The chief of Chinese military intelligence has been reassigned in a move that government officials here insisted was unrelated to his role in the U.S. campaign donations scandal.
Gen. Ji Shengde’s apparent demotion--from directing intelligence for the vast People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to running a department at a military research institute--was characterized as a lateral transfer by a spokesman for the National Defense Ministry.
Ji’s new assignment, effective in June, came two months after The Times disclosed secret grand jury testimony by Democratic fund-raiser Johnny Chung alleging that Ji gave him $300,000 in the summer of 1996 to help support President Clinton’s reelection campaign.
Chung’s subsequent high-profile testimony before the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee in May was particularly embarrassing for Ji.
Chung testified that Ji told him in mid-1996: “We really like your president. We hope he will get reelected. . . . I will give you 300,000 U.S. dollars. You can give it to . . . your president and Democrat Party.”
Chung gave only $35,000 to the Democratic National Committee. A Senate committee said most of the funds “went for [Chung’s] personal use, including mortgage payments.”
Chung also said that, at the urging of a Ji associate, he hired Ji’s son to work at his Torrance fax business. The son is a UCLA student.
Chinese officials steadfastly have denied any interference in the U.S. elections.
On Thursday, the military spokesman said Ji’s reassignment had nothing to do with Chung’s accusations. “If such a thing were true, Ji would be put in jail,” the spokesman said. “He would not have been assigned a new job.”
The military spokesman described Ji’s new duties as part of the normal, periodic changes within the PLA, the world’s largest military. “Job-changing is normal for any officer,” he said.
Still, the timing of Ji’s departure as intelligence chief--a sensitive senior position--raised eyebrows among some China watchers.
Jonathan Pollack, a longtime specialist on Chinese military affairs at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, said Ji’s transfer was in no way routine.
“It’s a face-saving way to do this,” Pollack said. “I don’t see this as a normal rotation at all.
“For someone who’s been career military intelligence, it doesn’t compute,” he added, “They don’t work that way. In [Chinese] military intelligence, they grow their own and they keep their own.”
Other observers suggested that Beijing might have removed Ji from the post as a challenge to Washington to discipline its own intelligence officers, specifically any involved in the May 8 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, during North Atlantic Treaty Organization airstrikes. Three Chinese were killed in the incident.
But one source close to the military in Beijing called the link a tenuous one.
“If it were true, this kind of gesture would be made public” to force Washington’s hand, the source said. “Up to now, [such speculation] is only coming from the West.”
Since last month, Ji has headed the military systems department of the Academy of Military Science, a Chinese army think tank. The department studies military organization.
Ji was tapped to serve as chief of military intelligence in 1992, succeeding Maj. Gen. Xiong Guangkai. At the time there was no question about whether his predecessor was getting promoted or demoted--Xiong was elevated to lieutenant general and named deputy chief of staff of the PLA.
In this capacity, Xiong is in charge of both military intelligence and the army’s relations with other countries. Ji, who was previously Xiong’s deputy, had continued to report to him. Ji is in his mid-50s, relatively young by the standards of top Chinese officials.
Ji is one of many offspring of senior Chinese officials who reached the upper echelons of the army. His father, Ji Pengfei, was China’s foreign minister and later oversaw the negotiations with Britain for Hong Kong’s return to China.
Chu reported from Beijing and Mann from Washington.