The practice of buying and selling military positions and ranks has a long history, even if today it is strictly forbidden in almost all armed forces. For example, from 1683 to 1871, most commissions in the British Army were paid for. This was not a matter of bribes and back-handers, but rather an officially-sanctioned system with established prices for each rank in each type of military unit. This practice was perceived as a guard against corruption, ensuring that officers were men of private means who would not need to engage in pillaging or profiteering. Of course, there was also widespread corruption in the system, with commissions frequently being sold to the highest bidder well above the official price. Monetary payments, now illegal, did not immediately disappear from the military promotion system when the practice of selling commissions was officially abolished in 1871, and have lived on in other military systems.
The PLA – careers for sale
In China, the practice appears to be endemic and one of the major forms of military corruption. It is now the subject of a fierce crackdown by the regime of President Xi Jingping.
Paying bribes to more senior officers for promotions seems to be commonplace. Payments are also frequently required for enlistment in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), or for ensuring good results in entrance exams, especially in rural areas where the military may be regarded as a promising career option and a route out of poverty. One journalist purportedly seeking admission to the PLA for their son was quoted a price of 80-90,000 Yuan (about USD 16,000), although the amount would vary considerably depending on a family’s connections.
At the top of this pyramid of corruption stood, until recently, General Guo Boxiong, who from 2002-2012 was one of two vice-chairs of the Central Military Commission (CMC) of the Chinese Communist Party, which governs the PLA, The two vice-chairs are second-in-rank only to the head of the Communist Party, who in recent decades has also served as president. Guo was also a member of the Party’s Politburo.
In China, the PLA is subordinate to the Communist Party, not to the government. There is a Ministry of National Defence, but this institution primarily manages domestic and international communication for the military, rather than controlling the PLA.
Guo fell victim to the widening investigations into corruption in the PLA in July 2015, as the net which had ensnared numerous of his subordinates, key figures from his political circles, and family members, finally caught up with him. He was expelled from the Communist Party, handed over to military investigators, and charged with large-scale corruption offenses. In July 2016, he was convicted in a closed trial, and sentenced to life imprisonment. He is said to have received bribes of USD 12.3 million in return for promotions, although this is likely only the tip of the iceberg.
Guo’s conviction followed the 2014 arrest and expulsion from the party of another former vice-chair of the CMC, the slightly younger Xu Caihou. Xu died of bladder cancer in March 2015 before he could be convicted. Guo is the highest ranking military officer to be thus purged and charged with corruption in the history of the PLA, and Xu was likewise the most senior before him.
The investigations and convictions seemingly fulfilled President Xi promise in 2012 to go after both ‘tigers’ and ‘flies’ in his crackdown on corruption, and revealed that some leaders systematically abused their positions to take payments for senior-level promotions. The investigations also raised uneasy questions about just how ubiquitous the practice was. If the most senior officers had to pay the likes of Guo and Xu for their positions, it is entirely likely that many of them were recouping their investment by demanding similar bribes from their subordinates, and so on down the chain of command. Personnel management (i.e. appointments and promotions) is the responsibility of the PLA’s Political Department, and one of the areas most subject to corruption.
But it was far from the only one, and indeed the probe found corruption in every department and area of PLA activity. Two other departments especially subject to corruption were the General Logistics Department (GLD), responsible for PLA finances, construction, fuel, health, and real estate, and the General Armaments Department (GAD), responsible for procurement. Embezzlement, abuse of expenses, taking bribes for contracts, and illegal sale and resale of real estate and property, are some of the varied forms corruption takes, according to a report in the PLA Daily, the PLA’s official newspaper.
The anti-corruption purges have been extensive. In January 2015, Chinese authorities announced that over 4,000 senior officers at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel or higher– including 82 generals–had been investigated, of whom 242 faced punishment ranging from a reprimand to imprisonment, This of course was before the arrest of Guo Boxiong. Since Guo’s conviction, other top officers arrested include: General Li Jinai, former director of the General Political Department, which is in charge of senior personnel changes; General Liao Xilong, former head of the General Logistics Department; Niu Zhizhong, a former deputy head of the People’s Armed Police; Major General Qu Rui, a deputy head of the Combat Operations Department; General Gu Junshan, a former deputy director of the General Logistics Department; General Tian Xiusi, former political commisar of the PLA Air Force; and General Wang Jianping, deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department under the CMC. Wang is the first active duty general to be arrested. These figures include officers investigated and prosecuted by January 2015, after which point no updated figures were made public.
