Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive differs from his predecessors’ attempts.
A ferocious campaign against corruption launched by Chinese leader Xi Jinping a year ago has surprised many observers. Shortly after his installation as the new chief of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Xi vowed to “kill flies and tigers”, Chinese slang for junior and senior officials. Xi’s pledge to purge the rot out of the Chinese party-state was initially greeted with cynicism. Such campaigns had been waged in the past by Xi’s predecessors, with no lasting effect. Typically, a new leader coming to power would use corruption charges against his political rivals and win temporary popular support. Once such short-term objectives are accomplished, he would move on to other priorities.
But this time, it seems different. The campaign has lasted much longer and, by many measures, is significantly tougher. So far, it has claimed hundreds and thousands of “flies” and more than a dozen “tigers”. Figures released by the CPC’s own anti-corruption committee show that more than 1,82,000 party members, including 18 high-ranking officials at levels of vice minister and above, were punished for various misdeeds in 2013.
The drive against corruption has also hurt the businesses that used to cater to venal bureaucrats. High-end restaurants, for example, have lost their most lucrative customers — government officials wined and dined at the expense of taxpayers or private businessmen seeking favours. The once-booming luxury retail sector is now in full retreat as fewer officials dare to accept expensive “gifts”. In 2013, for example, sales of luxury Swiss watches in China fell 11 per cent. Although leading Western luxury brands do not disclose sales data for China, nearly all of them have reported falling revenues for 2013, largely due to the weakness in the Chinese market.
Much of the credit for the surprising outcome is owed to the new tactics and rules adopted by the Xi administration, in particular his anti-corruption chief, Wang Qishan, who heads the CPC’s Discipline and Inspection Committee. Wang, closely allied with Xi (they became friends when both were teenagers), is known internationally as a savvy and tough economic technocrat. He earned his nickname “fire-fighter” because the party had often relied on him to deal with crises. In March 2003, Wang was appointed the acting mayor of Beijing during the epidemic of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). In November 2012, when the party appointed the new Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), China’s top decision-making body, Wang was, to the surprise of most observers, given the anti-corruption portfolio even though his speciality had been finance and foreign trade.
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It is now clear that Xi assigned Wang this powerful slot because he would need an ally to be in charge of his war on corruption. Doubtlessly, Xi should be very pleased with his choice. In the past year, Wang instituted two important changes that gave his agency more power to conduct anti-corruption probes. One is to send a large number of “inspection” teams to provinces and large state-owned enterprises (such teams were in existence before, but conducted infrequent inspection tours). These teams are headed by a retired minister-level official who reports directly to Wang’s committee. They typically interview local officials privately to collect tips and information on the misconduct of their colleagues. This initiative makes it harder for local officials to hide their corrupt behaviour because some of their colleagues, normally rivals for power, have incentives to denounce them. Another important initiative credited to Wang is to require that any corruption investigation conducted in a jurisdiction must be reported to the anti-corruption agency at a superior level. This is, again, to prevent cover-ups.
While these innovative steps seem to have made a real difference in fighting China’s endemic corruption, Xi’s war is far from being won. The real test this year is whether he can sustain the campaign with the same level of intensity. At the moment, all eyes are on the ongoing investigation into a case involving a recently retired member of the PSC, Zhou Yongkang, who used to be China’s powerful internal security chief. In 2013, nearly all of Zhou’s protégés were arrested. They included a vice minister of public security, several vice provincial governors, and the former head of China National Petroleum Corporation, the largest energy company in China. The most ominous sign that Zhou’s fate is hanging in balance is the recent arrest of his former executive assistant, who must be privy to many of his secrets.
Based on the most recent media revelations, the case against Zhou could be China’s biggest and ugliest scandal that would make Bo Xilai (a Zhou ally) look like small fry by comparison. Although Zhou himself has not been mentioned directly, the unfolding scandal involves immediate family. His son, daughter-in-law and brother have all been detained. Zhou’s son has amassed a huge fortune through shady dealings with state-owned companies and businesses purportedly connected with organised crime. Chinese media reports have publicly identified Zhou’s son as a close friend of a notorious billionaire mafia boss who is on trial for murder and other violent criminal activities. Punters in Beijing believe that Zhou is now destined to fall despite the party’s unwritten rule of not prosecuting members or retired members of the PSC. Of course, the ultimate decision rests with Xi, who needs to consider two serious risks.
The first risk is that prosecuting Zhou, a tiger of mammoth proportions, could jeopardise the party’s leadership unity. Zhou’s allies, of course, would be upset. Even those unconnected with Zhou would feel fearful. The second risk is that washing the party’s dirtiest laundry in public could achieve the opposite political effects. Instead of reassuring the public that the party can be saved through a reinvigorated fight against corruption, the Zhou case, with its astonishing magnitude of criminality, could paradoxically convince the Chinese people that the party is, indeed, rotten to the core and all but unsalvageable.
Since Zhou has not been seen in public for over a year, it is all but certain that he is under detention. Most observers thought the Chinese government would formally announce his arrest after Xi completed his high-profile visit to Europe in late March. So far nothing has happened. The official silence on Zhou may indicate continuing high-level dispute over his fate. If Zhou miraculously escapes the anti-corruption dragnet, Xi would definitely be seen as a loser. But if Xi puts Zhou inside the proverbial “tiger cage”, he will make all his political rivals shake with fear. So stay tuned.
The writer is professor of government and non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US