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Catching ‘tigers and flies’; By Shastri Ramachandaran

C3S Paper No. 0209/2015

Courtesy: DNA

Even as political stalwarts continue to fall, there is no let up in Xi Jinping’s fight against corruption

Fourteen months after the celebrated “princeling” Bo Xilai’s conviction for bribery, graft and abuse of power — which was expected to create problems for the Communist leadership — President Xi Jinping appears unstoppable in his campaign against corruption. The high-profile case, which jolted the Communist Party of China (CPC) and rattled many of its bosses, also tested President Xi’s power to ride out the storm, his grip over the party, his political mettle and his resolve to stay the course.

That Xi has shrugged off putative challenges to his authority, and the fight against corruption continues to be central to his political agenda, is borne out by the fifth plenary session of the 18th Central Committee of the CPC held in the last week of October. The plenary saw the sacking of 10 senior officials on corruption charges. If this show of resolve to sustain China’s most sweeping anti-corruption campaign did not attract due attention, it is because the two-child policy grabbed both media headlines and public eyeballs. Besides, the focus of the fifth plenum’s four-day deliberations was the 13th Five-year Plan.

Some observers believe that the CPC, for practical reasons, does not want to be seen as over-emphasising the war against corruption. Firstly, the leadership wants to project the campaign in the “business-as-usual” mode, where prosecuting the corrupt is the norm. Secondly, when big fish are caught, excessive publicity can create avoidable political ripples, a la Bo Xilai. And, this in turn, tends to blunt the edge of the campaign.

Although Bo Xilai is no longer in the public eye, his case scripted the course and nature of the anti-corruption campaign. It was a critical test for the CPC in general, and for President Xi, in particular. One, while few denied that Bo was guilty, the speculation that he was made an example of, to protect other, more powerful, figures, became a diversion. Two, the spotlight on high-level corruption and prosecution of the guilty — not only of Bo but others as well — was hasty, and superficial, compared to the purges in the time of Mao and during the rule of the former Soviet Union. Three, the trial of Bo itself was dramatised and likened to the Moscow “show trials” of the Stalin era. All these presumptions and perceptions were problematic.

And this held out important lessons, which the CPC leadership learned quickly. The first was the need to advance the fight against corruption more vigorously; rally the party and its instruments so that the focus remained on fighting corruption and those resisting that fight. The second lesson was the need to broaden and deepen the campaign against both the sharks and the minnows; and, to allow no room for accusations of being selective. The third — deriving from Bo’s public trial — was to impress that the prosecution, and conviction, of the corrupt conformed to due process, and was fair and legal.

It is in this context that on January 22, 2013, Xi Jinping made the statement about “cracking down at the same time on tigers and flies”. The message was that regardless of who was involved, no leniency would be shown, and no exceptions made, in dealing with breach of party discipline and law.

The point was effectively driven home by investigations into other high-level corruption cases soon after Bo was put in the dock. Among the heavyweights to be prosecuted was Zhou Yongkang, member of the party’s 17th Politburo Standing Committee and Secretary of the Commission for Political and Legal Affairs, which oversees security, intelligence and law enforcement. Another one to fall was Jiang Jiemin, Minister of the Assets Supervision and Administration Commission. These prosecutions took place in 2013. Since then, routinely, “corrupt officials” have been named, removed from their jobs and party positions, charged, tried and sentenced. The process continues and has become the “norm”. No landmark political event passes without focussing on corruption.

The fifth plenum in October — which saw the expulsion of 10 former senior officials (all “tigers”) — was no exception. Topping the list of the expelled for “abuse of power, bribery, embezzling public funds and leaking state secrets” was Ling Jihua, former vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference National Committee. Ling, who, also headed the United Front Work Department of the CPC Central Committee, was accused of using his position to help others to make profits and accept bribes.

Hardly a day since has passed without a report or comment in media, or a press release from the party or government informing of investigations against officials, some of them prosecuted, removed from their posts and even jailed. ‘Instructive’ articles on types and channels of corruption, on what constitutes corrupt practice and how these are to be avoided, are also routinely published. International investors and their countries of origin seem to favour the cleansing process because it contributes to the “ease of doing business” and “lowers the cost” of business. There is also a China Discipline Inspection and Supervision Daily (CDIS Daily), which is perhaps, the most avidly read newspaper in China today.

To those who might worry at the axing of political “tigers” in the anti-corruption campaign, the CPC could well point out that even others involved in economic crimes, financial violations and dubious stock market deals, are not being spared. Days after the fifth plenum, Shanghai’s deputy mayor and director of the financial hub’s free trade zone, Ai Baojun, was named and shamed on the website of the CPC’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI).

The CCDI is the most feared entity in Chinatoday. Ai is the first municipal-level functionary in Shanghai to go since the campaign was launched three years ago. The next day, a corruption probe began into the dealings of the deputy party chief of Beijing municipality, Lyu Xiwen. With these two cases, as the CDIS Daily reported on November 12, “all provincial-level administrative regions of the Chinese mainland have one or more senior officials under investigation on charges of corruption”.

To disabuse the impression of any political motive behind the moves, the CDIS Daily commented: “Whenever a “tiger” is hunted, people ask questions about the timing of the announcement and try to guess whether there is any unspoken rule the disciplinary agency follows. The fall of Ai and Lyu might provide good fuel for gossip, because every province and municipality has a tiger being caged. […] Since the CPC’s 18th National Congress in 2012, 79 senior officials, including five of the Party’s Central Committee, have been expelled for corruption.”

These are the trends that define the contemporary times in China: President Xi is lauded abroad for his Chinese “prescriptions” for global economic recovery, and, at home, for prescribing his bitter medicine to cure the nation of corruption.

The author is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator

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