The unprecedented sacking of a retired military leader is a crucial step towards President Xi Jinping's vision of a professional, combat-ready People's Liberation Army (PLA) able to carry out his defence policy, say analysts.
University of Chicago political watcher Yang Dali said ex-Central Military Commission (CMC) vice-chairman Xu Caihou's expulsion from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is aimed at weeding out corrupt military officers who had bought their way up and, in turn, improving promotion chances of the honest, competent ones.
Xu, 71, was a career political officer with direct oversight over personnel appointments within the military throughout his 49-year PLA career until his retirement in 2012.
A meeting of the 25-member Politburo on Monday chaired by Mr Xi endorsed Xu's sacking for granting promotions in return for bribes for himself and his family.
The Liaoning native is facing military court martial and a possible death penalty, making him the highest-ranking military officer to face disciplinary action since the CCP took power in 1949.
"The actions against Xu show Xi is determined to build the PLA into an institution that is more professional and less corrupt," Professor Yang told The Straits Times. "The buying and selling of ranks also raise questions on the quality of the military officers and their level of combat-readiness."
Since taking power in late 2012, Mr Xi has often voiced his vision of a combat-ready military, a pressing need amid intractable territorial disputes with neighbouring nations like Japan and the Philippines that have raised the spectre of armed conflict.
A cleaner and more competent PLA is thus a bigger goal for Mr Xi - who chairs the CMC - than boosting his public image as a determined graft-buster. This is shown by the timing of Xu's sacking, a day ahead of the 93rd anniversary of the CCP's founding yesterday, say analysts.
The PLA's mouthpiece, Liberation Daily, in an editorial yesterday, called on the army's troops to "resolutely endorse the correct decision of the party's centre... the Central Military Commission and Chairman Xi".
But observers say corruption within the PLA is an open secret and a deep-seated problem, from petty to serious, such as selling military licence plates, taking kickbacks when buying food or equipment and leasing military-owned land to private businesses.
The amount of bribes allegedly taken by Xu was not released, although Hong Kong's South China Morning Post reported yesterday that an internal briefing among senior military officers said Xu or his family received more than 35 million yuan (S$7 million) from PLA's former deputy logistics chief, Gu Junshan.
The 2012 arrest of Gu, who was charged in March this year with several crimes, including bribery and embezzlement, sparked investigations against Xu.
Beijing-based military commentator Wu Ge believes the amount of bribes that Xu is set to be accused of taking would be "politically managed". "The figure, which will give an idea of the punishment Xu is set to face, cannot be too astronomical as it would expose just how corrupt and greedy the PLA leaders are," he added.
Hong Kong-based political watcher Willy Lam said Mr Xi has to tread carefully in weeding out corruption in the military, where resistance is expected, "because going too far may affect the morale within the PLA, a crucial power base for the CCP".
But some believe Xu, now the biggest casualty in Mr Xi's anti-graft campaign that has pledged to target both "tigers and flies", or both high-ranking and low-level officials, will soon be followed by other tigers. Top names like ex-CMC vice-chairman Guo Boxiong and retired Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) member Zhou Yongkang, both said to be under probe for graft, have resurfaced. Mr Zhou's three ex-subordinates were also sacked from the party on Monday.
Prof Yang said Mr Xi is clearly determined, citing how he did not spare Xu despite the latter's bladder cancer, unlike how late PSC member Huang Ju was spared graft charges in the mid-2000s due to pancreatic cancer.
Anti-corruption expert Xiao Bin said Xu's sacking also marks a new phase in Mr Xi's anti-graft drive that began in late 2012 with the downfall of ex-Sichuan deputy party chief Li Chuncheng.
"Xu's downfall shows anti-corruption work has moved from provincial and ministerial leaders to the level of national leaders," said Guangzhou-based Prof Xiao.
This article was first published on July 02, 2014.
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