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Xi Jinping’s Anti-Corruption Campaign

Edward Schwarck
Commentary, 28 October 2013
China, International Security Studies, Asia, Pacific
China’s leader has launched an anti-corruption drive that seems to strike at the heart of the Communist Party. Yet the persistence of the campaign may instead reflect his stubborn faith in the fundamental correctness of the system.

A disciplinary investigation into the mayor of the southern city of Nanjing marks the latest high-profile scalp in General Secretary Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive. The Chinese press is touting the case as proof that Xi is serious about his earlier pledge to pursue ‘tigers’ – the most senior level officials – as well as ‘flies’.

According to an announcement by the party’s corruption watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, Ji Jianye will face charges of ‘serious disciplinary violations’, party-speak for corruption. This case follows a series of purges in recent months of senior officials and industry executives. Liu Tienan, Director of China’s National Energy Administration, was brought down last May. Jiang Jiemin, head of China’s state enterprise regulator, followed in September. Close to a dozen vice-ministerial level officials have been purged since the start of Xi Jinping’s tenure. This is a campaign that stands out for its length and tenacity.

The purpose of the campaign is more ambiguous. Bolstering the new leadership’s squeaky-clean credentials is undoubtedly one reason ­– as evidenced by the purging of individual officials guilty of the most ostentatious displays of illicit wealth. This forms part of a wider effort by Xi to present himself as a forward thinking leader with frugal tastes and empathy with the ordinary citizen. ‘Winning or losing public support is an issue that concerns the Communist Party’s (CCP) survival or extinction,’ he said earlier this year.

Yet the individual officials targeted by the campaign belie a different motive. A sizeable number of the most senior targets have been regulators and executives from China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Jiang Jiemin served as head of China’s largest oil company, CNPC, before assuming control of China’s State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission – a move between the public and private realms that is common in China’s party-controlled state enterprises. Meanwhile, Liu Tienan, prosecuted for accepting bribes and ‘morally degenerate’ behaviour (which often refers to the keeping of mistresses) previously held the reins at China’s National Development and Reform Commission.

State-Owned Enterprises

China’s SOEs have traditionally acted as powerful interest groups opposing economic reform. Amid rumours that Xi Jinping will impose new economic reforms at the third party plenum in November –possibly including deepening the privatisation of SOEs – Xi’s anti-corruption campaign may be aimed at eliminating obstructions within his own bureaucracy. This task has taken on greater importance as China seeks a more sustainable growth pattern through the encouragement of private business, more efficient use of capital, and a better balance between consumption and investment.

China’s SOEs currently benefit from industry monopolies, low-cost loans and easy access to business licenses – most of which are granted by backers within state regulators. In the past, the leaders of these interest groups – many of whom hold positions on China’s Central Committee – have hobbled new legislation in areas from the environment to banking. Most formidable among these are China’s energy SOEs, which possess considerable political clout. As Premier Li Keqiang said last March, ‘Nowadays, stirring up vested interests is more difficult than stirring up one’s soul.’ However, Li then added, ‘But no matter how deep the water is, we must wade through because we don’t have other options – it’s our nation’s fate and future that are at stake.’

Eliminating Rivals

Another explanation behind the anti-corruption campaign may lie in the elimination of Xi Jinping’s political enemies. Characteristic to almost all communist systems is the post-leadership transition purge, where new leaders seek to assert their authority over potential rivals. While Xi faces no apparent opposition in the Standing Committee, the fallout from the Bo Xilai affair revealed other targets for Xi’s inquisition. As the trail of fallen officials has reached the Party-centre in Beijing, China’s shadowy former domestic security chief, Zhou Yongkang, is now rumoured to have come under scrutiny from anti-corruption authorities. According to some, Zhou represents the ultimate target of the anti-corruption campaign, which, in typical party fashion, may be beating a path to the top.

The Zhou-Bo nexus may date to the former’s days as Party Secretary of Sichuan province, adjacent to Bo’s former fiefdom in Chongqing. This idea has been lent significant credibility in recent months as a string of Sichuan-based officials with ties to Zhou, including the provinces former vice-governor, have been brought down. According to the leaked court transcript from Bo’s recent trial, Zhou also tried to orchestrate a cover up from Beijing of the defection to the US consulate of Chongqing’s former police chief, Wang Lijun. Party insiders also speculate that Bo would have assumed Zhou’s role as chief of internal security at the Eighteenth Party Congress, and Zhou was reportedly the only leader who defended Bo in the Politburo meeting to decide his fate.

Yet Zhou’s alleged misdemeanors stretch beyond a mere affiliation with Bo Xilai. While acting as internal security chief under Hu Jintao, Zhou’s organisation, the Central Politics and Law Committee, came under fire in party publications for overstepping its authority and adopting an overly violent approach to internal unrest. While Zhou retired last year, this toxic legacy left him open to attack. His son, Zhou Bin, has also now been detained for questioning.

The waters are muddied further through Zhou’s links to CNPC. As general manager of the company during the 1990s, Zhou built up a considerable independent patronage network – of which Jiang Jiemin and Liu Tienan – both of whom have backgrounds in oil – are two suspected members. The profligacy and corruption of CNPC is legendary in Chinese political circles, and as the organisation’s godfather, all roads now lead to Zhou. As China analyst Steve Tsang has recently commented, ‘Different camps must have their own reasons for bringing down Zhou. But one common ground shared by everyone is how much Zhou is disliked and how he lost respect among his colleagues - retired or sitting. I can see why Xi finds him an easy target.’

What are the Implications?

The implications of the anti-corruption campaign go beyond Xi’s rivals or his plans for SOE reform to include his vision for China’s political future. Despite some early speculation that Xi would tolerate a limited degree of political liberalisation, his anti-corruption campaign suggests a different focus.

His zealous use of the party’s anti-corruption organs – coupled with repeated and severe crackdowns on defence lawyers, the Internet, as well as ideological campaigns to restore various Mao-era mass mobilisation initiatives – point to a man with faith in the fundamental correctness of the Communist Party. In this respect, the anti-corruption campaign may simply be aimed at making the current Leninist party system more effective at governance: to streamline the flow of orders from top to bottom, to make the current system more responsive to central control, and, ultimately, better able to deliver on the two overarching goals that have existed since Deng – the survival of the Party and continued economic growth. As one prominent editorial read in the party’s primary doctrinal journal, Seeking Truth, ‘The more contradictions become prominent and the more problems arise, the more we need firm and forceful political leadership, the more we need an authoritative government and a high-efficiency administration, and the more we need concentration, unity and the smooth implementation of governance.’

In Chinese bureaucratic parlance, therefore, Xi Jinping is strengthening the tiao – the vertical lines of authority – at the expense of the kuai – the lateral ties between party and state organs. Put simply, Xi’s various campaigns are all aimed at eliminating threats to Party rule, such as special interest groups or even individual party rivals, which stand in the way of his political vision.

Corruption appears in an environment where goods and services are scarce, but it thrives in a system that lacks legal checks and balances. Xi Jinping’s unwillingness to create a legal system independent of party interference is testament to his aversion to seeking a real solution to China’s corruption problem. In this respect, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign should be seen as corrupt in itself, in that its means are not true to its ends.

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