Xu Caihou - one of the most powerful PLA generals over the past decade until his retirement late in 2012 - showed up at the Great Hall of the People on January 20 for the annual Lunar New Year gala performance for retired senior military officers.
As 70-year-old Xu walked into a room before the performance began, his presence immediately attracted attention among serving and retired military leaders. He had long been rumoured to be the target of a high-level anti-graft probe after one of his closest allies in the PLA was arrested on corruption charges.
During the wait, he tried to strike up a conversation with Xi Jinping, also the chairman of the Central Military Commission, gushing praise for the president's high-profile crackdown on corruption and extravagance and waste, according to people briefed about the encounter.
Xi was said to have listened without responding, but the sight of Xu talking to the president was apparently taken by his allies as a sure sign that he was off the hook. It was customary for authorities to allow an official rumoured to be investigated for corruption to make a public appearance to prove he was in the clear, let alone having the chance to talk to the head of the armed forces.
Following the conversation, several senior officers who owed their promotions to Xu immediately approached him, fawning on him with military salutes and compliments about his health. All this was clearly taken in by Xi.
It turns out that those senior military officers must have deeply regretted their actions, as this was most probably the last public appearance by Xu.
Xi has said before that the fight against corruption would "go after the tigers as well as the flies", meaning no one was immune.
Less than two months later, Xu was taken away and placed under official investigation on corruption charges, along with his wife, daughter and one of his former secretaries. This could lead to a major shake-up of the corruption-ridden top brass at the military.
The detention of Xu also paved the way for the announcement at the end of the last month that Gu Junshan - a former deputy logistics chief at the PLA - would stand trial in a military court on charges of embezzlement, bribery, misuse of state funds and abuse of power.
Gu is believed to have amassed a vast personal fortune of hundreds of millions of yuan after receiving kickbacks for selling military land to property developers and engaging in other illicit activities.
He was reportedly sacked and arrested early in 2012, but the long delay in bringing him to trial was believed to be due to the leadership's indecision on how to deal with Xu, Gu's long-time ally and protector.
Xu was promoted to the Central Military Commission in 1999 and became its vice-chairman in 2004 after Hu Jintao came to power.
Because Hu was known for his weak control of the armed forces, Xu was in fact in charge of day-to-day management for a decade during which corruption became more rampant, particularly with the widespread practice of senior officers seeking bribes in return for giving promotions.
Earlier there were suggestions that the leadership was under pressure to let Xu off the hook, partly because bringing him down would shake public confidence in the PLA and also because he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
But widespread anger against corruption, epitomised by irregularities involving Xu and Gu, apparently forced the leadership to reconsider.
State media yesterday quoted Gong Fangbin, a senior military researcher, giving more details about Gu's case and confirming press reports about Gu's vast personal fortune including more than 30 flats, cash, gold ornaments, paintings, luxury watches, ivory and liquor.
Gong said Hu decided to bring down Gu shortly before Hu's retirement, but it was Xi who paid real attention to the case and vowed to solve it.
Xi is also more likely to use the opportunity to weed out Xu's followers and rein in the military as part of his overall efforts to consolidate his power. He has set up a leading group headed by himself in the Central Military Commission to push for reforms in the armed forces.
The commission has also set up four other steering groups focusing on anti-corruption, the mass-line political campaign, infrastructure and property, plus training in the PLA.
On the day the charges against Gu were announced, Xinhua also reported that the military commission sent two anti-graft inspection teams to scrutinise the leadership of the Beijing and the Jinan military commands, two of the country's seven military regions.
As some analysts point out, there was good reason these two regions were chosen: the Beijing military region is responsible for guarding the capital, while the Jinan region was where Xu and Gu climbed their way to the top.
The top military brass has clearly felt the pressure. The PLA Daily on Wednesday carried a double-page spread of articles penned by 18 top generals in fulsome praise of Xi's wisdom and leadership skills.
It is very rare for generals, representing all branches of the PLA, to pledge allegiance to their commander-in-chief at the same time, in such a manner.
While expectations are building that the anti-corruption campaign will snare other top officers, the leadership is also under growing pressure from inside and outside the military to open Gu's trial to the public, as military court cases are always conducted in secrecy.
The leadership should heed the call as an open trial would send a far more powerful message of deterrence.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Xi goes hunting for PLA tigers
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