Asia Defense

Is Corruption Within the PLA Diminishing China’s Military Preparedness?

Corruption within the People’s Liberation Army is good news for those who are afraid of China’s military.

Is Corruption Within the PLA Diminishing China’s Military Preparedness?
Credit: U.S. Department of Defense photo by Donna Miles

On January 15, Chinese officials announced on China Military Online the names of 16 senior military officers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) who were under investigation for “seriously violating party discipline,” a euphemism for accusations of graft. The Global Times notes that the officers under investigation are at the corps level and above and include one general, four lieutenant generals, nine major generals, and one senior colonel.

In July 2014, The Diplomat reported on the indictments of Chinese general Xu Caihou, the former Vice-Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, and Gu Junshan, Deputy Head of the PLA General Logistics Department, considered the most corrupt of all PLA departments. Xu so far, has been the most senior military officer investigated in President Xi Jinping’s anti-graft campaign.

As my colleague Shannon Tiezzi pointed out, one of the reasons for this growing focus on investigating the PLA leadership is a genuine concern by Party officials that corruption can undermine the military preparedness of China’s armed forces. Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption efforts appear to be linked to overcoming parochial interests within the PLA leadership, and to (forcefully) garner support for much needed military reforms. However, as previously noted by The Diplomat, the Chinese president has to be careful not to overplay his hand.

In November 2013, during the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Party, Xi Jinping announced the most sweeping and ambitious military reform plan in more than three decades. The principle objective behind these reform efforts is to increase the warfighting capabilities of the PLA. The PLA still lags other major military powers in many aspects, such as modern joint command systems, joint forces interoperability, modern unit training, and the modernization of military equipment.

Some analysts and commentators noted that given the slow propensity to change of the Chinese military bureaucracy, we will likely not see sweeping reform of the PLA, but rather witness incremental changes and small adjustments over the next few years. For example, as part of the anti-corruption campaign within the military, the PLA recently launched a new website to make some of its military procurement more transparent.

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Perhaps, Chinese military analysts have been carefully watching the disintegration of U.S. sponsored Iraqi Army over the last couple of months, which many commentators have attributed to the rampant corruption within the force, and taken this as a wakeup call. Perhaps not. Military bureaucracies are notoriously inflexible in adopting to new circumstances and prone to resist any changes for as long as they can. Still, one thing is crystal clear: Widespread corruption within a military force – especially on the logistics side – is the surest way to diminish the combat effectiveness of an army, no matter how well soldiers fight on the actual battlefield (e.g, see the experience of the German Wehrmacht during the Second World War).

In that sense, corruption within the PLA is good news for all those who are afraid of an increasingly powerful People’s Liberation Army.

As I have noted here and here, estimating military power is a difficult task, and the inner workings of the PLA are a notoriously tough nut to crack, which may contribute to an inflated perception of China’s military capabilities. In one way, our obsession with the People’s Liberation Army reminds me of a quote from the 1985 movie St. Elmos Fire, where one of the protagonists muses about the Cold War: “I enjoy being afraid of Russia. It’s a harmless fear, but it makes America feel better, Russia gets an inflated sense of national worth from our paranoia. How’s that?” Something similar could be said of defense analysts and the PLA. It’s perhaps a harmless fear, but it makes America feel better, and China gets an inflated sense of national worth from the paranoia.