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China’s antigraft push snares most senior target yet

Xu Caihou (being served tea at a 2012 conference) is the most powerful military leader to be purged in a generation.

Jason lee/Reuters/File 2012

Xu Caihou (being served tea at a 2012 conference) is the most powerful military leader to be purged in a generation.

HONG KONG — In the most far-reaching public move so far in President Xi Jinping’s drive against corruption in China, the Communist Party on Monday expelled a retired military commander, General Xu Caihou, and handed him over for a crime investigation on charges of taking huge bribes in return for military promotions.

Until his retirement in late 2012, Xu held one of the highest ranks in the People’s Liberation Army, as a vice chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission. He was also a member of the elite Politburo.

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He has become the most prominent Chinese military leader to be purged in decades and the most senior official named publicly in Xi’s campaign to clean up the elite and impose his authority on the party, the government, and the People’s Liberation Army.

The Politburo, made up of 25 senior officials, decided to expel Xu from the party and hand his case to prosecutors for investigation after hearing the findings of a secretive inquiry started in March, according to an announcement from the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the party’s arm for investigating corruption and abuses of power.

“The investigation found Xu Caihou used his office to provide help for others in promotions, and accepted bribes directly or through his family,” said the commission, citing the meeting.

“He exploited the influence of his office to bring gain to others, and his family accepted wealth and property from others, gravely violating party discipline and bringing suspicion of the crime of accepting bribes. The circumstances were grave and the effects were malignant.”

The official announcement made clear the lesson for other officials who might fall afoul of investigators.

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“No matter how big or small someone’s power, how high or low his office, if he violates party discipline and state law, he will be sternly punished without any indulgence or soft-handedness,” said the announcement from the Politburo meeting.

Xu was the most prominent military leader to be purged in a generation, said Christopher K. Johnson, an expert on Chinese politics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. But Xi was expected to claim more, and possibly even more powerful, targets while he used the campaign against graft to consolidate power, Johnson said.

“I think Xi is building to a crescendo, and he’s aiming for others to be rolled out,” Johnson said. “This is the most high-profile attack on a military figure since Deng Xiaoping’s time. There’s a message here from Xi to all resisters. It also sends a huge message on defense structural reform.”

In 1992, the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping forced two senior military figures — Yang Shangkun and his half-brother Yang Baibing — from the center stage of power after their influence threatened to undermine Deng’s preferred leader, Jiang Zemin.

Now Xi has sent a similarly assertive signal, as he prepares to recast the organization of the military, Johnson said.

Nor was Xu the only former senior official targeted by the meeting Monday. Xinhua announced that the Politburo also expelled from the party Li Dongsheng, a former vice minister of public security, who party investigators found took huge bribes, as well as two former executives of a state oil conglomerate, Jiang Jiemin and Wang Yongchun, who were accused of similar misdeeds.

There is evidence indicating that Xi has pushed his own family members to exit investments in a bid to reduce his own political vulnerability as he takes on senior Communist Party members for graft.

Starting from late 2012, about the time Xi assumed leadership of the Communist Party, his older sister and his brother-in-law began selling off hundreds of millions of dollars in investments.

Since assuming leadership of the party in November 2012, Xi has promised to punish graft among senior officials — “tigers,” as he has called them.

But so far no other figures as powerful as Xu have been publicly singled out under Xi.

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