The People’s Liberation Army celebrates the 91st anniversary of its establishment on August 1, also known as Chinese Army Day.

Aside from being bombarded with the usual ballyhoo about the force’s might, this year the PLA’s two million men and women in uniform are also being exhorted to clean up their image. For even as Beijing embarks on a defense spending spree, the PLA has declared war on graft in the armed forces.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, who also heads the Communist Party’s Central Military Commission, struck a blow for clean governance in his latest instructions to the army, which were also notable for the way he has toned down rhetoric against established foes such as Taiwan, Japan and the US.

The commander-in-chief singled out the PLA’s paid services. He called for greater resolve to fight the still rampant practice that sees PLA troops, officers and political commissars become “mercenaries for hire.” They are also known for joining forces with local tycoons and cadres in businesses that profit from the lucrative real estate, logistics and entertainment sectors.

The military is expected to pull out of all wheeling and dealing, halt all commercial and paid activities and relinquish or transfer stakes in commercial entities by the end of the year. This is aimed at helping the military “purify its political ecosystem and focus on its main mission of battle readiness”, according to the PLA Daily.

The PLA already employs multiple tactics to battle internal graft, including streamlined procurement systems and strict management of military assets. This, at a time when Beijing’s defense budget continues to swell. It is 1.1 trillion yuan (US$175 billion) for the current fiscal year.

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Morale of servicemen must not be hurt when the military is told to shed interests in businesses. Photo: Xinhua

The PLA’s logistic support and procurement departments have been particularly plagued by corruption. Two former PLA deputy commanders, Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, fell foul of graft-busters after Xi took the helm of the PLA in 2012. Guo was given life imprisonment in a trial in July 2016 while Xu died of bladder cancer while in custody.

Observers note that Xi must tread carefully when eradicating graft, closing down business dealings and dismantling coteries of disgraced generals within the army. At the same time, he must ensure that the force’s morale and combat readiness are not impaired.

Meanwhile, China’s newly installed Minister of Veterans’ Affairs Sun Shaocheng vowed at a press conference on Tuesday to double down on efforts to dole out more subsidies for the nation’s 50 million veterans. He also seeks to concentrate on the provision of employment opportunities compatible with veterans’ military expertise in government institutions and state-owned enterprises.

Observers say the move is to mollify not only disgruntled former soldiers, but also those in active service who will soon find themselves enjoying fewer commercial perks and moonlighting opportunities.

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