Xi Jinping Purge of Military Brass Continues

Two former Chinese generals were taken into custody in recent weeks, according to a report that appeared in the South China Morning Post. The detentions look to be in connection with General Secretary Xi Jinping’s campaign to clean house in the Communist Party’s sprawling People’s Liberation Army.

According to “a source close to the military,” former Generals Li Jinai and Liao Xilong were escorted out of meeting of retired senior cadres in July by “PLA disciplinary officers.” The report states the two generals, who both retired in the first part of 2013, were detained for possible “violations of party discipline,” the ruling organization’s code for corruption.

The Post notes the possibility that the two former officers were not targets of an investigation but were merely assisting in the investigation of others, but that benign explanation is implausible. Both served on the party’s Central Military Commission, the body that controls the military, and would not likely be subject to such humiliating treatment unless they were suspected of venality. Indeed, Liao is considered a “war hero” for fighting the Vietnamese decades ago.

The detentions of Li and Liao follow the downfall of General Xu Caihou and the imprisonment of Guo Boxiong, both former vice-chairmen of the Central Military Commission.

Xu died from bladder cancer last year while in custody. Guo received a life sentence late last month, making him the most senior flag officer to be imprisoned for corruption in the history of the People’s Republic.

Virtually nobody thought that Xi would rest after bringing down Xu and Guo. As the South China Morning Post reported, “various sources” indicated there would be additional detentions when state media announced in early July that General Tian Xiusi, the former political commissar of the air force, had been “placed under investigation.” The troubles of Li and Liao strongly suggest Xi Jinping’s probes and purges continue.

Let there be no doubt that the PLA is one of the most corrupt institutions in China, and Xi, following the example of his predecessors, is using the venality of opponents as a way to sideline those opposed to or inconvenient to his ambitions. In the military, that opposition is centered on flag officers appointed by his two predecessors, Jiang Zemin, the ailing head of the party’s Shanghai Gang faction, and Hu Jintao, the chief of the Communist Youth League faction. Xi’s choice of targets suggests that his law-enforcement efforts are motivated at least in part by his seemingly relentless attempts to accumulate power.

While Xi has been conducting what amounts to a political purge, he has sponsored one of the most sweeping reorganizations of the People’s Liberation Army, regrouping seven military regions into five theater commands among other changes. The streamlining of command and control, announced early February, has sidelined—and will continue to sideline—whole groups of officers as the changes are implemented in the coming years.

At the moment, Xi appears to have the upper hand over the flag officers, as is evident from the disgrace of General Xu, the imprisonment of General Bao, and the numerous detentions of senior retired and active-duty military officers this year. The dominant view is that Xi has the army under control, but that assessment seems premature. Were that true, there would be no need for Xi to continue the jailings. The apparent confinement of Generals Li and Liao last month, therefore, suggests Xi is still not in complete command of the upper reaches of the PLA.

How strong is the opposition to Xi? Willy Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong tells World Affairs that “the resistance is under the table.” My sense is that many generals and admirals are waiting for Xi to falter, and if the opportunity presents itself, they will strike back.

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