Thinking Critically About Anti-Corruption Efforts (Part I)

The now three years old anti-corruption campaign in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) continues to grab many headlines. Rightfully so, as President Xi Jinping’s declaration that he will target all levels of officials, including both high-ranking “tigers” and low-ranking “flies,” suggests a comprehensive effort to reform the party. Retired Vice Chairman of the Central Military Committee (the governing body of the People's Liberation Army) Bo Guoxiong, and Ling Jihua, aide of former president Hu Jintao, have been the most recent victims.

Some observers have speculated that all of this means that we’re seeing a new China, that the grassroots discontent on the Internet and in public protests over the past decade have finally taken their toll on the autocratic rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Is this newest anti-corruption campaign then a sign that the party is taking desperate action to save themselves?

Unfortunately, this is not an example of something new; in fact, it’s more an example of the same-old-same-old. The current anti-corruption campaign not only has numerous precedents in the PRC era, but also stems from numerous political imperatives within the party that have more to do with traditional power consolidation than the desire for change and social equality.

Corruption and high-level politics in China are complex topics and a handfull of blog posts will never be able to do either subject any justice. However, these entries can provide a good starting point to help clarify the matter and allow one to more accurately interpet current events. First, which I will discuss in this blog post, is the current state of elite politics and the process at which rivals are eliminated in the CCP. Second, which I will discuss in a follow-up blog post, is what corruption actually means in the Chinese socio-cultural and historical sense.

Consolidation of Power

Since the end of the Deng Xiaoping era in the mid-1990s, Chinese elite politics have largely stabilized. This can partly be attributed to Deng’s decision ​to hand pick the next two paramount leaders, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Deng intended to to eliminate factionalism and build consensus in the wake of the division which paralyzed the Party during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

However, even with Deng's blessing, both Jiang and Hu had to eliminate high-ranking rivals before they fully consolidated power. For Jiang, it was Politburo (the second highest decision-making body in the country) member and Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong in 1995. For Hu, it was Polituburo member and Chairman of the Shanghai CCP Committee Chen Liangyu in 2007. Both were purged under the name of fighting corruption.

As Hu’s administration came to an end, the CCP had to come together to choose a new leader. Infighting and backdoor maneuvering ensued, intensifying an already tense process in which there would be clear winners and losers. Xi Jinping would eventually emerge as the winner of this struggle. Politburo Standing Committee (the highest decision-making body in the country) member and head of China’s security apparatus Zhou Yongkang, Politburo member and Secretary of the Chongqing CCP committee Bo Xilai, and Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission Xu Caihou would be the losers. As with the two Chen’s, the charges leveled against Zhou and his allies were corruption.

Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has differed from its predecessors in terms of reach. By attacking Zhou, Xi certainly did demonstrate his ability to strike at the most senior of “tigers.” However, it did not stop at Zhou; the campaign reached deep into Zhou’s networks in Sichuan, where he was formerly governor; the Sinopec Group, of which once served as chairman; and into the People’s Liberation Army where he had fostered allies in the military. In this way, Xi also went after the lowest “flies” as well - it just so happened that both the "tigers" and "flies" were of the same network.

Consequently, if one is looking at the current anti-corruption campaign as a comprehensive effort to purge corruption in the party from top to bottom, then one should look elsewhere. This is not a new CCP or a new China – in fact, it has more in common with ancient times, hearkening back to the 株连九族 or "guilt by association of the nine relations," in which the entire family or clan of the guilty party would be executed. In this case, the family was largely spared but the Zhou patronage network was completely gutted.

By understanding the process of power consolidation at the elite level in the PRC, we can look at Xi’s anti-corruption campaign a bit more critically and understand its true motivations. Ultimately, who wins and who loses during this purge will have a drastic impact on diplomacy, security policy, and business in China. Thus, it is not only important to track these events, but to see and understand them for what they really are. This underscores the need for a true depth of knowledge to accurately intepret this environment correctly and to navigate through what could be very dangerous territory.