China has court-martialed a senior former army officer in the biggest corruption scandal to engulf the People’s Liberation Army, a move that could foreshadow the unprecedented criminal prosecutions of other leading military and Communist Party officials.
Gu Junshan was formally charged with bribery, embezzlement, misuse of state funds and abuse of power, official news agency Xinhua announced on Monday, two years after he was quietly removed as the deputy chief of the PLA’s general logistics department.
In that role, General Gu was able to amass extensive influence over the procurement of housing, infrastructure and supply contracts for China’s 2.3 million-strong armed forces, the world’s largest.
“For corruption to appear in an army is not scary in itself,” said Liu Mingfu, a senior colonel at the PLA’s National Defence University. “What will be scary is if the fight against corruption is not deep, thorough and resolute.”
The prosecution of General Gu runs parallel to a sweeping anti-graft campaign within the Communist Party, with President Xi Jinping vowing to target corrupt officials at all levels – ranging from powerful “tigers” to lowly “flies”.
Mr Xi is directly challenging military elders by aiming to dismantle entrenched patronage networks which, people with knowledge of the investigation say, have threatened to limit the operational capabilities of one of the world’s best-funded but most secretive armies.
“One of the reasons the PLA has extensive corruption is because of its lack of transparency,” said Zhang Ming, a political science professor at Renmin University. “You have no choice to fight corruption, but fighting corruption doesn’t automatically fix the problems.”
The value and range of assets allegedly involved in General Gu’s case are said to be staggering, with reports of a vast family real estate portfolio, gold bullion and a secret basement full of expensive liquor, artwork and luxury goods ”just the tip of the iceberg”, according to a source with ties to senior military figures.
Investigators raided a storage chamber General Gu kept in his home village in Henan province, seizing four truckloads of items, including 20 crates of liquor and a pure gold statue of Mao Zedong, Chinese magazine Caixin reported in January.
“Everything has been very clear a long time ago,” the source said, adding that because the case would be heard in front of a military court, it was not clear the extent of General Gu’s alleged corruption would be aired in public. “I don’t think it will be as transparent as the Bo Xilai trial.”
Close watchers of elite Chinese politics consider the progress of General Gu’s case as a key signal for the potential official prosecution of another “tiger”, former security chief and Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang.
Reuters reported last week that Chinese authorities have seized assets worth at least 90 billion yuan ($15.6 billion) from family members and associates of Mr Zhou.
Previously considered effectively immune because of old age and reports of poor health, the retired vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, Xu Caihou, has reportedly been held under virtual house arrest.
Any formal move against General Xu would make him the most senior military leader ever targeted for corruption.
“A person of Gu’s stature being investigated of course will implicate other [senior] people,” Professor Zhang said.