A profit-making military
The background to this systematic corruption in the PLA is its long-term involvement in the economy, whereby the military was encouraged to pursue business activities to supplement the state budget. This expanded considerably in the early 1990s, as a result of post-Cold War cuts to the official budget. As in other countries where this practice has been common, such as Indonesia and Egypt, military-run businesses became a major source of corruption. In 1998, the government of President Jiang Zhemin ordered the PLA to divest from most business activities, which was largely carried out over the subsequent few years. However, the PLA was allowed to retain some business activities, according to the Chinese newspaper Global Times. These include interests in telecoms, personnel training, logistics, technology, and healthcare. Military hospitals frequently take civilian patients on a pay basis. In addition, and perhaps most significantly, the PLA is allowed to engage in real estate leasing and dealing. Moreover, the toxic legacy of the military-business complex left behind a culture where corruption flourished. In November 2015, the Communist Party and the PLA announced that the PLA would divest from all remaining business activities.
Aside from the heightened corruption risks created by military commercial activities, the general lack of transparency in Chinese military affairs and the absence of general public scrutiny of the government and Communist Party are likely further contributors to corruption. President Xi Jiping’s corruption crackdown has also encompassed many areas of the civilian Party hierarchy. Whether corruption is worse in the military or the civilian sphere is hard to say.
Arms imports – the missing story
Amidst all the corruption arrests and prosecutions, one tiger that hasn’t growled, perhaps surprisingly, is arms imports. Given the prevalence of corruption in procurement, and the fact that the General Armaments Department is cited as one of the most corrupt PLA organizations,, it is unlikely that this is because procurement from foreign sources is corruption-free. However, the lack of detail in public announcements of corruption charges levelled against officers means that there have not been reports of corruption relating to specific arms deals, domestic or foreign. In particular, we have not so far seen any cases of ‘grand corruption’ associated with major arms acquisition deals, almost all of which are with Russia. It is possible that such revelations would be too embarrassing to the Party leadership. Alternatively, it may be that, as the only foreign supplier of major equipment to China, Russia has little need or incentive to offer bribes as part of the package.
The politics of the crackdown
A key question that concerns China watchers is whether the entire anti-corruption campaign is a genuine attempt to eliminate or seriously reduce corruption, or simply a power-play by President Xi to deal with political opponents and strengthen his control of the Party and military. The answer is almost certainly both.
On the one hand, the seriousness of the desire to reduce corruption is evidenced by the range of measures used to tackle the problems, in addition to prosecution of past offenses. These include: divestiture from remaining commercial activities, as noted above; introduction of extensive new rules on spending designed to keep a lid on expenses, lavish hospitality, and luxury official cars; and establishment of a CMC Discipline Inspection Commission, which sends anti-corruption inspectors into military units, and a CMC Audit Office.
The corruption crackdown can also be seen as part of Xi Jingping’s efforts (following those of his predecessors) to modernize the Chinese military. With examples from Nigeria, Ukraine, and Iraq in mind, the PLA can easily identify corruption as a threat to morale and efficiency, and therefore military effectiveness. As an article in the official PLA Daily put it, ’we will defeat ourselves even before a war.’ One experienced commentator, Lt. Col. (retd.) Dennis Blasko, a former U.S. Army attaché to Beijing, argues, however, that since the great majority of corruption cases have involved support functions rather than operational command, the anti-corruption campaign is not targeting the sort of corruption that directly undermines morale and military effectiveness.
On the other hand, the corruption crackdown is definitely being used to strengthen President Xi’s hold on the military. An article in the PLA Daily in May 2016 specifically stated that the downfall of Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou had more to do with ’political mistakes’ than with corruption, ’appalling’ as the latter was. As in the case of many trials in the civilian corruption purge, many of those brought low are, if not political enemies of Xi, then at least seen as too closely associated with rivals such as former Presidents Jiang Zhemin and Hu Jintao. President Xi has been increasingly concentrating power in his own hands—recently adopting the title of ’Core Leader,’ for example, to which his predecessor Hu did not lay claim (although Jiang did). The anti-corruption campaign, along with extensive reorganization of the PLA, can be seen as helping bring the military more firmly under Party, CMC, and, specifically, Xi’s personal control.
