China Policy Institute: Analysis


Bo Xilai

The Chinese Left: Contexts and Strategies

Written by Christopher Connery.

Let’s define the “left” broadly as standing against market fundamentalism, against the dominance of finance capital, and as advocating economic and social equality, worker and peasant power, and social welfare.[1] Most leftists worldwide share these values. A distinguishing feature of the Chinese new left, however, is that it is not, strictly speaking, an oppositional force. In most of the rest of the world, governments identified with the left or far left (Greece, Bolivia, Uruguay et al) face significant opposition from the further left. Continue reading “The Chinese Left: Contexts and Strategies”

Four Years On: Where is Xi Jinping’s Anti-corruption Drive Headed?

Written by Andrew Wedeman.

As the anti-corruption campaign launched by CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping approaches its fourth anniversary, the question ought to be asked: where is it going? When the drive was first announced in the winter of 2012-2014, it appeared that it would prove a repeat of crackdowns launched by Xi’s predecessors – a burst of sound and fury in which a swarm of rank and file officials – known popularly in China as “flies” – would be detained by the party’s Discipline Inspection Commission, some of whom would then end up being prosecuted by the Procuratorate, and ultimately be packed off to prison by the People’s Courts. In the processes a few senior officials – known as “tigers” – would be “bagged.” Based on past precedent, after a few months, Xi’s crackdown should have ceased being front pages news and quietly faded away – until some new scandal prodded the leadership to once again declare that the party must fight corruption to the death. Continue reading “Four Years On: Where is Xi Jinping’s Anti-corruption Drive Headed?”

Confucianism behind the façade of the Socialist China Dream

Written by Chi Kin Cheung.

Since President Xi Jinping pronounced the notion of China Dream, the idea has attracted great attention from China watchers. However, like many other official formulations of former Chinese leaders, the new China Dream is utterly elusive. As Roderick MacFarquhar, a professor at Harvard, said during the First World Congress on Marxism at Beida in October, Xi Jinping’s China Dream was “not the intellectually coherent, robust and wide-ranging philosophy needed to stand up to Western ideas.” Chinese media was quick to respond, but instead of articulating a clear vision of China Dream to rebuke Prof. MacFarquhar’s critique, they simply fabricated his remark and stated that “Roderick MacFarquhar believed that the notion of Chinese dream put forward by President Xi could be regarded as the innovative development of Marxism, which would has a positive effect on human development.” This statement can still be found on Beida’s website of the event.

The interesting thing is that the fabricated remark put forwarded by Chinese media seems to suggest that China Dream is in some way linked to the country’s socialist tradition. Although socialism already lost its appeal among the general population since the reform and opening, and the downfall of Bo Xilai marked the end of the so-called “Red Culture” he engineered in Chongqing, not many people think that socialism is ready to leave the scene of Chinese politics yet. The recent World Congress on Marxism in Beida is a good example of the official attempt to resuscitate the dying ideology. However, is China’s socialist tradition able to provide any solution to the mounting social problems in China and achieve the glorious revitalization of the nation? Even China’s socialist theorists have expressed doubts when they were asked by the Global Times.

Instead of relying on socialism, President Xi told us that China should make use of Chinese traditional culture. In a study session of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China, President Xi said that despite the need to base China Dream on China’s socialist system, China Dream should also have a Chinese spirit. And Chinese culture embodies a wealth of experience in good governance which should be adopted to solve contemporary problems in China. He further stated that, “in order to govern today’s China well, we need to have an in-depth understanding of our national history and cultural tradition, we also need to consolidate the ancient Chinese explorations on state governance and the wisdoms that we had accumulated”.

Given that ancient Chinese wisdom is key to the socialist China Dream, it is not surprising to see that professors in the Central Party School of the CCP teach us to appreciate the Chinese classics instead of Marxist classics. One of the classics that is receiving attention is Qun Shu Zhi Yao. The book was compiled in AD631 by a group of scholar-officials in early Tang Dynasty (618-907), one of the finest periods in the dynastic history of China. It was a collection of essays on good governance selected from thousands of ancient Chinese texts, including many of the Confucian classics. In a website dedicated to the book, Professor Liu Yuli from the Central Party School provides a series of talks that discuss the advice offered by the Confucian classics on various topics including how to be an uncorrupted government official, the importance of filial piety, and so on. The interest in Confucian classics at the state and popular level is not a new phenomenon. What is different in the recent development is the importance placed on how Confucianism could be used on state governance and to regulate social order.

