When China’s Ministry of Defense announced on Oct. 28 that the investigation into former Gen. Xu Caihou for alleged corruption had concluded and his case had been transferred to prosecutors, the ministry declared the bribes received by Xu and his family members as tebie juda, or “extremely huge.” The description served to pique public interest about the scale of graft perpetrated by the former vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, but was frustratingly vague, and no actual figures were mentioned. This week, Hong Kong’s Phoenix Weekly and the Financial Times helped fill in the picture. Both had reports that cited people close to the investigation as saying investigators discovered Xu had one ton of cash (U.S. dollars, euros, and renminbi) in the basement of his 21,500-square-foot Beijing mansion as well as jade, emeralds, calligraphy, and paintings. The FT said the cash was neatly stacked in boxes and that each was conveniently inscribed with the name of the solider who had offered the cash in exchange for a promotion. Phoenix Weekly, published by Hong Kong broadcaster Phoenix Television, said in its Nov. 20 report that it took 10 military trucks to haul the loot away; the FT said it was a dozen trucks. Either way, it was indeed extremely huge.
Though the Chinese-language Phoenix Weekly story was widely circulated on Sina Weibo and other social media platforms and was even cited in a story by China.org.cn, a news portal run by the government’s State Council Information Office, the military has yet to confirm the report. But the fact that China’s net nannies, who routinely censor online news, allowed the story to survive on Weibo suggests that the figures in the report don’t stray far from the official tally of Xu’s bribe-taking.
Xu’s case exemplifies the razor’s edge upon which President Xi Jinping must tread in his sweeping anti-corruption campaign, which was launched in 2012 and has netted tens of thousands of corrupt officials, big and small. While a failure to clean up rampant corruption could be the death knell of the ruling Communist Party, the process of airing dirty party laundry also threatens to make people realize just how serious and systemic the problem has become. Though some have painted Xi’s hunt for “tigers and flies,” as corrupt high- and low-level officials are now called, as a way for Xi to purge his rivals and strengthen his power base, others believe that it is a genuine campaign.
Cheng Li, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., told Foreign Policy that Xi’s campaign has “less to do with factional politics” and more to do with Xi’s desire to save the party “because the corruption is really penetrating in such a large scale.” Late last month, while visiting Gutian, a former revolutionary base in southeast China’s Fujian province, Xi called on his military brass to profoundly reflect on Xu’s case and its unfavorable influence. Xi also said during his Oct. 30 to 31 visit that problems in the military needed to be “faced squarely,” according to a report by the official Xinhua News Agency. While Xu’s case can serve as a handy cautionary tale, it might also enflame anger among ordinary Chinese over the extent of official corruption. Some of that was in evidence in the reactions to the Phoenix Weekly report after it was posted on Weibo. Though couched in cynical or darkly humorous language, many people were clearly upset. One man from Shenyang in north China’s Liaoning province slyly invoked military lingo in his post, writing, “I am not so curious about the cash. But let me ask this, is a 2,000 square meter mansion standard issue?” Another web user in Hubei province’s Wuhan city in central China wrote, “If the cash in my house was measured by the ton, I would also be forever obedient to the party, go with the party, and be in the party’s debt!”
Another reader, from Jiaxing, a small city in Zhejiang province simply wrote: “Xu Caihou finally declared his assets.” The comment was a nod to simmering public anger over the party’s refusal to make officials openly declare their assets, a level of transparency that many argue would signal a real commitment to graft-busting. While Xi has declared war on corruption, he has also puzzlingly jailed activists like the legal scholar Xu Zhiyong who have campaigned for such asset disclosure.
Others posed serious questions that could be uncomfortable for the leadership, like the man in Zhengzhou, the capital of Hebei province in central China, who wrote, “Gu Junshan laid offerings in front of Xu Caihou for his promotion. So, if I may, who was it that promoted Xu Caihou?” Gu Junshan, a former general mentored by Xu, was charged with corruption in March. The financial news magazine Caixin reported in January that it took four military trucks to haul away Gu’s loot, including a gold boat and a gold statue of late Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong. Now that authorities have started to pull at this particular thread, it’s unclear just how much is left to unravel.