U.S. intelligence agencies are closely watching China’s military for any signs of division or unrest related to the ouster of leftist leader Bo Xilai.
The former Chongqing party chief, who promoted a return to hardline, Maoist-style communism and had close ties to the military in the region, was formally dismissed from the party’s ruling Politburo last week.
Bo was slated to become one of the nine most senior members of the Communist leadership in China this fall and would have controlled internal security forces.
His dismissal followed accusations of corruption leveled in February by one of his former deputies, Wang Lijun, who tried to escape the country by seeking asylum at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu. Wang was turned away after a 24-hour stay and taken into custody by China’s police and intelligence service; he remains officially under investigation.
Bo was dismissed from his position as mayor of Chongqing and fired from the 25-member Communist Politburo last week. His wife, Gu Kailai, was arrested and charged with the murder of British national Neil Heywood, who was found dead in a Chongqing hotel in November.
According to U.S. officials, Bo claimed to have close ties to the People’s Liberation Army and was said to control two regional group armies, each containing between 30,000 and 65,000 troops.
A U.S. official said Mr. Bo’s family connections “certainly gave him reach into the Chinese military.”
“However, as a provincial Party secretary Bo never had any direct authority over the PLA, and his ouster is not affecting civilian control of the military,” the official said.
Bo has backers in both the Chinese military and the People’s Armed Police, the internal security forces, U.S. officials said.
The military and PAP view Bo as more ideologically attuned to military leaders’ hardline communist views, according to a China specialist in Beijing.
They see Bo as a successful and popular leader whose policies fostered both prosperity and stability, a real leader in the PLA’s business image, according to an official who spoke to the Nelson Report newsletter.
Bo was in line to replace Zhou Yongkang, the current security czar on the Politburo Standing Committee who controls the People’s Armed Police, which has a larger budget than the military.
Former State Department official John Tkacik said he views the current Chinese leadership, both military and civilian, as stable.
“We’ve seen similar purges, Chen Xitong, the Beijing Party chief, and several of his vice mayors in 1995, who were both corrupt and thorns in Jiang Zemin's side,” Tkacik told the Free Beacon.
Also, in 2006, Shanghai Party Chief Chen Liangyu was purged for corruption, and because Chen caused problems for Hu Jintao's faction, various sides basically worked out their differences, Tkacik said.
“I just see Bo Xilai as just another corrupt Party Chief who was stepping on toes,” he said. “I don't think his factional support structure, wide though it is, is more than a millimeter deep.”
However, because China’s system is so secret, things could change in the next three months, Tkacik said.
China’s communist rulers insist that the PLA remains under civilian control, but signs have emerged in recent years that the military is becoming more anti-U.S. and more hawkish on issues such as Taiwan and Chinese territorial claims.
Additionally, the ousted Chinese official was photographed with a senior military official, Gen. Xu Caihou, in early March after allegations against Bo had been raised prior to a meeting of senior Communist officials.
Xu is a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and the PLA’s most powerful political commissar. The photo was widely interpreted outside China as showing Bo had the support of the Chinese military and that he had avoided being purged.
The Chinese language website Boxun.com reported that Bo’s replacement as Chongqing mayor, Huang Qifan, said Bo was seeking to control the military.
"Bo Xilai repeatedly told me about his plan to control the armed forces," Huang said, according to the Boxun report that was quoted last month in the newsletter East-Asia-Intel.com. "Bo Xilai said to me that at present there were at least two army corps under his control."
Amid rumors of a coup in Beijing and military movements, China’s top military leader Gen. Guo Boxiong warned the Chinese military March 25 to “more tightly unite around the Party’s Central Committee led by Comrade Hu Jintao.”
Guo is vice chairman of the Central Military Commission that controls the military. He is also a member of the Politburo. The warning came a day before current Chinese leader Hu Jintao left for a visit to South Korea, India, and Cambodia.
Chinese military leaders on Friday called for unity after the purge of Bo in what appeared to be a propaganda effort to dispel coup and unrest rumors swirling around the Bo affair.
The Washington Post quoted Pan Yong, a political commissar in the Sichuan military command, as saying, “The incident has sounded the alarm for the party members and cadres, warning us to effectively check erroneous ideas and harmful tendencies at the outset and combat corruption and moral degeneration.”
Another military commissar in Beijing said, “The incident warns us that keeping sober-minded and politically steadfast is an indispensable ideological and political quality of each party member and every leading cadre.”
Additionally, Yin Fanglong, a political commissar in the 2nd Artillery Corps, which controls China’s nuclear forces, wrote an article in the People’s Daily that appeared Friday calling for a boycott on “all wrong ideas and refute those key issues like ‘the military should be not led by party.’”
China specialists viewed Yin’s comments as significant because Bo is said to be close to 2nd Artillery Corps political commissar Zhang Haiyang, who has been linked to Bo’s activities in Chongqing by a fugitive businessman, Li Jun, according to the Post.
The Wall Street Journal quoted former CIA China analyst Christopher Johnson as saying there are concerns that instability within the ruling Party will lead to harder line policies.
"That's the U.S. interest," Johnson told the Journal. “This isn't about Bo Xilai anymore. What we need to start looking at now is the broader implications and maybe some of the unintended consequences that might spill out."
Past incidents that have raised questions about the military’s independence from Party leaders included comments several years ago from a Chinese general about plans to use nuclear weapons against the United States in response to a conventional cruise missile attack on China.
The comments undermined the official policy that China would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict.
Other signs of division between military and civilian leaders include Chinese military tests of anti-satellite weapons and other advanced weapons that appeared to have been carried out without senior civilian leaders’ knowledge.