A similar development can also be found in how Confucius is commemorated. In the past, the ceremonies that commemorate Confucius are mostly related to his birthday and his role as a great teacher. The profile of these ceremonies has been raised significantly with the growing participations of high ranking officials and party leaders including President Xi himself. These ceremonies highlight the important status of Confucius without making any specific reference to the doctrine he proposed. But this has changed with the establishment of the first Museum of Filial Piety in Xichuan this year. The establishment of the museum, which cost about 8 million RMB, was supported by the local government. The new museum is among a series of cultural activities which aim to rejuvenate the virtue of respect for one’s parentS, elders in the family and ancestors, and to instil into the young generation the idea that it is their responsibility to take care of their parents. These cultural events, together with the recent “Elderly Rights Law” that stipulates adult children must visit their parents, are regarded as government’s attempts to tackle the growing problem of lonely elderly people in the countryside. A problem that was the result of the rapid economic growth in the past three decades which has driven millions of migrant workers to work in the cities, leaving their parents in their rural home.

These developments suggest that Confucianism is assuming a new role in China. In addition to being a cultural identity for the Chinese nation and a brand name for foreign consumption, Confucianism is now a solution to China’s state governance and social problems. It is no longer an antithesis to China’s modernization, but is essential to the realization of the socialist China Dream.

Chi Kin Cheung is Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian and Policy Studies, Faculty of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at The Hong Kong Institute of Education. Image Credit: CC by Thierry Ehrmann/Flickr.

Unrest in the Southwest: The fight to join the high-speed rail network

Written by Adam Cathcart and Li Wankun.

Due to the outbreak of social disobedience and subsequent violent confrontation with police, the spotlight has shone this week on Linshui, a small city in the southwestern province of Sichuan. Since 16 May, tens of thousands of residents from Linshui have gathered to demand that a proposed high-speed railway linking Dazhou and Chongqing pass through their county. The railway, resident argue, will facilitate business opportunities and convenience of movement.

However, the authorities planed for the railway to arc more than 200km west and pass through Guang’an, the one-time hometown of the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. Unconfirmed reports suggest that up to four people died and more than 100 were injured due to violent confrontations between marchers and police.

The pictures from the event are not unlike the unfiltered footage from any other mass incidents: They are confusing, displaying of a vague sense of crowded anger, smashed metal, and malevolent force. Facing the shock of this new data, our task as scholars is less to untangle the specific narrative of how the protests were ignited, and to provide context for the broader problems they uncover. To appropriate a Maoist phrase, we may never understand “the spark,” but we can help to understand how it might become “a prairie fire.”

Regions and their Developmental Needs

While much western attention on China’s periphery has tended to focus on obvious sites — the endemically “restive” northwest, the occasionally-flaming sprawl of ethnographic Tibet, or the perpetually looming “crackdown” on refugees on the border with Korea — the Han parts of Sichuan are also possible hotspots of trouble for the central government. Indeed, the Southwest as a whole continues to be problematic in its relationship to the centre, and decisions made in the 1997 (the creation of the Chongqing municipality) and the 1950s are still impacting how local residents view national policy.

One proverb is particularly apropos to this situation: “Want to be rich? Build roads first!” (要想富先修路). While the rhyme may sound fanciful, the expansion of the high-speed rail is taken with great seriousness in China, and its absence has stimulated several demonstrations in rejected counties before.

The current protests should of course be interpreted within their national context – protesters are, in a sense, expressing concerns that could be and have been expressed in any other part of China. From East China (Dengzhou and Xinye, two adjacent counties in Henan Province), to the Central China (Shaoyang and Loudi, two adjacent counties of Hunan Province), and now to the Southwest, people are protesting in order to express their desire to join the high-speed rail network.

As the PRC launches massive propaganda campaigns about “Silk Roads” of prosperity stretching to near infinity (or North Korea), it would be impossible for citizens anywhere to be ignorant of the advantages that could be gained from joining the network.

