General Zhang Yang, the former Political Work Department director of the Central Military Commission (CMC), hanged himself at home on November 25, according to a state media announcement in late November. Zhang became the highest-ranking Chinese official to commit suicide since Xi Jinping launched the anti-corruption campaign in 2013. On December 27, the National People’s Congress posthumously terminated Zhang’s membership to the Chinese legislature.
The official acknowledgment of Zhang Yang’s death confirmed earlier reports and information that he was in trouble. In late August, Zhang and former Chief of Joint Staff Fang Fenghui suddenly vanished from public view, and their names were not included in the list of military delegates to the 19th Party Congress. Chinese and Western media outlets later reported that both generals were being investigated for wrongdoing. The downfall of Zhang and Fang shocked many observers, as they were considered favorite candidates for the two CMC vice chair slots. The announcement that Zhang had ended his life solved the mystery of his whereabouts, but cast his and Fang’s earlier disappearance in a grim light.
The Xi administration’s handling of Zhang’s suicide indicates that his case is likely more serious than the terse official announcement lets on. In a 300-character commentary published after the announcement on November 28, China’s military newspaper, the People’s Liberation Army Daily, criticized Zhang for killing himself to escape punishment for breaking national law and Communist Party discipline. The commentary added that Zhang’s case further emphasized the need to “comprehensively purge the pernicious influence of Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou” from the system, advance honest government, and persist with the anti-corruption drive. Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, both fomer CMC vice chairs, are the highest-ranking military officers to date to fall in Xi’s anti-corruption drive.
On November 29, provincial Party committees held meetings to brief cadres about Zhang’s case. A total of 74 senior generals from the CMC and other commands and units were ordered to attend a study session in Beijing between December 4 to December 9, where they were told to “resolutely obey Chairman Xi’s commands, be responsible to Chairman Xi, and let Chairman Xi be at ease.” Around the same period, leading provincial-level officials were also summoned to Beijing to attend the first of seven rounds of “education courses” on Xi Jinping Thought and the spirit of the 19th Party Congress.
Perhaps more troubling than Zhang Yang’s suicide is the absence of follow up reporting in state media and the top military brass’ radio silence on the issue. While overseas Chinese language news outlets carried details of Zhang’s corruption and promiscuity, state media coverage of Zhang’s case was limited to the announcement of his suicide, the short commentary article, and boilerplate critiques of Zhang from over a dozen provincial Party committees and State Council departments. In contrast, state media went all out to expose disgraced CMC vice chairs Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou after they were formally investigated, while senior military leaders censured the purged generals in speeches.
Three perplexing questions arise in considering the Chinese authorities’ statement of Zhang’s suicide together with various intelligence and reports.
Suicide or Forced Suicide?
According to Xinhua’s account of Zhang Yang’s suicide, the authorities launched an investigation into his association with Guo and Xu on August 28. Zhang remained in his home during the entire duration of the probe until he committed suicide on November 23.
Two reasonable hypotheses can be drawn from the official statement. In considering CCP conventions, the authorities must have considered Zhang’s crimes not to be very serious if he was allowed to remain at home while being probed. Thus, Zhang committing suicide suggests that the past three months of investigations could have revealed his crimes to be very severe, and he may have chosen to end his life instead of serving a life prison sentence like Guo Boxiong.
The official narrative, however, appears tenuous when viewed alongside foreign media reports and other channels of information about Zhang and Fang Fenghui’s arrest. A September 1 Sankei Shimbun report notes that Zhang and Fang were subjected to shuanggui (a type of informal detention for CCP cadres) at the CMC headquarters (Bayi Building) in Beijing. Fang may have been probed at around the same time as Zhang as he was removed from his post on August 26. Meanwhile, Chinese overseas media report that military anti-corruption officers “visited” Zhang in the vicinity of his “residence” on the day of his death. Zhang reportedly told the officers that he needed to change clothes before hanging himself.
Juxtaposing official and unofficial information brings up some points for consideration.
It is still unclear where Fang Fenghui is being investigated — at home, in the Bayi Building, or at an undisclosed location. If Fang and Zhang were both investigated at home, then they should only be suspected of minor cases of corruption. If this was indeed the case, however, neither general should have been probed in the first place, given their high office and good chances of being promoted to CMC vice chair at the 19th Congress. (Given the prevalence of corruption in the Chinese officialdom, Xi would find himself with very few officials left to govern China if he purged every single official who engaged in malfeasance.) Instead, both generals vanished towards the end of August and didn’t even make the list of delegates to the Congress, a development which suggests that Fang and Zhang had committed offenses severe enough to doom their political careers.
Zhang being probed at home, as Chinese state media reported, doesn’t make sense given his connection with Guo and Xu. Officially, Guo and Xu stand accused of “political and economic crimes” and for being conspirators who sought to “wreck and split the Party.” The latter charge hints at their involvement in a coup against the Xi administration.
An examination of Zhang and Fang’s careers indicates that they owe their promotions to Guo and Xu. From 2004 to 2007, Fang and Zhang were chief of staff and political commissar, respectively, of the Guangzhou Military Region. In 2012, both generals were elevated to corresponding posts in the CMC. It would be impossible for Fang and Zhang to secure promotion if they only had a shallow relationship with Guo and Xu when the latter two were at the peak of their influence.
