Former Chinese navy commander Wu Shengli. Photo: PLA Daily

The former top commander of the Chinese navy, whose 10-year tenure marked the beginning of the all-out buildup of the nation’s sea force, is now back in the media spotlight – for all the wrong reasons.

Three years into his retirement, Wu Shengli, who was at the helm of the People’s Liberation Army Navy between 2006 and 2017, was summoned by the PLA’s Audit Commission for questioning in early June. The latest investigation may unravel Wu’s legacy: he steered the Chinese navy as it shot past the US to become the world’s largest by fleet size.

The Military Observer, an unofficial WeChat account that is popular among military enthusiasts, cited sources privy to the matter as saying that Wu, 75, had been “invited” by the newly-established audit commission to assist in the “related examination of ledgers and books” stretching back 14 years. It is said the watchdog will conduct post-service checks and auditing of the major transactions and contracts signed off by generals or commanders before they leave the military.

It has also been revealed that a hotline operated by the secretariat of the naval command has been set up for any soldiers or civilians to report suspected financial irregularities or malfeasance by Wu while he was in the navy.

The move by graft-busters to call up a former top naval commander three years after he stepped down is seen as rare, since the new audit rules promulgated by the Communist Party’s Central Military Commission for implementation next month will only cover those senior officials and generals who are about to retire or have just retired within the past 12 months, according to Xinhua.

Wu, aka Admiral Champion as his given name means victory in Chinese, served under two presidents from 2006 – Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping. He was previously regarded as a safe pair of hands as the Chinese navy navigated choppy waters, when the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait increasingly emerged as flashpoints amid many territorial disputes and Beijing’s long-simmering feud with Taiwan.

Wu once admitted that tensions flaring in the two regions could lead to a full-blown war and that the navy, which would figure prominently in any deployment, must prepare for any eventualities.

Wu also left a stamp on the rapid naval expansion since 2002 as he oversaw the design, construction, launch and deployment of numerous warships, including the PLA’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. Before his departure, he also saw through the building of the second carrier, the Shandong, as well as the preliminary design of the navy’s first nuclear flattop, rumored to be in the early stages of construction.

The PLA Daily once reported that, under Wu’s stewardship, the navy expanded its fleet size by more than 50% when a big armada of advanced destroyers, frigates, assault ships and nuclear submarines was commissioned to reinforce the PLA’s primacy in the South China Sea and even the Western Pacific.

Former navy commander Wu Shengli is seen on the flight deck of the Liaoning during a drill in the South China Sea. Photo: PLA Daily

Yet when the navy got a lion’s share of Beijing’s ample appropriation for the military, Wu’s tenure was drenched with scandals after his direct subordinates and executives at state-owned naval contractors fell foul of investigators.

In 2014, a deputy political commissar of the navy committed suicide inside the force’s headquarters compound in Beijing and since 2018, the CEO, party chief and president of China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, a key contractor working on the PLA’s new vessels including its carriers, have been sacked one after another due to graft. Rumors have since then started to swirl that Wu could also be implicated for gross negligence as well as all the quid pro quo deals he had with them.

It is also said that Wu’s children and other family members dabbled in real estate and other business relating to the military.

Also in 2012, when the maiden voyage of the Liaoning, the Soviet-made cruiser repurposed as China’s first carrier, turned out to be everything but plain sailing, Wu scrambled to submit reports to top leaders to explain the slew of glitches and suggest remedies. The second carrier, the Shandong, also ran into technical problems during its sea trials.

It remains to be seen if Wu will become the latest addition to the still-growing list of PLA officials that have fallen from grace. The war on corruption waged by President Xi, also the chairman of the Central Military Commission, to cleanse the PLA has already felled two deputy chairmen, Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong, as well as chief of staff Fang Fenghui. Yet Xi’s anti-graft drive is also seen by some as turf wars against his political foes.