How a phrase deepens mystery of fallen Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe


Of the all top generals who fell in Xi’s war against corruption, Wei was the only one described as “zhongcheng shi jie” or “ being disloyal and losing one’s chastity”.

The hard-to-translate phrase “shi jie” has its origins in Chinese history, where it was used to describe the moral degradation of the scholar-gentry who formed the ruling class.

In the fourth century BC the word “jie” was a bamboo or bronze sceptre representing royal authority – while “shi” means to lose – so a betrayal or defection would imply the loss of this jie.

Later in the Song dynasty (which ruled from the 10th to 13th centuries), it referred to women perceived as unchaste, such as widows who remarried.

China watchers familiar with the Communist Party’s history note that it has used the phrase as a euphemism for betraying the party and being compromised by a hostile force.

A search of statements published by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the top civilian anti-corruption body, and its military counterpart shows that Wei is the only person to whom the phrase has been attached in the last decade.

A political scientist from Beijing’s Renmin university said the characters“shi jie” are most prominently associated with former Communist Party leaders such Xiang Zhongfa or Gu Shunzhang, who defected to the Kuomintang, or Nationalists, the Communists’ bitter rivals during the civil war.

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“Ask any party historian, what are the names that pop out in their mind when you mention ‘shi jie” to them, they will tell you the story of Xiang Zhongfa, who was regarded as a major disgrace to the party,” said the researcher, who requested anonymity.

Xiang was the only general secretary, or head of the party, to defect in its history. He revealed all he knew about the party and its secret services to his Kuomintang captors in June 1931 just days before his execution. This gave them a chance to uproot the whole underground Communist network in Shanghai.

Gu, who once headed the party’s spy network, also defected to the KMT after his capture.

His defection led to the arrest of many prominent Communist leaders and even future premier Zhou Enlai only narrowly escaped. For that, Gu was often termed as “the most dangerous traitor in the history of the CCP” and often described as an example of “shi jie” in official histories or media reports.

Hong Kong military commentator Liang Guoliang said such a rare and harsh accusation suggests “Wei’s crimes are probably beyond taking bribes”.

He also contrasted it with the statement about Li, which although it was equally stern in tone, said only that he had “abandoned his original aspirations and lost his party principles” – a standard line used to criticise those who give or receive bribes.

“What exactly happened is certainly top secret and we won’t know what actually happened. But the term ‘shi jie’ seems to suggest that Wei’s conduct might have allowed China’s enemies to gain an advantage from it,” Liang said.

Wei was the first officer promoted to the rank of full general by Xi, who hosted a promotion ceremony for Wei only ten days after he became the head of the party and the military in November 2012.

Three years later he became the first head of the rocket force and was appointed defence minister in 2018 after Xi began his second term as president.

His two successors as commander of the rocket force, Zhou Yaning and Li Yuchao, were both ousted last year.

Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy said the language seems to indicate “an external element” in Wei’s misdeeds.

“The word ‘shi jie’ is not applicable when the CCDI is only describing wrong behaviour that caused internal harm within the party or within China,” Wu said.

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The statement also said Wei had “betrayed the trust” of the party’s central leadership and the CMC, “seriously polluting the political environment of the military, and causing great damage to the party’s cause, national defence and military construction, as well as the image of its senior leaders”.

Li and Wei will also face criminal charges from military prosecutors.

They are the latest senior PLA officers to be brought down in the ongoing anti-graft campaign.

Nine generals, including the former rocket force heads as well as a former air force chief and a number of CMC officials from the equipment development department were dismissed from the National People’s Congress in December.

Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has shown no signs of slowing down after entering its second decade. Last year the CCDI set a new record for the number of senior officials being investigated for corruption, while the first six months of this year set a further record for the numbers targeted.



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