The Southwest was designated one of the “great regions” in 1949, and the Develop the West campaign was supposed to have brought great infrastructural gains to the region. The economies in Chengdu and Chongqing have done extremely well – they are now overcrowded monuments to ambition, unending mass transit construction, automobile traffic jams, foreign investment magnetism, and manufacturing prowess. The rural areas of Sichuan and around Chongqing (the latter was split off as a special administrative city in 1997) have fared less well, as can be easily recalled in the Wenchuan earthquake, areas of Tibetan majority in Xikang, and the valleys around Chongqing.

Linshui Left Out

For the residents of Linshui, it is a simple matter to look around and see other communities thriving. Chongqing includes a large number of rural communities among its 29 million people, but Linshui is not one of them. Linshui locals require more than two hours of high-speed road driving to Chengdu but less than an hour to Chongqing. In terms of the all-important dialect, Linshui is also much more closer to Chongqing than Chengdu.

Nearby Guang’an clearly has more propaganda value from the standpoint of the central government. In 1996, when the Central Committee was discussing the dimensions of the city district of the new special administrative Chongqing, Li Peng, then the Premier of the PRC, disagreed with the plan that put Guang’an (including Linshui County) as one part of Chongqing. One of the reasons is that Deng Xiaoping always said, “I am a Sichuanese” – how could the CCP honor Deng if his hometown were pulled into Chongqing’s orbit so explicitly? The other reason was that Guang’an had many poor counties like Linshui around it, and the population for Chongqing was already huge. Li Peng said “small horses pull a huge carriage”(小马拉大车). In other words, counties needed to serve the goals of urban areas. As “a small horse,” Linshui’s development in terms of GDP was far behind that other counties in Sichuan or Chongqing, so it would add little to the statistical bonanza that the new Chongqing boundaries was meant to create.

Meanwhile, Chongqing has fewer and fewer problems getting what it needed. As a port city connecting the Jialing and Yangtze Rivers, it could attract sufficient attention from the center. Much like the gangs on the Chaotianmen wharf controlling the port management in the ancient time, city bureaucrats could get what they needed.

Linshui’s perpetually peripheral status means that their inhabitants obviously feel left out of China’s transportation boom and its economic benefits. Looking even further back at the history of the Southwest in the consolidation period of the PRC risks taking on an obscure analytical lens, but in fact, many of the issues remain the same.

Angry at the State

Recent CPI writing about Sichuan has mirrored broader media trends, in that its analysis of the province has tended to fixate on big personalities. When the personalities involved are Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, and a security chief who smuggled himself into the US Consulate in Chengdu in the boot of a car, Wang Lijun, it would be foolish to argue that such writing is not significant, or has little bearing on the future of the PRC; quite the opposite! Ever since Sidney Rittenberg telegraphed Bo’s fall in a New York Times interview in November 2009, this metastasizing factional and internal struggle has been a driver of both narrative and policy. But beyond these ‘bangpai’, and the colourful trials of Chongqing gangs which happened from 2009 to 2011, we can recall a history of southwestern corruption and difficulty in relations with the central government.

Sichuan’s unique history has left particular scars amongst the population when it looks to Beijing. Even very young people without personal experience of the Mao years can easily connect to family histories. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the province was among the most violent in terms of Red Guard factions and reprisals. Looking further back, Sichuan, of course, was a Guomindang stronghold from 1938-1946. It was not coincidental that Jiang Jieshi’s last weeks on the mainland in November and December 1949 were spent not in Fujian, but in Chengdu. Judging from the rather extensive paper trail recently revealed in the December 2013 publication of Volume 1 of his revised and expanded NianpuMao was extremely sensitive about consolidating the broader southwest. The Sichuan People’s Government was set up in early 1950, and the Land Reform Movement was started quite late.

As the CCP extended its control over the region’s land and grains, Sichuan became a high-producing area during the First-five Year Plan. From 1953-1958, Sichuan harvested 10 billion kilograms of grains, and 8.1 billion kilograms were transported to other regions. In other words, about 70% of the allocated grains were transported out of Sichuan province by the Yangtze River and 60% were transshipped at Chongqing. Once the famine began during the Great Leap Forward, scholars like Chris Bramall and Cao Shuji indicate, Sichuan’s death rate was among the highest nationally.

The Southwest as an area has a unique local history and a multiplicity of ethnicities, and when looking at it, we need we pay more attention to collective experiences there and not just high-powered individuals or corruption cases. The protesters in Linshui have a strong memory of local history, and have experienced a sharp contrast in comparison with surrounding counties in the contemporary era. Because the CCP will continue to deploy physical repression mixed with media censorship, it seems that protests are unlikely to spread from Linshui. But there is cause for concern, and looking back at the legacy of central-peripheral relations in Sichuan since the founding of the PRC might yet yield lessons.

