Chinese President Xi Jinping must be feeling confident that his power is growing and his political calculations are proving correct, because he is putting the purge of corrupt “tigers and flies”—low and high level state official—into high gear. The high-profile targets of the purge are, increasingly, people whom other recent Chinese heads of state wouldn’t and couldn’t dare to touch. Last month’s takedown of a top aide to Xi’s immediate predecessor demonstrated as much.This week the purge is hitting top security officials, and, even more importantly, members of the PLA. The anti-corruption probe ensnared top spy chief Ma Jian, who is a Vice Minister in China’s powerful Ministry of State Security. Reuters describes him as “the most senior security official to be investigated since former domestic security tsar Zhou Yongkang.” (Background on Zhou here.) But for China watchers, who are always debating the degree to which China’s military is autonomous and able to act outside of the authority of the Party, there was bigger news. Bloomberg reports:
China’s military announced the names of 16 generals who were put under investigation for graft, including the deputy head of its nuclear forces, signaling President Xi Jinping is widening his probe of corruption in the armed forces.Some of those targeted have been under investigation for months and the People’s Liberation Army took an unusual step of releasing their names in a public statement on its official website.“This is the first time in the PLA’s history it has announced more than a dozen senior officers’ corruption cases in a single public statement,” said Yue Gang, a retired PLA colonel. “It shows military corruption is in such a critical condition that Xi has to make these cases public to seek the support of the people.”
These kinds of internal state dynamics are impossible to parse with certainty from the outside. But Xi’s moves tell us some things: he thinks he needs to assert control over the military, which implies that he doesn’t think he already has it to the degree that he would like. Furthermore, he knows this is politically delicate and that one would need to hold a lot of power and command a lot of support to pull it off; when he started the purge, he didn’t come out swinging for the military right away. And finally, his sharp political instincts are telling him that by now he has built up the power he needs to crack down on the PLA.Every step bring him closer to being the new Mao.