It has 1.25 million men and women and double-digit increases in its budget. But for officers, does the People's Liberation Army have good military leaders or good networkers?

The damaging national culture of building connections for personal benefit is on the minds of the country's top leadership as it turns its clean-government drive to the military. Orders issued last week seek to control the diversion of the military budget to generous or even outrageous perquisites and also to stop the acceptance of gifts—meaning bribes from those seeking advantageous positions or contracts.

China's military suffers from these habits in two ways. The most obvious one is that part of its budget is lost to extravagance or embezzlement. The other, perhaps far more serious but quite unmeasurable, is that a great many officers, looking for profitable opportunities, must be rising in rank not because they can perform their duties well but because they are good at buying connections, or “guanxi” (GWAHN-shee). The degree of leadership debilitation caused by the guanxi culture may be one of the biggest unknowns about the Chinese armed forces.

In general, spending has to be more strictly regulated and budgeting processes improved, according to the latest orders from military headquarters. “Incomes and expenses should be managed by a centralized system and reforms are needed in accounting and asset management processes,” the Xinhua news agency says, citing the orders.

The armed forces were directed to reduce military administrative costs. If actually implemented, that alone will make a difference, since much wasteful spending must be classified as administrative. Among the items singled out is travel, which is to be “strictly controlled.”

“The document stressed frugality in official receptions among military units,” says Xinhua. “Personal banquets financed with public funds as well as giving or accepting money, securities, souvenirs and local products are not allowed.” The military budget must not be used for celebrations, forums, exhibitions or performances, except for those arranged by top national and military authorities.

In the guanxi culture, connections are bought with entertainment, gifts and cash; the recipient, enjoying some power, then grants benefits in return, such as perks, a promotion or an opportunity for monumental embezzlement. Maybe a chain of connections is involved. Either way, funds siphoned from the state pay for it all. The same problems afflict the Chinese government more widely. President Xi Jinping, who must be behind this latest push for honesty, began trying last year to stop civil servants and employees of state enterprises from using public funds for their own benefit.

Almost any adult in China has heard such stories as colonels holding magnificent weddings for their daughters at a cost of many years' salary, or generals paying 1 million yuan ($160,000) for modestly lucrative posts—or many times that for immodestly lucrative ones. A story about a military uncle who has just had a good promotion typically includes the sentence “he has good connections.”

One officer who should have had outstanding connections was Lt. Gen. Gu Junshan, the former deputy head of logistics, who was arrested two years ago for graft. Soldiers reportedly needed two days to load the opulent contents of his home into trucks. But ordinary Chinese can only wonder whether Gu fell from grace because he was a crook or because he ultimately had the wrong connections.

It is difficult to gauge the degree to which this behavior damages the Chinese military, because graft is so hard to measure. But since the official Chinese defense budget increased to $119 billion last year from $7-8 billion around 1997, “there is a lot of money to throw at problems, and a lot that can disappear,” says Richard Bitzinger, a specialist on the Chinese military at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “You can only imagine the size of this.” Contributing to the problem is that the armed forces are part of the Communist Party and are therefore highly political, rather than being purely a professional military, says Alexander Neill of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore.

Under the latest edict, only Chinese-brand cars can be bought as military vehicles, which may inconvenience the many officers who prefer to drive large Mercedes Benzes or Porsches—and who were told last year to remove their military license plates. While that last move met with wide public approval, because military vehicles can be driven in China with little regard to the rules of the road, a largely overlooked point was that, from the party's point of view, military plates on luxury cars had been damning evidence of misuse of public office.

The new leadership under Xi has been in power for about a year. Its predecessors also began their terms with campaigns against corruption, which the party has long recognized as a potentially fatal threat to its power.