Adam Cathcart is a lecturer in Chinese history at the University of Leeds, and tweets at @adamcathcart. Li Wankun is a doctoral student in Chinese history at Leeds. Image credit: CC by David Almeida/Flickr

Xi Jinping’s Tiger Hunt

Written by Andrew Hall Wedeman.

The Communist Party of China has been grappling with corruption almost from its birth. It has waged major anti-corruption campaigns repeatedly and routinely prosecutes substantial numbers of officials. Between 1997 and 2012 the Supreme People’s Procuratorate reported that it indicted 550,000 individuals on either corruption or dereliction of duty charges, including two members of the Politburo (Chen Liangyu in 2006 and Bo Xilai in 2012). These prior efforts notwithstanding, upon assuming the office of General Secretary of the party in November 2012, Xi Jinping announced yet another campaign. At first, the campaign appeared to be a repeat of the same old song and dance that we saw during the tenure of Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao. Many of the steely toned slogans about the necessity to vigorously wage a life and death struggle against corruption and the need to put an end to extravagant spending by officials and cadres had been raised many times before. Announcements of new regulations mandating fewer dishes at official banquets, banning the purchase of luxury sedans and their use for unofficial business, restrictions on official travel, and the construction of lavish government buildings all reiterated orders issued in past years. At first, therefore, it seemed we could expect yet another public relations effort aimed at convincing an increasingly cynical society that the party was serious about fighting corruption.

Sixteen months on, however, it appears that far from a smoke and mirrors attempt to create the impression of action, Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign may well be the most sustained and most intensive drive against corruption since the advent of the reform era in the late 1970s. Measuring the intensity of an anti-corruption campaign is, admittedly, a tricky business given that we cannot even roughly estimate the true extent of corruption. Instead, we can at best guess at the extent by asking experts for their impression of how bad things are or tracking changes in the number of officials who suddenly stop being corrupt because they get caught. Indices such as the popular Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) published each year by Transparency International would have us believe that rather than getting worse as most people assume, corruption in China has actually been on the decline for at least a decade, with its score falling from 7.6 (out of a maximum of 10, where 10 is the most corrupt and 1 the least corrupt) in 1995 to 6.0 in 2013, which would put China just below the 75 percentile and hence not among the worst of the worse.

Data on prosecutions tell a rather different story. The number of criminal indictments was up 9.4 percent in 2013, with the total number of corruption and derelictions cases filed by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate increasing from 34,326 in 2012 to 37,551 in 2013. The number of officials holding position at the county and departmental level indicted rose from 2,390 to 2,618, a 9.5 percent increase. The number of officials the prefectural and bureau level indicted shot up more dramatically, increasing from 179 in 2012 to 253 in 2013, a 41.4 percent jump. Although 9 percent increases in the total number of cases and in the number of county and department officials indicted may seem modest for a highly trumpeted campaign, these increases are nevertheless not insignificant. Up until 2012, the total number of indictments had been falling slowly for close to a decade, while the number of county and departmental official indicated had generally falling. Increases in 2013, moreover, follow on more modest increases in 2012, with the result that the total number of indictments in 2013 was 16.2 percent more than in 2011 and the number of country and department officials indicted was up 12.6 percent compared to 2011. More critically, the 41 percent increase in prefectural and bureau level officials indicted is the largest increase since 2004, and represents a 27.8 percent rise over 2011. Finally, eight officials at the provincial and ministry levels were indicted, compared to five in 2012. The party’s Discipline Inspection Commission (DIC) also reported a 13.3 percent increase in the number of party members who faced disciplinary action, though not all of them were necessarily punished for corruption related infractions.

Changes in the number of indictments handed down by the procuratorate and party members sanctioned by the DIC tell only part of the story. Many of those reported as under investigation in the past year are still undergoing scrutiny by the party and have not yet been remanded to the judiciary for criminal investigation and possible prosecution. Figures based on the calendar year are also imperfect indicators because the current campaign began in late 2012 and has continued on into 2014. Nonetheless, the data do seem to indicate that Xi’s campaign is hitting harder, particularly at the more senior levels.

