Xi Bags High-Level Military “Tiger” Amid Deepening Corruption Crackdown

On June 30, Chinese official media announced that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had expelled Xu Caihou from its ranks. The decision was taken earlier in the day by a meeting of the CCP Politburo chaired by President and CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping, according to the official bulletin. Xu, a former high-ranking People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officer, is the most senior CCP figure to be taken down in Xi’s ongoing anti-graft campaign that is sweeping throughout the party-state. Xu’s downfall gives credence to Xi’s frequent admonitions that no one, no matter how senior in the party hierarchy, will avoid punishment “if found violating party disciplines and laws.” The move also definitively puts to rest any notion that Xi is not fully in command of the CCP and its military.

Q1: Who is Xu Caihou, and why is his expulsion from the CCP important?

A1: Prior to stepping down from office at the November 2012 18th Party Congress, Xu had served as a member of the CCP Politburo, the uniformed military’s second-in-command, and, as a career political officer, the military leader with direct oversight of PLA personnel appointments. He is virtually certain to face trial for his misdeeds now that his case has been formally handed over to military prosecutors. When that occurs, he will be the most senior officer to be prosecuted in China in nearly three decades, with the last such proceedings being the show trial in 1980 against the so-called Lin Biao Clique following Lin’s alleged abortive coup against Mao Zedong and subsequent death in a plane crash over Mongolia while fleeing China.

Xu also was viewed as one of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s closest allies in the PLA, suggesting the retired party baron’s influence may finally be slipping with Xi’s rapid accretion of political power. According to Western and Hong Kong media accounts, Jiang in a message sent sometime in March had warned Xi that “the footprint of this anti-corruption campaign cannot get too big.” Intriguingly, the media announcement on Xu’s ouster from the party noted that the formal investigation into his transgressions had started on March 15.

Xu’s case also is significant in that he has been rumored for some time to have been gravely ill with terminal cancer. Several media accounts noted that Xu had been dragged from his sickbed in the PLA’s 301 Hospital—the facility designated for treating senior civilian and military CCP cadre—to face questioning in the graft probe. Several of his military allies were said to have asked for leniency given Xu’s effective death sentence. They highlighted the case of former Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member Huang Ju, who was not made to face corruption charges in the mid-2000s since he was terminally ill with pancreatic cancer. Xi’s decision to bring Xu to book anyway may not sit well with active duty and retired officers who feel he is being too harsh and damaging the military’s reputation with the public.

Q2: What does this mean for the state of civil-military relations in China?

A2: Instead of highlighting the usual litany of “personal failings” typically associated with such graft cases, the official announcement noted that Xu “took advantage of his post to assist the promotion of other people and accepted bribes personally and through his family members.” Such a direct—and public—assertion about the buying of military office suggests Xi and his civilian peers are keen to send a message concerning the party’s control of the military. The accusation goes right to the heart of the PLA's loyalty to the CCP and its role as the ultimate guarantor of party rule. The Egyptian military’s summary abandonment of then President Mubarak in 2011 presumably has prompted some soul searching among the senior civilian leadership in China, and, unlike his predecessor, Hu Jintao, Xi appears to have the wherewithal to bring the PLA fully to heel.

Against this backdrop Xu’s case bears strong parallels to the last major PLA purge in 1992. In that instance, then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping removed two senior military figures who reportedly were plotting to grab control of the PLA in the event of Deng’s death. The two men, former state president Yang Shangkun and his half-brother, Yang Baibing, had helped Deng plan and execute the military operation that led to the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. In the aftermath, they went about removing officers whose support for the suppression was in question, replacing them wherever possible with officers loyal to them. Following Deng’s decision to remove them, a counter purge was conducted to remove the Yangs’ supporters from the military’s senior ranks. Xu Caihou’s eight-year run in charge of military personnel appointments means that many of his associates likely are scattered across the PLA. Whether Xi moves to sideline them or agrees instead to let bygones be bygones will bear close watching in the coming months.

Q3: Could this move be putting leadership cohesion at risk?

A3: Probably not. Xi’s seeming confidence in overriding the objections of other major party powerbrokers suggests he judges he has them sufficiently fenced in that they cannot mount an effective response. Still, Xi’s aggressiveness would suggest he is keen to send an unambiguous signal concerning his authority, if not going for broke. The announcement on Xu, for example, is not occurring in a vacuum. At the same meeting, the Politburo also ousted three other CCP figures that earlier had been detained for investigation. All three of them have ties to the case against former PBSC member Zhou Yongkang, suggesting that long-lingering drama also may be building to a crescendo. Add to this the recent detention of the elder brother of Hu Jintao’s top lieutenant and Xi appears to be leaving no stone unturned.

But to what end? Here it is important to think about Xi’s knack for political stagecraft. With most of his rival party chieftains now on the defensive, Xi may be seeking to press his advantage further by advancing his own allies. The upcoming Fourth Plenum, with its presumed focus on the very flexible theme of “party building,” may provide Xi with such an opportunity. There is a precedent for adding officials to senior civilian and military party posts at previous fourth plenums, and media speculation that Xi is seeking to advance the conclave from its traditional timeline in the fall would seem designed to keep the pressure on his detractors by compressing the party’s usual political calendar.

Q4: What are the possible implications for U.S.-China relations?

A4: It’s difficult to tell. Xu’s expulsion and Xi’s other related moves are primarily aimed at domestic constituencies and are driven by his domestic calculus. Nevertheless, should he emerge triumphant at the Fourth Plenum, there may be unforeseen benefits to the bilateral relationship, both direct and indirect. A more pliant PLA would suggest, for example, that the progress we already have seen in improving military-to-military ties—largely on orders from Xi—may be further strengthened and deepened.

Similarly, a breakthrough may bring some relief to the sense of paralysis that has crept into China’s political landscape in recent months. While far from the erroneous conclusion in some commentary that the seeming inactivity suggests a weak Xi, there is no doubt that the leadership’s reform agenda has suffered with the apparent infighting at the top of the system. Should those political tensions start to unwind with a strong performance by Xi, it is feasible that we may see a return to a more vigorous reform push at the December Central Economic Work Conference and into the beginning of 2015.

Christopher K. Johnson holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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