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Xi Jinping aims for full control of the gun

Just when China’s current crop of military leaders were watching a performance of Building The Great Wall With Flesh And Blood, organised by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Sino-Japanese war, the real drama within China’s military forces was unfolding for its former top soldier.

Xi Jinping aims for full control of the gun

Chinese President Xi Jinping. Reuters file photo

Just when China’s current crop of military leaders were watching a performance of Building The Great Wall With Flesh And Blood, organised by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Sino-Japanese war, the real drama within China’s military forces was unfolding for its former top soldier.

On July 30, rumours that Guo Boxiong, former vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) — China’s highest decision-making body in the military — had been implicated in the ongoing anti-corruption campaign were finally confirmed.

Following a decision made by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Politburo, the country’s state media announced that the retired general had been expelled from the party while his case had also been handed to the military procuratorate.

The decision by the CCP to indict Guo on corruption charges follows that of the expulsion of his fellow former CMC vice-chairman, Xu Caihou, in June last year. Respectively nicknamed the Northwest Wolf and the Northeast Tiger — in reference to the military regions they had risen from — Guo and Xu are believed to have made use of their positions to promote personnel based on the bids put up by their subordinates. Successful bidders purportedly had to satisfy both deputies before they could advance their military careers.

With Xu having been spared trial following his death from bladder cancer earlier this year, PLA watchers around the world had since been anticipating official confirmation of Guo’s downfall.

Following a March announcement of a formal inquiry into the corruption allegations against Guo’s son — major general Guo Zhenggang — the CCP’s official media suggested that an even bigger tiger was about to be netted in the anti-graft dragnet.

Based on the established pattern of arresting corrupt big “tigers” — the intended target — by first swatting the smaller “flies” around them, the imminent downfall of China’s former top general — albeit a retired one —had seemed a forgone conclusion.

Previously, however, there had been scant signs to suggest that China’s highest-ranking military personnel to be caught up in the ongoing anti-corruption campaign would be implicated.

In light of the muted sentencing of former security czar Zhou Yongkang behind closed doors, rumours had begun circulating that Guo might be spared prosecution from the military courts.

The party’s decision to announce the downfall of Guo a year after indicting Xu confirms what some China watchers have suspected all along: That the previous CMC leadership —nominally headed by the civilian leader and former CCP secretary-general Hu Jintao — was in reality controlled by soldiers loyal to Hu’s predecessor in the party-state-military nexus.

The rise of Guo and Xu, to be sure, can be traced by their allegiance to Mr Jiang Zemin, who retained his CMC chairmanship even though his tenure as CCP chief had run its course in 2002.


Throughout the CCP’s history — from Mao Zedong’s successful purges of his generals during the Cultural Revolution to the support afforded to Deng Xiaoping in suppressing the demonstrations at Tiananmen — party leaders had been propped up on many an occasion by virtue of their control over the military.

Not unlike his predecessors, President Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power and his success in restructuring the various party and state organs would not have been possible without first asserting his authority over the PLA, and to a lesser extent, the country’s public security apparatus.

In achieving the latter, Mr Xi has used his anti-graft movement to purge the Chinese state security organs —previously headed by Zhou — of the influence of their previous officeholders.

For instance, the head of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission who oversees internal security has been relegated to that of a non-Politburo Standing Committee rank since the 18th Party Congress in 2012.

Where the military is concerned, Mr Xi has coordinated efforts between his CMC and the CCP’s disciplinary and inspection body — the Central Discipline and Inspection Commission (CDIC) headed by his key political ally, Mr Wang Qishan — in rooting out high-ranking military “tigers”.

This is where Mr Xi appears to have applied lessons learnt from his predecessors.

Unlike Mao and Deng, the lack of revolutionary credentials on the part of Mr Jiang and Mr Hu meant that it was always a daunting challenge for them to impose their will on China’s military leaders.

Without the political privileges enjoyed by his predecessors, it is believed that Mr Jiang resorted to soliciting the allegiance of PLA personnel through other means. These would include his use of promotions in exchange for their loyalty as well as his installation of trusted aides in key military leadership roles.

Having witnessed Mr Hu’s ineffectual tenure as CMC chairman from 2004 to 2012, Mr Xi knows only too well how not to be commander-in-chief of China’s 2.3 million-strong armed forces.

As a civilian CMC vice-chair from 2010 to 2012, Mr Xi would have had first-hand experience in witnessing the power struggle within the PLA’s top decision-making body. With his princeling pedigree and experience serving in the Nanjing military region, when he was party secretary and Governor of Zhejiang and Fujian, respectively, he clearly feels himself equal to the task of reforming the PLA.

To be sure, his attempts at dismantling the patronage networks and arresting widespread corruption within the Chinese military can be attributed to his desire to avoid his predecessor’s fate.

The removal of both of Mr Jiang’s former point men in the PLA reaffirms the fact that Mr Xi has more or less removed whatever vestiges of influence the retired Chinese leader had retained over the military.

More crucially, Mr Xi has significantly begun to remove the corrupt underpinnings of the PLA and signalled his resolve to develop it into a force capable of fighting wars — and winning them.

Aided by Mr Hu’s “naked exit” in relinquishing all leadership positions, Mr Xi has taken the first meaningful steps in asserting his personal authority over the Chinese military corps.

Still, we can only hope that he does not follow in Mr Jiang’s footsteps in sidelining his own successor by the time his own tenure concludes in 2022.



James Char is a research analyst with the China programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). He is the inaugural Wong Wai Ling Scholar in the Masters of Arts in Contemporary China at NTU. A version of this article first appeared in the Pacific Forum CSIS Pacnet newsletter.

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