a trove of jade, gold and cash hidden in his basement.
The country’s anti-corruption campaign reflects the current leadership’s lack of confidence in both the loyalty of the PLA and its readiness for combat, analysts say.
“Our country is facing serious security challenges and risks, and we have many territorial disputes with surrounding countries,” said a retired upper mid-level official, who served more than three decades in the PLA.
Corruption has been rampant in the Chinese military since at least the 1990s, when military officials began to run thousands of businesses and services in the country, including hospitals, hotels and financial services, experts say. Paying bribes in exchange for promotions is widespread.
“The military has for a long time been an organization that was the least transparent, the least monitored, and with the greatest power and money in society,” said independent military analyst Zhao Chu.
Xi’s “tiger and flies” anti-graft campaign, which aims to punish corrupt officials in both low and high positions, has lasted longer and struck higher than most analysts expected. The largest “tiger” so far, former security czar Zhou Yongkang, was expelled from the Chinese Communist Party and formally arrested in December.
Xi is “signal[ling] to the PLA that it is not an exceptional institution [and] will be subject to the same scrutiny that the rest of the Party is currently experiencing,” said David Finkelstein, director of CNA Corporation’s China Studies research organisation.
China’s military has not fought a war in 35 years but has seen double-digit increases in spending year after year as it seeks to grow and modernize its arsenal. China currently has the second-largest military budget in the world after the US.
International observers have paid particularly keen attention to China’s naval development. News that local authorities in the southern city of Changzhou were building a second aircraft carrier was received with consternation by China’s neighbours.
China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, including several parts administered by its South-East Asian neighbours. Japan and China have a longstanding dispute involving the East China Sea.
But a recent report from RAND Corp, a California-based research group, said the PLA suffers from “potentially serious weaknesses” that hinders its ability to win wars – namely its outdated command and control structure, lack of professionalism, and corruption.
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, director for government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, said it is this lack of readiness which is why the leadership thinks of the PLA as a potential obstacle to the maintenance of its power.
“The PLA’s loyalty has never been seriously tested in times of crisis, whether that is during domestic unrest, wars with other countries or division in the top leadership of the country,” Cabestan said.
“There’s little danger of the PLA becoming an independent force from the Party machinery, but it can still pose a challenge to the Communist Party’s control of the state,” he said.
Analysts expect the PLA’s anti-corruption campaign to continue to focus on senior officials rather than become more wide-reaching.
It could prove difficult for Xi to stamp out corruption in the military without stoking discontent in its ranks or tarnishing the PLA’s reputation in society.
“The military and state security apparatus have the most power to threaten Xi,” said Beijing-based political analyst Zhang Lifan.
“He will clean them up until he feels safe,” Zhang said.