Rotting From Within

In Foreign Policy, John Garnaut has a lengthy report about corruption in the People’s Liberation Army, which he writes is, “riddled with corruption and professional decay, compromised by ties of patronage, and asphyxiated by the ever-greater effort required to impose political control.” The reporting is based on a series of speeches by Gen. Liu Yuan, son of former President Liu Shaoqi in which he blasted the culture of corruption in the military:

The practice of buying promotions inside the military is now so widespread, Liu noted, that even outgoing President Hu Jintao, who also leads the military from his position atop the CMC, had vented his frustration. “When Chairman Hu severely criticised ‘buying and selling official posts,’ can we sit idle?”

Liu’s revelations are not necessarily good news for China’s would-be foes. Foreign government strategists are starting to worry that corruption and byzantine internal politics may amplify the known difficulties in communicating with the PLA and adroitly managing crisis situations. Despite the risks inherent in China’s growing arsenal, expanding ambitions and spasmodically aggressive rhetoric and actions, military cooperation between the United States and China is almost nonexistent. Diplomats say American officials are given less access to PLA officers than colleagues from other Western embassies, who themselves are kept largely in the dark. Senior Western government officials have told me that U.S. military leaders have less knowledge of command systems, and far fewer avenues of communication, than they had with their Soviet counterparts during the Cold War. Michael Swaine, a China security expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes that the “fragmented and stove-piped structure” of the Chinese system means it has great trouble communicating even with itself, especially in crisis situations. He, like most other analysts, does not study corruption in the PLA because of the difficulty in measuring it.

In some ways, though, it’s hiding in plain sight. Outsiders can glimpse the enormous flow of military bribes and favours in luxury cars with military license plates on Changan Avenue, Beijing’s main east-west thoroughfare, and parked around upmarket night clubs near the Workers’ Stadium. Business people gravitate toward PLA officers because of the access and protection they bring. PLA veterans told me they are organising “rights protection” movements to protest their inadequate pensions, which they contrast with the luxury lifestyles they observe among serving officers. Retired officers have told me that promotions have become so valuable that it has become routine to pay the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to even be considered for many senior positions.

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