Written by Joseph Fewsmith.

Xi Jinping’s campaign against corruption is now over two and a half years old. It has certainly gone on longer, cut deeper, and affected more people than anyone might have imagined at its inception. There are at least two aspects of this campaign that are of considerable interest: the first is what it has exposed about the Chinese political system, and the second is about the future – can China create a system in which corruption is minimised, if not eliminated?
On the first issue, the campaign has made very clear what everyone suspected – namely, that corruption is absolutely pervasive in official circles. As one local official was quoted as saying, “Become a lowly section chief without spending money? Show me. If you really have that ability, I’ll call you my daddy.” In saying this, the official was suggesting not only that he was corrupt, but also that corruption is simply part of the way the game of politics is played in China.

What the campaign against corruption has exposed, however, is not just the pervasiveness of corruption but also the way corruption has been used to build power and ‘small circles’, as a Politburo meeting would put it. Shanxi province has been perhaps the primary local target of the campaign, and what has been revealed is that not only is corruption rife in the province – perhaps not unexpectedly in a resource-rich province – but that previous efforts by the central government to rein in corruption have been ineffective. The number of Shanxi natives on the Provincial Party Standing Committee was reduced from nine at the ninth party congress in 2006 to six (out of thirteen) on the tenth standing committee selected in 2011 – an apparent effort to strengthen central control over the province. In 2006, Yuan Chunqing, who had previously held posts in the Communist Youth League and Central Discipline Inspection Commission (CDIC), was transferred from Shaanxi to Shanxi, part of a trend in recent years to strengthen central control over provinces.  Similarly, Jin Daoming, a former subordinate of Yuan’s at the CDIC, was sent from Beijing to Shanxi to head the Provincial Discipline Inspection Commission in 2006.

Judging by the recent exposures, it appears that such moves resulted in little progress against deeply entrenched interests in the energy-rich province. Part of the problem lies in strong local factions; local networks based in Lüliang and Yuncheng played a particularly predominant role. One official, Nie Chunyu, served for eight years as Party Secretary in Lüliang. When he was transferred out in 2011, Du Shanxue, another official accused of corruption, replaced him. Ten months after being appointed as Party Secretary, Du was promoted to the Provincial Party Standing Committee. It was highly unusual for there to be two people from the same place on the Standing Committee, indicating the influence Lüliang wielded in the province. From 2003 – 2006, Bai Yun was Deputy Secretary of Lüliang, and when Nie Chunyu was promoted to Chief Secretary, Bai Yun took his place as Head of the United Front Work Department. These officials all fell in the campaign against corruption.

The other major clique in Shanxi is from Yuncheng (运城). Ling Zhengce, Ling Jihua’s older brother, is from Yuncheng’s Pinglu (平陆) county and his father, Linghu Ye (令狐野) was a department-level 处级 cadre. At least four of his five children have prospered in politics or business (the eldest son, Ling Luxian 令路线 is deceased), so the Ling family exercises a great deal of influence in Pinglu. Ling Zhengce served as Deputy Head of the Provincial Planning Commission and Head of the Development and Reform Commission from 2000 – 2007.  Ling Wancheng (令完成) went into business. A sister, Ling Fangzhen (令方针) was reportedly detained in July, along with her husband, Wang Jiankang (王健康), who was Deputy Mayor of Yuncheng City.

The exposure of these and other very tight, personal networks strongly suggest that we have not been witnessing the institutionalisation of Chinese politics, as many had hoped, but rather a likely deterioration in institutions. There has always been a tension in the Chinese Communist Party between the personal networks that seem to be essential to getting ahead in politics, and the needs of the party to minimise such factionalism. In this case, the balance had obviously tilted very far in the direction of personal networks trumping the party, and one of Xi Jinping’s objectives has been to restore the party as a viable instrument of rule.

The second issue is about the future: can Xi Jinping bring about a system that minimises corruption? As this brief look at Shanxi factionalism suggests, it will be difficult to do so. The examples above suggest that corruption is not an individual issue – a matter of a few bad apples – but rather a systemic problem; the way to increase wealth and advance power is to join with like-minded people and advance together. It appears that the immediate response has been to increase central control – most of the Shanxi Provincial Party Committee was removed, and non-natives, some of whom appear close to top leaders, were installed. But this is a temporary solution.

The long-term solution, if there is one, lies in building institutions. But it is difficult to do so on the basis of a hierarchical party. It has often been suggested that China can develop a meritocracy, but the campaign against corruption suggests that promotions have been deeply influenced by cronyism and money. How can one reduce such pernicious influences? The logical way to reduce corruption is to expand the role of local people’s congresses, by making the local budget public, increasing the role of the media, and by building the rule of law. There have been many experiments in these directions (excepting the role of the media) and all can be done within the context of the Chinese political system. But, to date, efforts in moving in such directions have fallen short of expectations. However, unless institutionalisation is increased, corruption is likely to return – perhaps more virulently than ever.

Joseph Fewsmith is Professor of International Relations and Political Science at Boston University. Image credit: CC by APEC 2013/Flickr.