Certainly, the extensive prosecutions and purges can well be expected to put the ’fear of God’ (or fear of Xi) into the PLA command, and discourage ’political mistakes’ on the part of senior officers. If the system of bribery for promotions is as widespread as it would appear, then it is likely that there are many more officers who could fall victim to an anti-corruption probe if they were to otherwise forfeit the good graces of the president. China analyst James Mulvenon noted in October 2014:
”Xi Jinping’s task of rooting out corruption in the PLA was further complicated by the fact that Xu [Caihou] had been involved for 15 years in nearly every major promotion of senior officers, suggesting that the current military leadership was complicit in the practice. This may explain, in part, why the top 18 generals in the PLA felt the need, within weeks of Xu’s arrest, to take the highly unusual step of making a public, group biaotai (declaration of one’s position) of loyalty to Xi Jinping via 18 articles in Liberation Army Daily on 2 April 2014.” 
Thus, the message may be that future corruption will not be tolerated, but the punishment of past offenses will be deferred for those who toe the leadership line.
 e.g. James Mulvenon, “Lawyers, guns and money, the coming show trial of General Xu Caihou,” China Leadership Monitor, Oct. 21, 2014, http://www.hoover.org/research/lawyers-guns-and-money-coming-show-trial-general-xu-caihou.
 Ting Shi, “Corruption in China’s military begins with buying a job,” Bloomberg (online), Jul. 1, 2014, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-07-01/chinese-families-pay-16-000-for-kids-to-pass-army-entrance-exam.
 “Former top China military official ‘took huge bribes,’” BBC News, Apr. 5, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-35970863; and “Former Chinese military leader sentenced for life in corruption case,” Deutsche Welle, July 25, 2016, http://www.dw.com/en/former-chinese-military-leader-sentenced-for-life-in-corruption-case/a-19425788.
 James Mulvenon, “So crooked they have to screw their pants on part 3: the Guo Boxiong edition,” China Leadership Monitor, Sep. 9, 2015, http://www.hoover.org/research/so-crooked-they-have-screw-their-pants-part-3-guo-boxiong-edition.
 e.g. D.J. Blasko, “Corruption in China’s Military: One of Many Problems,” War on the Rocks, Feb. 16, 2015, http://warontherocks.com/2015/02/corruption-in-chinas-military-one-of-many-problems/; and “Rank and Vile,” The Economist, Feb. 14, 2015.
 Jon Grevatt, “Chinese budget inspection finds ‘irregularities’ in all areas of military spending,” Jane’s Defence Industry, July 3, 2015; See also Blasko note 5, The Economist note 5, Mulvenon notes 1 & 4.
 “Scores of PLA officers punished,” China Daily, Jan. 30, 2015, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2015-01/30/content_19445824.htm.
 “China: Senior Military Officers Purged for Corruption,” Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Oct. 28, 2016, https://www.occrp.org/en/daily/5753-china-senior-military-officers-purged-for-corruption; Minnie Chan and Choi Chi-yuk, “Two more of China’s former top commanders taken away for corruption investigation: military sources,” South China Morning Post, Aug. 5, 2016, http://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/1999535/two-more-chinas-former-top-commanders-taken-away; and Minnie Chan and Choi Chi-yuk, “Top Chinese general linked to disgraced security tsar Zhou Yongkang arrested for corruption,” South China Morning Post, Aug. 26, 2016, http://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/2009370/top-chinese-general-linked-disgraced-security-tsar-zhou.
 James Mulvenon, “PLA divestiture 2.0: we mean it this time,” China Leadership Monitor, July 19, 2016, http://www.hoover.org/research/pla-divestiture-20-we-mean-it-time.
 Jon Grevatt, “China’s PLA introduces spending regulations,” Jane’s Defence Industry, July 7, 2015; Ben Lowsen, “China’s military commission digs deep to root out corruption,” The Diplomat, Feb. 19, 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2016/02/china-military-commission-digs-deep-to-root-out-corruption/; and David Finkelstein, “Initial thoughts on the reorganization and reform of the PLA,” CNA China Studies, Jan. 15, 2016, https://www.cna.org/cna_files/pdf/DOP-2016-U-012560-Final.pdf.
 “Chinese military paper warns a corrupt army does not win wars”, Reuters, Aug. 2, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-corruption-idUSKCN0Q704I20150802.
 Blasko, note 5.
 Choi Chi-yuk, “‘Political mistakes’, more than graft, led to downfall of Chinese military chiefs Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou,” South China Morning Post, May 26, 2016, http://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/1954587/political-mistakes-more-graft-led-downfall-chinese.
 Derek Grossman and Michael S. Chase, “Why Xi is purging the Chinese military,” The National Interest, 15 April 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/why-xi-purging-the-chinese-military-15795.
 Mulvenon note 1.