BEIJING — Half of last week was a public holiday in China, but it was a busy week in the barracks. In many military bases and academies, political education sessions were scheduled at short notice to hammer home the message of the Communist Party’s absolute leadership over the armed forces.
“Everyone knows it’s about Bo Xilai, but we’re not supposed to talk about it,” said a young officer.
As the party leadership scrambled this month to decide whether to strip the former Chongqing party secretary of all party posts and prosecute his wife, one key task was to ensure that the military would play along.
“A decision like this must have required a fair amount of consensus both on the military and civilian sides of the Chinese government,” said Victor Shih, an expert on Chinese politics at Northwestern University.
The People’s Liberation Army, which played a central role in helping the Communist Party win control of China in a long civil war before 1949, does not have a history of meddling in domestic politics.
But the fact that rumors of a military coup to rescue Bo circulated shortly after his downfall on March 15 was a reminder that the ambitious politician has long had good friends among the country’s top brass.
His father, Bo Yibo, was not only one of the “Eight Immortals,” the most senior first-generation Communist leaders, but also a veteran military leader in charge of military affairs in northern China as early as in the 1920s.
Gu Kailai, Bo’s wife, is the daughter of Gu Jingsheng, a former general in the Vietnam War and former head of the Xinjiang Production Brigade, a paramilitary force that the party uses to rule the restive northwest.
In addition, Bo has personal ties to Gen. Ma Xiaotian, head of the PLA Navy, and Gen. Liu Yuan, political commissar of the military’s General Logistics Department. Both are expected to become members of the Central Military Commission, the body that leads the armed forces, when seven of its nine members are to be replaced as part of the once-in-a-decade leadership succession later this year.
All of this is even more significant because Bo shares those ties with Xi Jinping, heir apparent to the top job. The fact that Xi has deep personal links to the military that President Hu Jintao lacks has convinced many observers that the armed forces are gearing up to gain influence after the leadership succession.
Bo had clearly been cultivating his relationships with the military brass. He made generous donations for troops in Xinjiang and visited a military unit in another province earlier this year — highly unusual moves for a normal municipal leader.
Sources close to the military say the party bureaucracy has tightened its organizational and propaganda grip on the armed forces since Bo’s replacement as Chongqing leader.
Last week, the Central Military Commission set up an audit steering group that is to examine procurement, construction projects and real estate income in the armed forces, a move seen as a warning to military officers that any disloyalty could be punished with a corruption investigation.
“Thoughts and actions must be united to the decisions and instructions made by Chairman Hu and the Central Military Commission,” said Gen. Liao Xilong, the head of the General Logistics Department, who was appointed to head the new committee.
A company set up by a former PLA Airforce officer notified all staff in late March to take vacation until further notice because the active officers who are the company’s main business contacts had to be more “careful.”
The new committee is also seen as a step by the party leadership to usurp an initiative by a key ally of Bo’s in the armed forces.
Gen. Liu Yuan had first spearheaded an unusually high-profile anti-corruption campaign earlier this year. In January, he issued a blunt warning about a “dangerous level” of corruption in the military and pledged to fight it even if it led to his own downfall.
Shortly afterward, Lt. Gen. Gu Junshan was removed from his post as deputy head of the General Logistics Department in a corruption investigation.
The GLD has long been notorious for corruption in the armed forces because it controls many prized assets and offers more opportunities than elsewhere for officers to make money through kickbacks.
The Communist Party has often used corruption investigations to purge officials who had lost support for other reasons. A retired officer who teaches at a military academy says the new audit steering group has the purpose of taking this tool out of Liu’s hands.
“It doesn’t mean he is in trouble,” the officer said. “But it reminds us that it is party central who will determine who gets in trouble.”