General Li Zuocheng (left), who is now the chief of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission, greets members of the US Army during a welcome ceremony at the Bayi Building in Beijing on August 16, 2016. Photo: AFP / Mark Schiefelbein

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After receiving a Thai military delegation on Monday, August 21, China’s General Fang Fenghui – the chief of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission – simply vanished and has not appeared in public since.

Four days later, General Li Zuocheng, a new Chief of Joint Staff, made his debut at a conference with his Pakistani counterpart, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Thus came General Fang’s nearly five-year tenure to an abrupt and bizarre end.

Sudden disappearances are nothing new in President Xi Jinping’s high-pressure campaign against corruption in the People’s Liberation Army. Ranking commanders have previously vanished then re-emerged in prison jumpsuits, or disappeared, never to be seen again.

With Xi’s drive now entering its fifth year, thousands of officers have been subjected to disciplinary action. Some have been let off with stern warnings, while others have been court-martialed and sentenced to life behind bars.

A Chinese military court in session. Photo via The Paper

Such severe measures reflect Xi’s deep desire to rid the PLA of the pandemic corruption that has long plagued it. The numbers reported speak for themselves.

For instance, Lieutenant General Gu Junshan, the deposed chief of the PLA’s general logistics department and the campaign’s first victim, embezzled more than 20 billion yuan (US$3 billion) from the army throughout his career, enough to fully equip some 2.1 million infantrymen.

To combat graft, Xi has greatly expanded the powers of four critical PLA organs that he now exercises personal control over.

The Commission for Discipline Inspection (CDI) is the most powerful. As the military’s top investigative body, it has branches in all services and reports directly to the Central Military Commission, which is chaired by Xi.

The CDI’s main task is to investigate and obtain evidence for corruption cases. Besides having permanent representatives at the PLA’s highest stratums, the CDI regularly dispatches investigators to lower echelons to unearth illegal acts.

While in the short-run the campaign’s aggression has sown fear and anxiety in the military, in the long-run it will benefit Xi and China’s national defense

Working in tandem with the CDI, the PLA’s Political and Legal Affairs Commission (PLAC) oversees the military’s justice system – its courts, procuratorate and prisons – in addition to shouldering certain counterintelligence duties. Previously under the control of the PLA’s General Political Department, the PLAC is now directly commanded by the Central Military Commission. Its work is very secretive and its judicial independence is highly questionable.

The PLA Audit Office (AO), meanwhile, has but one job – to make sure that no one is cooking the books. Falsifying financial statements used to be a major problem in the PLA and, to an extent, remains so today.

From 2012 to 2017, the AO audited some 30,000 PLA work units and the finances of 9,000 plus officers. AO auditors routinely inspect units at random.

This year, the office instituted a remote monitoring system for military bank accounts. Once toothless under the profoundly corrupt general logistics department, Xi has reorganized the AO as an independent auditing agency and fortified its authority with his personal backing.

In order to verify that the CDI, PLAC and AO are doing what they are supposed to, Xi added a fourth organization to the mix, known tersely as the Inspection Team and headed by Xi’s favorite general, Xu Qiliang.

As Xi’s additional eye, the Team has conducted 13 inspection tours since its establishment in December 2013 to assess progress in weeding out corruption in the PLA.

The PLA was long overdue a thorough housecleaning. While in the short-run the campaign’s aggression has sown fear and anxiety in the military, in the long-run it will benefit Xi and China’s national defense by strengthening the unity of command, purifying an army rife with official malfeasance and promoting a new class of capable young officers who owe their allegiance solely to the new sheriff.

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