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.
It is now clear that Xi assigned Wang this powerful slot because he would need an ally to be in charge of continued…