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July 3, 2014
Notes from the Pentagon

Power politics behind PLA general's ouster
The ouster of retired People’s Liberation Army Gen. Xu Caihou from the Communist Party of China this week represents a major political blow to China's all-powerful military.

For a decade, Gen. Xu was the most powerful man in uniform in China as the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) in charge of political affairs. From that post between 2002 and 2012 he wielded enormous power, ultimately controlling all things military in China, from the PLA’s multibillion-dollar budgets to appointments and promotions of all senior leaders.

Now facing court martial for corruption, Gen. Xu was accused of selling military promotions and access to power.

However, U.S. government analysts say his expulsion and prosecution have less to do with President Xi Jinping’s much-heralded anti-corruption drive than old fashioned political score-settling. Animosity toward Gen. Xu dates to the regime of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin and his differences with Hu Jintao, who took over as partial supreme leader in 2002.

Gen. Xu, who visited the Pentagon in October 2009, is known to defense officials as a suave political operative who understood the mechanics of getting, holding and using power. His downfall was due to his role as a political henchman for Mr. Jiang, who as Chinese leader continued to control the military as CMC chairman for three years after passing control of other elements of the Chinese power structure to Mr. Hu beginning in 2002.

Mr. Hu was said to be angered by the humiliation of not getting full control right away. As a result, he is now regarded as a mediocre transitional leader who stepped down in 2012, along with both CMC vice chairmen, including Gen. Xu.

According to U.S. government China analysts, there is high confidence that the outgoing Mr. Hu warned his successor Mr. Xi that Gen. Xu, a Jiang loyalist and member of the ruling Politburo, was someone not to be trusted. And that is what officials say led Mr. Xi to the use the party investigatory system to bring criminal charges against the Chinese general, culminating his prosecution and disgrace within the party.

The problems do not appear to be over for Mr. Xi in his drive to further consolidate power in the party. Gen. Xu remains a powerful figure in the military because he was able to use his decade of political control over the PLA to position tens of acolytes in top ranks. In fact, both current CMC vice chairmen, Gen. Fan Changlong and Gen. Xu Qiliang, are proteges of the ousted general.

The party and military, however, continue to promote the official propaganda line that corruption and not power politics was behind the biggest shake-up in the PLA since the ouster of military leader Lin Biao in 1971.

“Xu’s biggest mistake was using his power to arrange for his men to fill seats in the Central Military Commission leadership before Xi became its chairman in December 2012,” a Chinese military official told the South China Morning Post. “That made Xi very unhappy. [But] Xi will not rashly make any personnel changes in the commission yet as he needs more time to boost the army’s morale as a way to win trust.”

What remains unclear is whether senior PLA leaders will orchestrate their own behind-the-scenes backlash against Mr. Xi from within the military. The PLA in recent years has shown disturbing signs of operating independently of the party leadership, a troubling concern, considering China’s largely secret strategic nuclear and missile buildup.