Commentary / World

The Soviet Union's lessons for China's purges

by Minxin Pei

On Aug. 1, China’s People’s Liberation Army celebrated its 88th anniversary. But the country’s 2.3 million soldiers have little to cheer about. On the eve of the anniversary, the PLA’s former top general, Guo Boxiong, was unceremoniously booted out of the Communist Party and handed over to military prosecutors to face corruption charges, including allegations that he took large bribes from fellow PLA officers in exchange for promotions. And Guo will not be the last PLA officer to face such charges.

Guo, a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, was in charge of the military’s day-to-day affairs from 2002 to 2012. His arrest follows that of Gen. Xu Caihou, who served on the commission from 2007 to 2012, in June of last year.

Guo and Xu are not the only senior officers to have fallen since their commander-in-chief, President Xi Jinping, launched his war on corruption at the end of 2012. Based on official data, 39 generals (including Guo’s son, a major general) have already been arrested. And if there is merit to the allegations that a large number of generals bribed Guo and Xu for their promotions, it is reasonable to assume that the most wide-ranging purge of senior PLA officers since the Cultural Revolution will continue.

That is precisely the message Xi sent to the military in a recent speech to the 16th army group, for which Xu served as political commissar in the early 1990s. After vowing to eradicate Xu’s influence, “ideologically, politically, and also in terms of organization and work style,” Xi stressed that disobedience to the party leadership would not be tolerated. The army must, Xi declared, “resolutely conform to orders from the party Central Committee and the Central Military Commission.”

Anyone who has been watching Xi over the last two and a half years could discern his goal of consolidating Communist Party rule in China by strengthening his personal authority, reinvigorating domestic repression and pursuing an assertive foreign policy. To achieve this goal, Xi needs to secure the PLA’s unimpeachable loyalty — and that requires the purge of unreliable or corrupt officers.

On a personal level, the PLA’s loyalty is vital to make up for Xi’s lack of an institutional power base. By contrast, when former President Jiang Zemin became general secretary of the Communist Party following the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, he was able to rely on capable and loyal officials in Shanghai to run the bureaucracy; he then expanded his support base by co-opting other factions in the 1990s. And Jiang’s successor, Hu Jintao, hailed from the Communist Youth League, which has alumni at all levels of the party-state.

While Xi will work to build a strong power base by gradually appointing his supporters to key positions, he needs the PLA to defend his political authority in the interim. The most efficient way for Xi to secure the PLA’s loyalty is to replace its top generals — most of whom were promoted by previous presidents — with his own supporters.

It seems that the lesson from the fall of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1964 was not lost on Xi. Khrushchev was ousted in a palace coup sponsored by the KGB and blessed by the military. Had the Red Army been completely loyal to Khrushchev, the conspirators would not have succeeded.

But Xi’s plans extend beyond his personal authority — and so do the lessons of the Soviet Union. Shortly after Xi’s assumption of power, he lamented to local officials in Guangdong that when the Soviet Union collapsed, the elite had lost the will to fight. At a time when the Chinese Communist Party’s political monopoly is increasingly being challenged, Xi will not make that mistake.

To avoid the Soviet Union’s fate, Xi and his colleagues have re-imposed ideological control and curtailed civil liberties. While the party has so far employed only the police and Internet censors (and now wants to embed secret policemen within all Internet companies), its longer-term survival is inconceivable without a loyal PLA, especially if protests like that in Tiananmen Square in 1989 erupt again.

The final pillar of Xi’s strategy for solidifying the Communist Party’s authority is to replace Deng Xiaoping’s cautious foreign policy with a muscular one. Should China have to back its aggressive tactics in, say, the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait with force, its military must not be led by venal and perfidious generals.

If Xi’s efforts to root out corruption in the PLA can accomplish these three objectives, one must grudgingly admit that it will be a stroke of political genius. But, to ensure that China is in the strongest possible position, Xi must learn one more lesson from the Soviets: Purges can easily lead to excesses. Stalin annihilated the Red Army’s officer corps on the eve of Nazi Germany’s invasion. Xi cannot afford to make the same mistake.

Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. © Project Syndicate, 2015.

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