The lack of institutional means compels military officers to adopt alternative means of gaining promotions. But this does not inevitably lead to the buying and selling of military positions. The rise of corruption relating to appointments and promotions is also associated with other institutional flaws, such as the concentration of power in personnel issues and the lack of external monitoring. Drawing on interviews with military officers, Wang (2016) observes that the military system is characterized by a lack of checks and balances, and decision-making power over personnel matters is concentrated in the hands of the commander and the political officer in each unit. Rather than conducting mutual supervision, the two officers tend to cooperate with each other in order to protect their common interests. In the case of promoting their subordinates, the two officers have to compromise to make consensus decisions, because the maintenance of group cohesion within the unit is an important component of performance assessment, and disputes between the two officers exert negative influence on their future promotions (Wang 2016).
In order to enhance the Chinese army’s capability of both waging war and winning, maintaining secrecy is an extremely important task for the PLA (Blanchard 2014). As Cheung (2011) points out, ‘[f]or secrecy and political reasons, civilian media organizations [in China] are careful about how they report military matters. Little, if any, independent investigative reporting takes place, and much of the coverage focuses on foreign issues and on Taiwan’ (p. 139). The absence of external monitoring gives rise to an opaque system for the appointment, reappointment, and promotion of military officers.
The lack of institutional means, the concentration of power in the military promotion system, and the absence of external monitoring together create a fertile environment for corruption. In the case of the buying and selling of military positions, fieldwork data suggests that corrupt exchanges usually occur between officers who have guanxi ties. The sellers are unwilling to distribute promotion opportunities to unknown officials, so the buyers who do not possess social ties with the sellers are less likely to obtain promotions (Former military officer R 2015; Military researcher E 2015).
Senior officers distribute promotion opportunities based on two major factors: the strength of guanxi ties and bribe payment
(Wang 2016). The closer the guanxi between the candidate and the superior, the more likely it is that the candidate will be promoted. Transactions would not happen if guanxi networks did not exist.
Bribes are another important factor determining the allocation of opportunities. Lower-level officers who are members of superiors’ guanxi networks are willing to pay to secure promotions or transfer to better positions. There are two reasons for this: (1) payment, in the form of cash or expensive gifts, is an essential way for buyers to show respect, appreciation, and love to sellers, because not all officers are ‘qualified’ to buy promotions; and (2) a buyer who successfully obtains promotion has a greater chance of recouping the investment and earning illegal profit from this higher rank (Former military officer B 2015; Former military officer P 2015).
Drawing ‘both on connections they formed before entering military service and on a number of shared military experiences’, military officers establish extensive guanxi networks with senior officers in order to achieve comparative advantage in the competition for promotion (Kaufman and Mackenzie 2009: 79). Take hometown ties, for example: hometown ties remain ‘an important source of informal affiliation’ for military officers, especially those of low and middle rank (Kaufman and Mackenzie 2009: 81). Sharing their affection for their hometown and speaking the local dialect enable military officers from the same place to develop strong bonds; moral obligations associated with personal ties encourage senior officers to distribute opportunities to their hometown ties regardless of regulations and social justice (Former military officer N 2015; Military officer H 2015; Former military officer K 2015; Military researcher E 2015).
To sum up, the buying and selling of positions in the Chinese military is a predictable outcome of institutional flaws, including the absence of wartime challenges, the failure of military training in selecting the best qualified officers, the concentration of power in personnel matters, and the lack of external monitoring. Fieldwork data suggests that selling military positions has become an important strategy for senior officers to earn corrupt benefits, and the strength of guanxi ties is a key factor in determining the ways in which promotion and appointment opportunities are allocated.