Corruption is widespread within China’s military, affecting everyone from low level soldiers to China’s former top general. But there’s debate as to how damaging this corruption actually is to the country’s ability to fight a war.
Retired US Army Lt. Colonel Dennis J. Blasko, who served as a Military Intelligence Officer and a Foreign Area Officer focusing on China, writes for War on the Rocks that rampant corruption may not actually be a catastrophic problem for China’s military readiness.
“To date, very few (if any) operational combat unit (i.e., divisions, brigades, regiments, etc) commanders and staff officers are known to have been caught in the corruption dragnet,” Blasko notes. “As the PLA increases the pace of its modernization and the intensity of its training, unit command assignments are becoming increasingly stressful, requiring personnel who have been properly educated and trained and who have acquired experience by rising through the ranks of their functional specialties.”
In Blasko’s view, China’s modernization push has placed such a strain on its military commanders that high-level commanding officers are effectively dissuaded from becoming too corrupt. Instead, military corruption is confined almost entirely to the “rear-area personnel” — the ones responsible for procurement of weapons, the running of the political organs of China’s military, and the sourcing of materials.
“An unqualified person buying a job as a brigade commander or even political commissar would likely be discovered very quickly as incompetent by professionals in positions above and below. Rather, corruption appears to be much more prevalent among the ranks of those performing rear area personnel and logistics duties than among those who will lead the PLA in any future battles it may fight,” Blasko continues.
Military corruption has seemingly not directly affected the General Staff Department, the section of the Chinese military involved with intelligence, combat operation command, management, and electronic warfare.
According to Xinhua, over 90% of all corruption-linked crimes within the military occurred in rear area personnel and were not associated with military commanders.
Even though corruption may not be significantly hampering the overall readiness of China’s commanders and front line soldiers, the vast system of corruption could still take a toll on the military’s overall moral and prestige.
In 2014, former Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission Xu Caihou was charged with taking advantage of his position by awarding promotions and accepting bribes in exchange for military appointments. Xu was the highest military target yet to be taken down by China’s ongoing anti-graft campaign.
However, as Blasko notes, despite his title Xu was never the commander of any military unit and instead spent his entire career in the General Political Department, which leads all the political activities of the military.
Still, under Xu’s tenure, the buying and selling of promotions expanded into a lucrative business that percolated through all levels of the General Political Department.
“Such transactions did not only happen at the highest levels but also expanded to the grass roots,” an unnamed senior colonel in the Chinese military told the South China Morning Post. “The PLA has improved retirement and job replacement for veterans in the past decade, but it [the selling of ranks] has become a cash cow for many senior officials.”
Even as China tackles the excesses of corruption within its military, Blasko maintains that Beijing has a number of other shortcomings to address in its military including its “organizational structure, personnel qualifications, logistics system, and training methods.”
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