A Relentless War on Corruption… and Political Rivals

A lot has been written recently about the Chinese Communist Party’s anti-corruption campaign under President Xi Jinping, particularly following the arrest this week of Zhou Yongkang, former member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the highest executive body of the Party, where he served as head of the security apparatus, with powers reaching into the courts, police, intelligence and paramilitary forces.  Some have called this unprecedented arrest of a high official “tearing up the rulebook” in Chinese politics.  But I wish particularly to respond to this video by StratFor, an American think tank known for its geopolitical determinism.

It describes the anti-corruption campaign as going deeper than ever before, and even as a break with the consensus-driven, gradualist model of party governance instituted by Deng Xiaoping following the death of Mao and the end of the disastrous Cultural Revolution.  Not surprisingly, they attribute the change to a crisis in Party legitimacy.  I would like to look at some of the reasons behind this apparent innovation which are rather more complex than one might suspect.

 

Crisis of Legitimacy?

Is the Party truly losing the support of the people?  It depends on how you put the question.

After Mao’s death, the Party gradually shifted the basis of its legitimacy from Communist dogma to nationalism, specifically, the promise of reviving China’s lost status in the world, rectifying the “century of humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers, and of course, bringing economic prosperity.  On every count, it has delivered astounding results while maintaining what, after the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution became the prime value of an entire generation: stability.  The Party, therefore, has unparalleled legitimacy.

On the other hand, despite continued attempts at reform, the problems of environmental degradation, labour abuses resulting in shortages of willing migrant workers, virtual theft of land undertaken in the name of development, regional inequality, inadequate social infrastructure and a host of other problems remain rampant.  The most damaging of these for the Party’s image is corruption on the part of high party officials and their families, who inherited the majority of the economy when it was privatised.  The damage done by these officials is palpable and economically significant.  The Party, therefore, has limited and diminishing legitimacy.

Both sides of the coin are entirely valid.  It’s a Schrödinger’s cat type of situation.

 

Shifting Rules of Politics

For ten years, President Hu Jintao did next to nothing about these problems, despite passionate speeches on the subject by his premier, Wen Jiabao.  Many now believe that this inaction was the result of the fact that they belonged to the wrong camp within the Party.  Neither was a princeling, a descendant of the founding members of the party, and neither was of the same conservative camp as Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who was the silent elder of the Party.  Hu, always a compromise candidate, never had the personal influence to make significant reforms.

Xi Jinping, on the other hand, is a princeling and almost certainly sponsored by Jiang’s wing of the Party.  If only Nixon could go to China, then only Xi or someone like him could both establish significant personal authority over the Party and keep it in line while implementing reforms.

On the one hand, the prolonged and visible anti-corruption campaign is necessary for public relations, but it is also a means for Xi to secure his own position.  Indeed, it should be thought of less as an anti-corruption campaign than an exemplary purge.  Almost every high official, especially from the ranks of the princelings, probably has some skeletons in the closet- corruption being very much part of the social culture of Chinese officialdom.  The choice of high-level targets, however, has been both exemplary and strategic.

First came Bo Jilai, a protégé of Zhou Yongkang and a strong candidate for Standing Committee membership.  He was also the most prominent figure in the movement to return the Party to socialist values after years of unchecked demolition of the welfare state.  Whether Bo was motivated by any sort of conviction or merely the political advantage of traditionalist iconography, the idea of judging the actions of the Party by its own founding doctrine was seen as profoundly threatening.  Bo’s implication in the murder of a Westerner may have made his downfall inevitable, but it was also a convenient opportunity.

Another high-level target was Jiang Jiemin, a senior figure in both the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation and the administration of the powerful State-Owned Enterprises.  His career was also facilitated by Zhou Yongkang, a fact that led some to predict that Zhou himself was the ultimate target, as head of a power bloc in rivalry to Xi Jinping’s own.  Then there was General Xu Caihou, retired Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission, the senior military officer under Hu Jintao’s government.  Now, we have a former head of the security services.  These three elements, the security services, the army and the state-owned enterprises, represent the three legs which support the Party in power, and the message is loud and clear- Xi can go after anyone he wants to in any of the three on the pretext of corruption, and the people will support him.  Not since Mao has personal loyalty to a leader been enforced so emphatically.

 

What Course?

Whatever course Xi plots for the Party and the state, it is fairly clear that liberal reform is not a part of it.  Between the tightening of censorship and the arrest of anti-corruption demonstrators and other pesky intellectual types, and virtual silence in other problem areas at the very moment when China is struggling to make up for lost offshore manufacturing with high-tech industries and domestic consumption, the picture of the future does not look promising- and that future is increasingly Xi’s to shape.  As for the anti-corruption campaign, it is a rousing success, having delivered to Xi both a much-needed dilution of public cynicism and the chance to firmly secure his own position.