It is also possible to look at what sort of corruption a campaign is targeting and who is getting caught to get a more nuanced sense of whether Xi’s campaign is a paper tiger or a real tiger hunt. China’s ongoing efforts to curb corruption are often described as a “war” and it is thus convenient to use war as a way to deconstruct the current campaign. The campaign can be decomposed into four distinct fronts. At the grassroots level the regime is fighting a guerrilla war in which whistleblowers and netizens have used social media to expose brazen examples of corruption and degenerate official behavior. Videos of officials laughing at the site of fatal highway accidents, photos of them sporting watches they could never legitimately afford, smoking outrageously priced cigarettes, documents identifying poorly paid low-level bureaucrats as the owners of multiple luxury condominiums and villas, videos of cadres playing sex games with their mistresses, drinking, and womanizing have repeatedly gone viral within China despite the efforts of the army of “ten cent” internet censors, forcing the government and party to move with unheard of speed to sack and indict officials. But the internet front of Xi’s war on corruption is a bush war in which most of the corrupt officials exposed are low-level officials who were so foolish or so greedy that they failed to remember that corruption should kept discrete. Viral videos, nevertheless, show that the regime can no longer carefully orchestra and calibrate its struggle against corruption for maximal public relations impact and minimal negative fallout.

Parallel to the internet guerrilla war, the regime continues to wage a protracted war of attrition against low and mid-level corruption. This part of the push against corruption resembles trench warfare: an ever lengthening list of casualties but scant evidence of real advances. In recent years, prosecutors have indicted about 35,000 individual on economic crime charges each year, the bulk of whom are officials holding posts below the county and departmental leadership levels. The fighting on this front in 2013 seems a bit more intense than in past years. Based on a survey of cases reported in the press and on the Discipline Inspection Commission’s website, it appears that more “tiger cubs” – senior party cadres and officials holding posts just below the county and department levels – have been bagged, along with the usual large numbers of “flies” – junior officials and party cadres. At present, however, it appears that the regime has not made any real breakthroughs on this front and has yet to begin significantly reducing the aggregate number corrupt officials.

The third front in Xi’s attack is a drive against “commercial bribery,” including corruption in the domestic and foreign business sectors. Although official corruption receives the bulk of public attention, corruption often involves both a supply side (officials willing to use their authority for illicit private gain) and a demand side (private parties willing to pay officials to use their authority for illicit private gain). Corporate actors, moreover, can use the authority delegated to them to pursue illicit gains. Procurement managers, for example, can demand kickbacks from potential venders. Financial officers may deposit corporate funds in banks that offer them bribes. Although the data are thin, it appears that inter-firm corruption is widespread in China and that a “culture of corruption” exists in which bribery and corruption are viewed as a normal part of doing business. Chinese prosecutors began cracking down on corruption in the business sector in about 2006. In the spring of 2013, they intensified these attacks and expanded their targets to include foreign businesses. In recent years, prosecutors in both the United States and the United Kingdom have gone after American and British companies for paying bribes to Chinese officials and companies. In the spring of 2013, Chinese prosecutors joined in that fight, going after evidence that foreign pharmaceutical and medical equipment vendors in particular frequently turn a blind eye to the illicit means used by their sales force to book orders and the complex dodges used by “consultants” and other middlemen to secure contracts and close deals. Although it might be tempting to chalk up investigations into corruption by foreign companies to a combination of increasingly strident Chinese nationalism and demands emanating from China’s powerful state-owned companies to weaken their commercial rivals, objectively attacking the demand side for corruption is critically important. To paraphrase Mao’s classic argument in On Guerrilla War, to make serious inroads into official corruption Chinese prosecutors have to curtail a culture of corruption that encourages private parties to look to bribes as a normal fact of doing business. As with the second front, progress in the fight against commercial corruption is not likely to result in swift victories. But the key here is that the regime continues to fight, a fact which seems evidenced by the fact that the number of individuals indicted by the procurators for paying bribes was reportedly up 18.6 percent in 2013, rising from 4,650 to 5,515, while the Procuratorate reported it investigated and sanctioned 4,549 officials for their involvement in commercial bribery.

