Lips and Teeth
ay back in 655 B.C., China was a patchwork of petty fiefdoms in various states of conflict with each other. One, the principality of Yu, was a middling-sized territory with a big neighbor to the north named Jin and a wee neighbor to the south named Guo. Jin wanted to attack Guo, but would have to pass through Yu to do so. The duke of Jin accordingly sent an emissary to Yu with precious gifts, to persuade Yu to give passage to his armies. The prince of Yu, dazzled by the gifts, was inclined to accede; but his minister, a gentleman named Gong Zhiqi, pointed out that with Guo vanquished, Yu herself would be defenseless against Jin. To make his point, he used a phrase that has entered the Chinese language as an idiom: chun wang chi han "When the lips are gone, the teeth are cold." This expression must have passed through the mind of General Ji Shengde, currently under house arrest somewhere in Peking. Until June of last year, General Ji was the head of Chinese military intelligence. He was a background figure in the scandals surrounding Chinese fund transfers to the 1996 Clinton campaign. Middleman Johnny Chung testified to Congress last year (and swore in testimony to a federal grand jury) that General Ji was the source of $300,000 he, Chung, had been given to pass on to the Democratic party for campaign purposes. These revelations came at a bad time for the General. He was known to be involved in several internal corruption scandals involving business interests of the People's Liberation Army. He was removed from his position and an investigation announced; but nobody thought he would come to much harm. General Ji, you see, is the son of Ji Pengfei, one of the last of the Chinese Communist Old Guard a veteran of the Long March, the Party's desperate retreat across west China in 1934-36 when the core friendships and loyalties of the Mao generation were forged. (Ji Pengfei was foreign minister in 1972 when President Nixon visited China. He helped negotiate the communiqué that emerged from that visit, the so-called Shanghai Accord.) So long as his father was alive, General Ji knew that nobody would dare subject him to any serious restraint. Alas for the General, in February of this year Ji Pengfei died at the age of 91. The lips were gone; the teeth are now cold. On July 7th one of the Chinese government's official newspapers announced that Ji would soon be indicted for corruption to the tune of $12.5 million. I could not help wondering, when I read the news, why Ji had waited for the blow to fall. The coldness of the teeth following the removal of the lips is, after all, a common enough phenomenon in Chinese politics. Mao's longtime prime minister, Zhou Enlai, died in January of 1976. Three months later his placemen at the highest levels of the party including Deng Xiaoping were all purged. The tables turned in September of that year, when Mao himself died; after a one-month interval his wife and her faction, the so-called Gang of Four, were all arrested. So the rule is: If you have a powerful patron who dies, within a few weeks you can expect to hear the Secret Police knocking on your door to invite you to HQ for a little chat. Why stick around? Nowadays all the Chinese leaders have exit strategies: relatives living abroad and, one assumes, Swiss bank accounts. General Ji's son has lived in the U.S.A. for years and speaks fluent English. (President Jiang Zemin's son is a U.S. resident, too; Deng Xiaoping's grandson is a U.S. citizen by birth.) One can only assume that years of privilege insulate these "princelings" from any thought of danger, lulling them into an inner conviction of perfect invulnerability. The Prince of Yu, as a matter of fact, did not heed Gong Zhiqi's advice, and his own state was subsequently gobbled up by Jin. The real story behind Ji Shengde's disgrace is the clean-up of the People's Liberation Army that has been going on for over a year now. "Princelings" the sons and daughters of the Old Guard were given PLA rank for the asking well into the 1980s. The army was high-prestige, and it was also a comparatively safe haven during the purges and counter-purges of the Mao period. The princelings, however, abused their positions by using military assets for illegal purposes, mainly smuggling. In the push for a more professional military that followed the Gulf War a most unsettling event for Chinese observers, demonstrating as it did the great power of the U.S. armed forces younger, keener, more patriotic elements in the army and party had come to resent very much these "princelings" in their midst. Last summer, President Jiang Zemin ordered the PLA (this term also encompasses China's navy and air force, by the way) to divest itself of its business interests. This directive, and following events like the purge of General Ji, are representative of a "new wind" sweeping through the Chinese armed forces a trend towards lean, professional dedication to military matters. It is generally supposed in the West that China's anti-corruption campaigns are good news for us. The less corrupt China is, the more it resembles a modern Western nation with a transparent economy so we reason. This is, to borrow a phrase from CCP propaganda handouts, "wrong thinking." An end to corruption in China without any real political reforms would mean that a sleazy, leaky despotism had been replaced by a shiny, efficient despotism. Democracy in China the only hope for them, and for us would be further away than ever, since the main grudge the Chinese people hold against their leaders would have been removed, and opportunities to bypass by bribery state control of the populace would have dried up. As Steven Mosher has pointed out in his new book Hegemon (Encounter Books, $24.95), the Chinese leadership have great ambitions for their country: first, to get the U.S. out of Asia, then to assert as much influence as they can over as much of the world as they can reach. With a sleek, efficient military purged of corruption, these ambitions will be much easier to fulfill. Chinese corruption is not pretty; its scale generally astounds those encountering it for the first time. It is, however, in a way reassuring human nature at work. It is in point of fact, as the Chinese Communists themselves charge, "counter-revolutionary." A China purged of all corruption, yet with the present despotism still in place, would be terrifying. China's corruption, especially its military corruption, is, you might say, the lips: we our influence, and ultimately our security are the teeth. Chun wang chi han.