Finally, the state account of Zhang’s suicide becomes unpersuasive if the information that anti-corruption officers visited Zhang before his death is accurate.
Officially, Zhang killed himself to escape punishment. So did the anti-corruption officers tell Zhang exactly how he would be punished? If not, why hang himself in November, and not during the three prior months of investigation?
Zhang was investigated for his ties with Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou. Given the gravity of the case, the anti-corruption officers who met with Zhang must be seasoned veterans. So how could the officers be careless enough to give Zhang an opportunity to hang himself?
Even if the anti-corruption officers had let Zhang slip away, the former general would have created a commotion in the process of hanging himself. It is inconceivable that the officers or security agents keeping an eye on Zhang at home would be oblivious to his suicide.
Why Did Military Leaders Stay Silent?
After the announcement of Zhang Yang’s death until November 30, a total of 14 provincial Party committees and three State Council departments condemned Zhang’s suicide and endorsed Xi Jinping’s call to stamp out the “pernicious influence” of Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou. In contrast, no CMC department nor any of the five military theater commands took to state media to comment on Zhang’s case.
The military radio silence is particularly jarring in light of the responses to the purge of Xu and Guo. After Xu was removed in June 2014 and Guo in July 2015, the General Staff Department, Political Work Department, General Logistics Department, General Armaments Department, PLA Navy, Air Force, Ground Force, Second Artillery Corps, and seven military regions all issued public statements condemning the two ex-CMC vice chairmen. Likewise, the various leading generals and official PLA publications censured Xu and Guo while rallying around Xi after the 19th Party Congress. For the military’s top brass to not react at all to the death of Zhang Yang, an official who was investigated for his links with Xu and Guo, is baffling. Did Beijing issue a gag order to the military? Or is the military expressing discontent with Xi over the Zhang issue? It is not easy to discern from the information currently available.
Zhang Yang’s suicide, however, must have shocked Beijing. Just two weeks before Zhang’s death, the central authorities ordered military leaders at all levels to attend study sessions where Xu, Guo, and Zhang‘s corrupt behavior and extravagant lives were exposed, according to intelligence from mainland China.
Was Zhang Involved in a Coup?
After analyzing the curious political and military developments that unfolded between late July to late August — the purge of Xi “successor” Sun Zhengcai, an unusual parade in Zhurihe Training Base, and the vanishing of Fang Fenghui and Zhang Yang — SinoInsider wrote in September that Xi Jinping could have foiled a coup before the 19th Party Congress. Our analysis appeared to be partially corroborated when Liu Shiyu, the China Securities Regulatory Commission chairman, accused Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, Ling Jihua, Xu Caihou, Guo Boxiong, and the recently arrested Sun Zhengcai of “plotting to usurp the Party leadership” during a meeting at the 19th Congress.
Shortly after making our analysis, Hong Kong media reported that Fang and Zhang were arrested for planning a military coup. According to a report, the two generals had been quietly opposing Xi by protecting Guo and Xu’s former associates, and Xi decided that they should go on “early retirement.” With no prospects for career advancement, Fang and Zhang conspired against the Xi leadership but were purged before they could successfully take action, noted the report. The official statement linking Zhang and the two ex-CMC vice chairs, who have been accused of attempting regime change, suggests that there is some basis in the information from Hong Kong. It would not be a stretch to presume that Fang will eventually be accused of collaborating with Zhang or be outed as an associate of Guo and Xu.
In light of the public information currently available, there is a very good chance that Zhang Yang and Fang Fenghui were involved in a failed coup against the Xi administration. And if Zhang and Fang were coup plotters, then they must already have assembled a sizable group of fellow conspirators.
The Political Work Department continues to be an important office in the PLA despite its status being lowered following the reorganization of the CMC. This is because the PLA is the military force of the CCP, and the Party strives to be in command of its “gun” instead of the other way around. Given the prominence of political work in the PLA, Zhang Yang’s death, regardless of whether he committed suicide or was “forced” to kill himself, is a deeply troubling incident for senior Chinese generals and Xi Jinping.
To the military’s senior leadership, Zhang’s arrest underscores Xi’s conviction to clean out corruption or eliminate his opposition. Earlier, they may have felt that the purge of retired generals Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou was an inevitable outcome of the factional struggle between Xi and Jiang since Xi needed to preserve his authority and consolidate power. But for Xi to abruptly remove Zhang, an active-duty senior general who was tipped to become a CMC vice chairman, signals that no one is safe. His suicide may have inspired unease in the top military ranks and prompted them to reevaluate their understanding of Xi.
From Xi’s perspective, Zhang’s suicide may leave him with the impression that the Jiang faction’s remaining influence in the military cannot be underestimated. Xi may also become more vigilant against potential coups. If Zhang was not being held at home and was forced to commit suicide, then the political threat Xi faces is considerable.
Don Tse is the CEO and co-founder of SinoInsider Consulting LLC, a consulting and research company based in New York City.
Translated by Larry Ong.