The final aspect of Xi’s war on corruption is a high flying aerial combat in which corruption often becomes a weapon in factional infighting. Any scandal involving a senior official is inherently political. At a minimum, prosecutors have to receive high-level political approval to look into allegations of corruption among top officials. High level scandals also create political opportunities. Xi’s current campaign is no different. Triggered by the exposure of Neil Heywood’s death and allegation that Bo Xilai’s wife either killed him or had him killed, the current drive has spawned a series of investigations into corruption in the oil sector and Sichuan Province that seem to implicate former Politburo Standing Committee Member and former Chairman of the Central Committee’s powerful Politics and Law Committee Zhou Yongkang. According to insiders, in the run up to the November 2012 Eighteenth Party Congress, Zhou had been pushing Chongqing Party Secretary, Politburo Member, and so-called “Red Princeling” Bo Xilai as a leftist counterweight to Hu Jintao’s heir apparent Xi Jinping. Bo’s abrupt fall from power clearly removed a potential political rival, while investigations into corruption involving PetroChina Chairman Jiang Jiemin, PetroChina Deputy Manager Li Hualin, Chengdu Party Secretary Li Chuncheng, Hainan Vice Governor Ji Wenlin, Vice Minister for Public Security Zheng Shaodong, former Sichuan Vice Governor Guo Yongxiang, , and former Chairman of the Hubei Party Committee’s Politics and Law Committee Wu Yongwen, all of whom worked with Zhou at one point or another, enabled Xi – or others – to take out many of the now retired Zhou’s protégés, as well as a large number of individuals linked to them in the business sector.

In recent weeks, several of Zhou’s close relatives have been detained and it now seems only a matter of time before his son Zhou Bin, who believed to be in detention, is formally arrested and charged with taking advantage of his father’s connections and power to build a business empire based on the energy and property development sectors. Rumors have also linked the younger Zhou to Liu Han, a Sichuan business tycoon recently arrested on charges he was actually the leader of an organized crime syndicate and that he had ordered the murder of a series of rival mobsters. Multiple signs in the official and unofficial media now seem to indicate that Xi will drag Zhou out, possible soon after the conclusion of the current National People’s Congress session. If he does, Zhou will be the biggest tiger ever bagged and, perhaps more significantly, the biggest tiger bagged not because of an “accident” such as those that exposed Chen Xitong, Chen Liangyu, and Bo Xilai, but rather by a very systematic, step-by-step hunt that first bagged the tiger’s “cubs” and then snared the king of the tigers himself.

The scale and scope of the high-level, heavily political portion of Xi’s campaign differentiates the current campaign from its predecessors in the post-Mao era. The current campaign is clearly more sustained and apparently more intense. It is now sixteen months old and by all indications more senior officials and cadres, perhaps as many as 31, have been investigated, expelled from the party, sacked, indicted by the Procuratorate, or tried than in any other post 1978 period. How many are ultimately brought down by Xi’s campaign remains to be seen and it may be months before the ultimate scale and intensity of the campaign become clear. Regardless of what the coming weeks and months bring, however, it seems clear that Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is no storm in a tea cup.

Gauging the long-term and broader political impact of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is difficult because the campaign is still apparently in high gear. Anti-corruption campaigns seek to achieve three goals. First, they seek to cull out officials who have turned corrupt. Second, they seek to deter those who are now tempted or who might be tempted in the future. As evidenced by the number of indictment and investigations, it is possible that Xi campaign has cut into the ranks of the corruption, but how far is uncertain. Even more uncertain is whether the bagging of this crop of tigers will scare other potential tigers and flies. Third, anti-corruption campaigns seek to convince the public that a regime is serious about fighting corruption, particularly in the highest places. Bringing down Zhou, or even just his protégées, along with other senior officials, may convince ordinary Chinese that this time the regime is really determined to deal with corruption. Ultimately, however, the real proof will be in the follow through. Should the fight against corruption fall off when all of the sound and fury of the current campaign comes to an end, then it is likely that the public will sink deeper into cynicism and dismiss the campaign as political knife fight in which a lot of flies and tiger cubs were killed to cloak the true reasons for the drive. Should, however, Xi continue to press the attack on corruption, including high level corruption, then he might well succeed in moving China’s war on corruption forward and thereby bolster his regime’s legitimacy.

Andrew Wedeman is Professor in the Department of Political Science at Georgia State University. A version of this post appeared in Chinese in the Financial Times Chinese edition on March 17 available online here.

Xi Jinping’s Anti-corruption Campaign and the Third Plenum

Written by Andrew Hall Wedeman.

