The new head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and soon-to-be president, Xi Jinping, has started off his reign with a sweeping anti-corruption campaign. Since taking office in November 2012, Xi has spoken out strongly of the need to tackle corruption, describing it as a threat to the very survival of the communist party. In a speech to officials of the CCP’s anti-corruption watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), Xi warned of the dangers corruption posed for China by highlighting it as a contributing factor that led to the recent toppling of regimes across North Africa.
The officials have started to fall. The most high-ranking bureaucrat to be investigated so far is Li Chuncheng, the former deputy party secretary of Sichuan, a province, and an alternative member of the Central Committee, one of China’s highest-level state organs. He is alleged to have received kickbacks in relation to land development projects in Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital.
The greediest official netted to date is Zhao Haibin, a Public Security Bureau official in Lufeng, a small city in eastern Guangdong province. He is alleged to have illegally acquired around 200 properties in Lufeng and other cities across Guangdong. Xi has also called on officials to tone down displays of extravagance, such as lavish dinners and official motorcades. Hotels and restaurants in Beijing are reportedly suffering financially as a result. Earlier this month, Zhou Shaoqiang, a manager of a state-owned enterprise in Zhuhai was excoriated in the Chinese blogosphere after a photo emerged of a private dinner party he hosted. The photo of empty wine bottles, which was posted online by one of the dinner guests, appears to show that thousands of dollars worth of wine was consumed at the dinner. Zhou was apparently investigated and suspended from his position.
We’ve seen this before
Anti-corruption campaigns, of course, are nothing new in China, and fresh campaigns are often kicked-off following a leadership transition. They serve to boost public support for the new leader and the party, and in some cases, are used for new leaders to consolidate their power by purging rivals. Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, labelled corruption a key challenge facing the CCP and kicked-off his own anti-corruption crusade in December 2003, two months after being sworn in as general secretary. China analysts suggest Hu used the disciplinary power of CCDI to consolidate his power when several of his political rivals were investigated for corruption in 2006. Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin, branded public corruption ‘a virus that threatens Communist rule’ after he had assumed office in 1993. As with Xi today, he also ordered officials to present a more humble image and ordered officials to trade in their imported cars for Chinese-made models.
Is this time different?
Maybe. First, the China Xi has inherited is different from the one Hu presided over for much of his decade in office. Unlike when Hu took power in the early 2000s, Xi will have to contend with a larger online community of netizens that have increasingly played a role in exposing corrupt officials.
A good example of their efforts is the fall of Yang Dacai, a local official in northwest Shaanxi province. He gained notoriety after a photo showed him smiling (see photo left) at the scene of a collision between a bus and a tanker truck in Shaanxi that killed 36 people. His smile, which Yang said was his attempt to reduce tensions at the crash site, outraged netizens and Yang became the target of what is known as a ‘human flesh search’. These are online collaborative efforts to identify the backgrounds of individuals and are often done to expose seemingly corrupt officials. The results of their background check found several online photos of Yang attending official events in which he is wearing several luxury watches, timepieces that should be out of reach for an official on a modest government salary.
Yang, whose taste in luxury watches earned him the nickname ‘watch-wearing brother’, was subsequently put under investigation and relieved of his position. Second, the appointment of Wang Qishan as the new head of China’s anti-corruption watchdog is likely to be a positive step in the effort to fight corruption in China. Wang is a widely respected Chinese politician and is best-known for his crisis management skills. While his expertise is in finance he is considered by analysts to be a reformer and, therefore, perhaps more likely to implement meaningful, institutional, changes to limit the opportunities for corruption in the CCP.
But corruption is entrenched…
China’s online activist community will play a role in exposing the corrupt official who, like ‘watch-wearing brother’ had the misfortune of being caught online flaunting a lifestyle that is seemingly at odds with his income. Being exposed by the online mob will grab headlines and help to placate a public tired of official malfeasance but it will only scratch the surface of China’s corruption problem. It is not a substitute for institutional measures to reduce the opportunities for corruption. Deng Xiaopeng once said ‘to get rich is glorious’. In today’s China one of the surest routes to wealth is to become a senior government official.
Li Chuncheng reportedly bribed his way to a senior post in the 1990s when he was an official in Heilongjiang province in north east China. And as deputy party secretary in Sichuan, he reportedly sold lower-level government posts and also appointed his wife to a senior position in the local Red Cross chapter after it received huge donations following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Other anecdotal reports suggest that buying official positions in China is a widespread practice. Whether Xi Jinping’s corruption crusade is ultimately effective will be dependent upon the Chinese leadership’s willingness and ability to implement broader reforms. There are plans to trial some anti-corruption measures in Guangdong this year, such as requiring officials to publicly disclose their personal and family assets. Enacting these nationally would be a good start (some senior officials are required to make such disclosures but this information is closely protected by the CCP).
Ultimately, in order to roll-back the entrenchment of corruption in China, the CCP will need to surrender some power (some of which, as we have discussed above, netizens have taken for themselves) by allowing a more independent press to develop and allow for the development of an independent judiciary to act as check on the power of the CCP. Xi’s crusade shows no signs, yet, of taking these steps.