The ouster of one of China’s top military figures reflects Communist Party leader Xi Jinping’s determination to impose his personal authority far more ambitiously than his recent predecessors.
Since being appointed party leader in late 2012, Xi has moved aggressively to make his personal stamp with campaigns against graft and official waste and by waging an offensive against liberal, Western ideas. Party and government officials and managers of state companies have fallen. Advocates for official transparency and a fairer society have been jailed.
In possibly his boldest move so far, Xi struck Monday at the core of the military elite when the ruling party expelled Xu Caihou (Shoo Tseye-hoh) a retired general who had been deputy chairman of its Central Military Commission, which controls the Chinese military. The party said Xu would face charges in a military court of taking money and property in exchange for promotions and other favors.
Xi has tried to establish his authority over the People’s Liberation Army more quickly and effectively than his predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin and to show he is willing to tackle corruption in the politically influential military.
“The investigation started in March, so it took barely three months for Xu to be expelled from the party,” said Dali Yang, an expert in Chinese politics at the University of Chicago.
“It really shows a remarkable ability by Xi and his colleagues and also a very strong signal to try to clean up the military and to make the military a force that’s focused on military matters rather than promotions and corruption.”
The dozens of officials ensnared in the crackdown, including Cabinet figures and former executives of state-owned energy giant PetroChina Ltd., make this the most sweeping purge since the upending of the Chinese leadership during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
Xi’s forceful style is a contrast with Hu and Jiang, who were seen as relatively weak leaders who had to win agreement from others on the party’s ruling Standing Committee. After Hu became party leader in 2002, Jiang resisted giving up his last official post on the military commission until two years later. By contrast, when Xi took office in 2012, Hu handed over all his party posts.
Xi has dedicated his first 20 months in power to establishing his authority over seemingly all strategic areas.
That has prompted suggestions he might be trying to roll back the consensus-oriented leadership of the past two decades and restore rule by a dominant strongman. But experts say collective leadership is here to stay because the ruling party is wary of returning to the turbulence China endured under the former supreme leader Mao Zedong.
Xi took charge of committees that shape policies on national security, the Internet and economic reform. That reduced the role Premier Li Keqiang, the party’s No. 2 leader, plays in managing the economy, typically the premier’s responsibility.
The new leader has espoused a vision of a “Chinese Dream” of boosting national pride and quality of life. Abroad, he has taken an aggressive stance on Chinese sovereignty over disputed territories, squaring off against Japan and the Philippines.
After deadly attacks blamed on militant Muslims, Xi ordered an unusually severe security crackdown that produced 380 arrests in the first month. Elsewhere, activists who have called for transparency and accountability in the government have been jailed or harassed.
Moves that win Xi the most public favor appear to be campaigns to root out graft and to compel party officials to live more simply.
“I think there’s a kind of core, belief conviction element to this, which is that Xi has always sounded, since being elevated to power, like someone who feels like this has been his destiny,” said Kerry Brown, an expert in Chinese politics at the University of Sydney.
“He’s got all these powers and it seems to imply this kind of rather striking sense of destiny. The language he uses is increasingly grandiose and almost messianic.”
The announcement of Xu’s expulsion followed rumors that Xu, 71, had been detained from his sickbed in March. Some observers had thought Xu would be spared prosecution because of terminal cancer.
Experts said Xu was seen as an ally of Jiang, who still wields influence.
“Xu Caihou was often considered as Jiang’s man and so probably this case indicates the further weakening of Jiang’s influence and generally the weakening of what you may call ‘old man politics’,” said Warren Sun, a Chinese leadership expert at Australia’s Monash University. “He probably wants to signal more clearly the arrival of the Xi Jinping era.”
Chronic corruption has fueled public frustration and Xi has warned it could threaten the party’s grip on power.
In military affairs, party leaders worry pervasive graft is weakening the PLA’s ability to fight.
The armed forces were ordered to give up most of their business interests more than a decade ago, but a secretive, authoritarian official culture has allowed bribery and other abuses to continue.
Previous Chinese leaders “had little control over the military and virtually let them have a free run and so corruption became very rampant,” said Sun. “This is something that Xi Jinping’s predecessors did not have the guts to deal with, but now we see him take action on something that’s long overdue.”
The purge of Xu eliminates an ally of one of Xi’s rivals, former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, who fell from power after his wife, Gu Kailai, was accused of killing her British business partner. Gu was convicted of murder and Bo was imprisoned last year on charges of corruption and abuse of power in a case that many saw as a result of party infighting.
Similarly, the party is widely believed to be investigating a retired senior leader, Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the party’s apex of power who was seen as a Bo ally.
The party also on Monday had announced the expulsions of three senior officials believed linked to Zhou, which observers believe mean a public move against Zhou is inevitable.
“It’s a life or death game within the party, and you will fall if you make any concessions,” said Zhang Lifan, an independent political commentator in Beijing. “Thus you must defeat all the tigers within the party.”
Lingering uncertainty about Zhou’s fate might help Xi keep senior officials on edge.
“It creates this constant atmosphere of wariness and fear among the elite,” said Brown of the University of Sydney. “There’s this extraordinary manipulation of people not really knowing what’s going on, and I think that’s probably something that Xi is using.”