A year ago, Xi Jinping assumed the office of General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CCP) in the wake of the most serious corruption scandal since 2006 when Shanghai Municipal Party Secretary Chen Liangyu was caught diverting upwards of Y40 billion (US$4.8 billion) from the municipal pension fund to speculative real estate and financial investments. In February 2012, Wang Lijun, who had headed the Chongqing Public Security Bureau until being abruptly “re-assigned” four days earlier to head the city’s educational and environmental offices, fled to the US Consulate in Chengdu allegedly in hopes of obtaining political asylum in the United States. Wang’s failed “defection” brought to light allegations that Politburo member and Chongqing Municipal Party Secretary Bo Xilai’s wife Gu Kailai had murdered an English businessman in an out of the way Chongqing hotel. In the weeks that followed, the Chinese rumor mill buzzed about possible coup plots involving Bo and the head of the party’s legal and security committee Zhou Yongkang. Wang, Gu, and Bo was subsequently convicted of bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power, with Wang also being convicted of treason. Coming hard on the heels of a scandal involving the former Minister of Railways Liu Zhijun, the Bo case put Xi under tremendous pressure to launch a major anti-corruption campaign as soon as he entered office. In his first speech as CCP General Secretary, Xi declared:

There are many pressing problems within the Party that needs to be resolved urgently, especially the graft and corruption cases that occurred to some of the Party members and cadres, being out of touch from the general public, bureaucracy and undue emphasis on formalities — they must be resolved with great efforts. The whole Party must be vigilant against them. To forge iron, one must be strong. Our responsibility is to work with all comrades in the party, to make sure the party supervises its own conduct and enforces strict discipline… (CNN, 11/15/2012).

In a subsequent address to the Politburo, Xi doubled down, saying:

A mass of facts tells us that if corruption becomes increasingly serious, it will inevitably doom the party and the state. We must be vigilant. In recent years, there have been cases of grave violations of disciplinary rules and laws within the party that have been extremely malign in nature and utterly destructive politically, shocking people to the core. (NYT, 11/19/2012).

Strong words, however, only have meaning if they are translated into concrete actions. As the party approaches its Third Plenum a key question is how vigorously has Xi attacked high level corruption over the past year?

Measuring the intensity of an anti-corruption campaign is difficult. Absent any way of measuring the actual rate of corruption it is impossible to know if inroads are being made into the number of officials who are corrupt. It is possible, however, to crudely track changes in the intensity of enforcement by looking at changes in the reported number of officials detained. Figures released in October 2013 on the number of corruption cases “filed” by the Procuratorate suggest that the total number of cases was up about 3.8% in the first eight months of 2013 compared to the same period in 2012. Other figures released by the Procuratorate for all of 2012, however, reported a 5.4% increase in cases filed that year and a 6.4% increase in the number of individuals charged. If the two sets of data are comparable, which they may not be, the more recent data would suggest that Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has not produced much of an increase in the number of officials charged with corruption. Moreover, past experience suggests that using partial year figures to extrapolate totals for the year tends yield overestimates. It thus seems likely that Xi’s new campaign will not produce a significant increase in the number of corruption cases filed but will instead yield numbers approximately equal to those we have seen over the past decade (see Figure: Trends in Corruption).


Numbers, however, tell only part of the story. To more fully assess Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, one must look at who has been targeted. According to press reports, thus far Xi’s campaign has claimed eight “tigers” – high level, high profile officials (see Table 1). Eight senior officials is about the number of senior officials indicted on corruption charges in recent years (five were indicted in 2012, seven in 2011, six in 2010, and eight in 2009). Xi’s campaign has, however, also snared a number of senior executives of major state-owned companies, including over half a dozen executives of the China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) and its subsidiaries Sinopec and PetroChina, as well as a number of mid-level officials and business persons linked to Li Chuncheng, a former Deputy Secretary of the Sichuan Provincial Party Committee. Arrests of executives, in fact, is one of the few aspects of the current campaign that set it apart from previous drives.

