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Assessing Xi Jinping’s Anti-Corruption Campaign

By Jie Zhan

China’s President Xi Jinping is taking all possible measures to fight corruption. According to the Central Commission for Discipline and Inspection, the Party’s watchdog, since the announcement of the anti-corruption campaign a year ago, 182,000 officials were punished for disciplinary violations in 2013. Lavish banquets, luxury gifts, and expensive weddings and funerals are strictly banned among Party members. The severity of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has been compared to Mao’s campaign during the Cultural Revolution.

In the five year anti-graft plan issued by the Party’s Central Committee, Xi stresses a zero tolerance to graft because it is believed that corruption threatens “the survival of the Party or nation.” However, the actual drive behind the campaign is to consolidate Xi’s power. This, along with Xi’s high-handed posture, may act as a catalyst for public discontent and possible political crisis.  

Anti-graft campaigns have been a tradition for China's leaders in order to eliminate adversaries and promote allies. In 1951, Mao Zedong launched the “Three-anti/Five-anti campaigns” to uproot corruption. However, in reality the campaign served as a means of repressing oppositions to the Communist Party. Similarly, in 1998 the “Three Stresses Party Rectification” campaign launched by Jiang Zemin, brought down several senior officials on corruption charges. In 2004 Hu Jintao spoke about the need of anti-graft campaigns in order to keep the Party strong by eliminating corruption. In 2006 Hu sentenced Chen Liangyu, a member of Jiang Zemin’s Shanghai Clique, which hindered Hu’s reforms, to 18 years in prison on bribery and corruption charges.

Although the Party claims to catch both the “tigers” and the “flies” (senior and lower ranking government officials and Party members), with regards to the current anti-graft campaign, most cases are aimed at middle to low-ranking officials. Xi will not target senior comrades unless they pose a threat to his power. Since the inception of the anti-graft campaign, the only senior officials Xi has prosecuted are Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang, his political rivals.  

Bo, the former Party chief of Chongqing Province, was once popular in the region for his local anti-graft campaigns that prosecuted at least four mid-level government officials. Bo was considered Xi’s primary adversary for the Party’s top leadership. His downfall is the result of an internal power struggle. It is not surprising that Zhou, a political ally of Bo, and the former internal security chief of Chongqing Province, is also being investigated for “insatiable looting and blatant gangsterism.”

Most likely the corruption charges against Zhou, and his subordinates, will provide a temporary boost to Xi’s popular standing and authority. However, once people realize that the President’s promise to fight corruption is not that genuine, the anti-graft campaign will backfire and eventually undercut Xi’s credibility.

Furthermore, the anti-graft campaign is a risky endeavor for Xi to undertake for a number of reasons. First, Xi's hard-line measures could possibly cause internal division within the Party. Xi's economic reforms, the establishment of the “leading group for overall reform,” and his anti-corruption campaign will definitely harm the interests of Party members. It is hard to tell what would hold the Party together without the incentive of power, which is usually associated with corruption.

Second, Xi has shown an incredible resemblance to Mao Zedong. Since taking office Xi has started tightening his grip over the Party and the military by using methods and languages similar to Mao. For example, Xi uses slogans that were popular during the Great Leap Forward, such as “making China the NO.1 superpower.” Xi has also strengthened China’s censorship on the media, a move described as “a return to Maoism.” Xi's Maoist tendencies have elicited alarm by a number of Chinese citizens who fear that this anti-graft campaign could potentially lead to another Cultural Revolution.

Third, Xi cannot fundamentally uproot corruption without changing the legal system and mobilizing the civil society. However, currently Xi has not taken the necessary steps to change the legal system or mobilize civil society nor does he seem to have any intention to do so. Instead, the Party keeps cracking down on the Internet, which Xi once considered as an efficient method for fighting corruption. Furthermore, the government has arrested activists, such as prestigious law professor, Xu Zhiyong, for urging the Party to build a legal foundation that would support anti-graft campaigns.

Xu is the co-founder of New Citizens’ Movement, an informal civic rights group in China, and a key opinion leader among Chinese Netizens. The Party is afraid of Xu’s ability to trigger broader awareness of corruption, and of “losing control of the public narrative.” Last year, out of such fear the Chinese authority firewalled both the New York Times and Bloomberg in China for exposing the shift from “extremely poor” to “outright rich” of the former Premier Wen Jiabao, and the vast amount of wealth amassed by Xi Jinping.

Xi should take into account the problems mentioned before making his next move. The anti-graft campaign is by no means the panacea for China. Rather, it will become a catalyst of political crisis if Xi retains his high-handed posture.

Establishing a legal system of checks and balance is extraordinarily essential and significant. However, it is not possible yet. In order to create a foundation to build a system of checks and balance, Xi needs to placate the malcontent within the Party by slowing down and keeping a low-profile. Once the Party is appeased, Xi can then gradually begin to build the legal foundation needed to fight corruption, as he promised. As the old Chinese saying goes, “retreat in order to advance.” A few concessions may win a lot more for Xi and the Party. Otherwise, they will lose much more than just the “public narrative.”

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Jie Zhan is a M.A. student in International Relations at the New York University, with an interest in humanitarian intervention and U.S.-China relations. She is now the Web Editor for Journal of Political Inquiry, an annual academic journal published by Master’s students of the New York University Politics Department.

[Photo courtesy of Myles Cullen]

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