Table 1


Big Tigers


Li Chuncheng Deputy Party Secretary, Sichuan
Liu Tienan Vice Minister State Development and Reform Commission
Wu Yongwen Deputy Director Hubei People’s Congress Standing Committee
General Gu Junshan Deputy Commander PLA General Logistics Department
Huang Sheng Vice Governor Shandong
Ni Fake Vice Governor Anhui
Tian Xueren Vice Governor Jilin
General Xi Caihou Vice Chairman PLA Central Military Commission

Many of those detained have direct or indirect ties to former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang (see Figure 2). A native of Wuxi in Jiangsu, Zhou was trained as a petroleum engineer in the mid-1960s and worked in the Liaohe oilfields in Liaoning until he was appointed Vice Minister of the Ministry of Petroleum Industry in 1983. Five years later, he moved to CNPC, servicing as deputy party secretary and then party secretary before becoming its General Manager in 1996. A year later, he was elected a full member of the 15th CCP Central Committee. In 1998, he was appointed Minister for Land and Resources but then moved to Sichuan to become secretary of the provincial party committee in 1999. Four years later, he returned to Beijing when he was appointed Minister for Public Security and became a member of the Politburo at the 16th Party Congress. In 2007, he left the Ministry of Public Security to become the Secretary and then Director of the Central Committee’s powerful Politics and Law Commission, a position that put Zhou in charge of China’s internal security and police apparatus, and was elected a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, positions he held until the 18th Party Congress in 2012, at which point he retired. In the course of his career Zhou apparently built up a sprawling network of protégés in the oil, resources, and security apparatus. In the spring of 2012, he was rumored to be connected to Bo Xilai and his campaign to gain a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee. Today, many see Zhou as a threat to General Secretary Xi Jinping’s efforts to consolidate power within the leadership. It is widely speculated, therefore, that Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is actually a cover for a major drive against Zhou and his allies. Some observers have, in fact, linked the announcement of a new National Security Council as Xi’s attempt to bypass Zhou’s allies in the party’s Law and Politics apparatus.

andy 2

Targeting Zhou and his allies is, however, a potentially dicey proposition because Zhou has ties to Zeng Qinghong, a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, who is said to have played a major role in Zhou’s accent to the inner leadership. Zeng, who worked in the petroleum sector before moving to the Shanghai municipal party committee in 1984, is considered be to one of Jiang Zemin’s “Shanghai Gang,” a group that also includes former Politburo Standing Committee member Huang Ju and former Shanghai party secretary Chen Liangyu, the latter now serving an eighteen years sentence after being convicted of corruption in 2008. Should Xi opt to take down Zhou, there could be a considerable risk that he would foment a major political backlash lead by some of the party’s most powerful elders.

If part of the current anti-corruption campaign is being driven by Xi’s need to consolidate his power within the leadership and respond to public pressures for a new drive against corruption unleashed by the Bo case, the dynamics of the campaign have been driven in part by forces that Xi does not control. Over the past several years, social media has played an increasingly important role in exposing corrupt officials. During the early days of the current campaign, reports on the internet fingering officials for owning multiple luxury apartments, sporting luxury watches, and engaging in immoral activity led to a series of quick resignations, sackings, and arrests. Most of those exposed on the internet were mid or low-level officials. Nevertheless, social media had made it impossible for these sorts of officials to quickly sweep allegations against them under the rug and quash attempts to expose their wrongdoing. The threat of uncontrolled outings clearly spooked the regime, which responded with draconian regulations that would criminalize those who spread “rumors” on the internet. Thus far, it appears that the new rules have had a chilling effect and there has been a notable dropping off in social media reports of corruption.

At the Third Plenum in November 2013, corruption received surprisingly little attention. Xi did not take the opportunity to report dramatic progress or to unveil bold new measures designed to curb corruption. Instead, he opted to stress economic reform and announced reforms of the judicial system designed to increase its independence from the political establishment. The lack of attention to corruption during the plenum likely signals Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has run its course and that it will be allowed to quietly die down. Based on the available evidence, the campaign does not seem to have made noticeable inroads into China’s corruption problem. A lack of dramatic progress is, ultimately, hardly surprising. A war on corruption is by definition a protracted fight in which the regime “wins” by preventing corruption from worsening. The officials caught in the current campaign did not become corrupt under Xi. On the contrary, most had been on the take for years or even decades. As such, Xi is now fighting to clean up a mess created under his predecessors, neither of whom made great strides toward eradicating corruption.

Andrew Wedeman is Professor in the Department of Political Science at Georgia State University. Among others he is the author of The Double Paradox of Rapid Growth and Rising Corruption in China (Cornell, 2012).

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