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China: Xi Jinping’s Anti-Corruption Drive to Net More ‘Tigers’? By D.S.Rajan

C3S Paper No. 0075/ 2015


“The fight against corruption is a long-term, complicated and arduous task. Anti-corruption efforts must be consistent and must never slacken. The  Party should crack down on tigers  and flies  at the same time,  by dealing with illegal activities of officials on the one hand and tackling malpractices and corruption cases, which closely impact people, on the other”-   Xinhua, quoting the speech given by the  Chinese Communist Party (CCP)  General Secretary Xi Jinping  at the  plenary meeting of the CCP  Central Discipline Inspection Commission  (CDIC), held on  22.1.2013

  1. The quote mentioned above, needs to be read together with Xi Jinping’s statement made at the beginning of this year (13.1.2015) that “counter- corruption work is a matter of life-or-death for the Party. A landslide victory is yet to be won and the work is far from over”. They indeed convey a strong message that the current wave of anti-corruption campaign in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which began in late 2012, will not stop and progress further despite some domestic reservations coming to notice. Interestingly, such reservations have reportedly come from China’s leaders of previous generations, but still influential, like Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao (The Diplomat, quoting Financial Times, 4.4.2014). On their part, the Chinese party and state-controlled media (Cai Xin, 11.3.2015) have themselves admitted the existence of viewpoints in China that anti-corruption work will hamper the country’s economic development and damage reputation and image of the government. What the CDIC website has said appears to be significant. Admitting  in the last week of February 2015 that some in China are calling for an end to the campaign under fears that it will go too far if continues, it hinted at the chances of the campaign covering some more  targets which, as it sees, are ‘hidden by complex, interwoven political, financial and contractual relationships’.  This suggests that the campaign will not fold up, but will proceed further with the objective of exposing some ‘hidden’ forces.   Elaborating this point has been Xi Jinping’s attack (14.10.2014) on cliques and factions formed by some party members.

  2. The anti- corruption campaign in China has already spread to all fields in the country – the party and government at the Centre and provinces, economy, legal system, the military and even State Owned Undertakings, national security and foreign affairs. Revealing the magnitude of the corruption-related problems in the country has been the huge number of investigation cases being officially reported. In 2014, the authorities punished 71748 officials and imposed sanctions on 270,000 cadres on corruption charges (China Daily, 7.1.2015). In particular, the cases of 68 high level officials, more than 40 of them at ministerial level and above including 4 state leaders, were investigated or closed in the same year (Xinhua, 15.1.2015). 16 senior People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers at the Corps level and beyond have also been brought under investigation in 2014 (english.cri.cn, 16.1.2015). The CDIC’s role within the country is widening; it has set up offices in seven central party and state organizations including the CCP General Office, Organization Department, Publicity Department and  United Front Work Department. Its cells are operating in all regional party and government units including the State Owned Undertakings (Xinhua, 12.12.2014).  Its inspection teams have visited all the 31 provinces/regions in the country. The CDIC’s new office of anti corruption fugitive repatriation and asset recovery, has been instrumental in bringing 500 suspected corrupt officials based overseas back to the country and recovering assets worth US$  4. 483  million (People’s Daily, 5.3.2015).

  3. The campaign is undeniably enjoying enormous public support. What was the need for it is not difficult to decipher. The CCP under Xi Jinping has come to realize   that corruption and ideological impurity within it, are affecting its image as the ruling party and that a way has to be found to eradicate them. Not to be missed at the same time is that such conditions, perceived as negative factors to party stability, existed in China’s earlier periods also; in fact, Xi seems to be just following the footsteps of his predecessors in fighting them. Examples are Mao’s “Three-anti/Five-anti campaigns” of 1951 targeting capitalists, Deng Xiaoping’s call in 1982 to stop economic crimes to save the party and his  purge in the military of those  opposed to his reforms, Jiang Zemin’s “Three Stresses for Party Rectification” drive of 1998 to weed out corrupt personalities from the party like the former Beijing party secretary Chen Xitong and Hu Jintao’s stress on fighting corruption in 2004-2006, of which the  Shanghai party boss Chen Liangyu was the victim.   In all the cases, apparent are efforts of the concerned leaders to consolidate power by removing political opponents from the party making use of the anti-corruption drives.  It cannot be denied that Xi Jinping at this juncture is making similar attempts to fully consolidate his political power. He is already the General Secretary of the CCP, President of the PRC, Chairman of the CCP and State Central Military commissions and head of the newly created National Security Council. He leads many ‘leading central groups’, dealing with  important areas such as foreign affairs, financial and economic work, cyber security and information technology, and military reforms. Altogether, Xi occupies a total of 11 top posts in the country’s most powerful leadership bodies. This would mean that all institutions  of the party, state council and military are now directly reporting to the CCP politburo standing Committee and thus only to Xi. As Caixin puts it (“Xi Has Vision to Guide Party to 2049”, Yang Guangbin, 16.3.15), Xi Jinping has become the defacto Chairman of the CCP.

  4. Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign has led to the purge of the ‘tigers’ like Zhou Yongkang. , a former member of the powerful CCP politburo standing committee and the former security chief of the country; Xu Caihou (now deceased), former Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission and Ling Jihua, former head of the CCP General Office. The three, along with already disgraced and sentenced Bo Xilai, former Chongqing party chief, considered once as a potential member of the politburo standing committee, are now being called by some in China as the new ‘gang of four’  (Mao’s wife Jiang Qing and three others were known as ‘gang of four’and purged  in the 70s).  Other ‘tigers’  who have come under graft charges include Su Rong, former Vice Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and a Zhou Yongkang loyalist; Yang  Weize,  former Nanjing party boss ; Qiu He, former Yunnan Deputy party chief and Zhang Kunsheng, former assistant Foreign Minister of China. More importantly,  signals have appeared on identification of two more high level targets – Guo Boxiung, former politburo member and former Vice Chairman    of the Central Military Commission and Zeng Qinghong, former Vice-President of China.  Guo’s son, Major General Guo Zhenggang, deputy political commissar of Zhejiang provincial military command is already being investigated. The chances of  Zeng Qinghong   coming under anti-corruption probe seem to be high at the moment taking into account a historically allegorical article in the CDIC website (25.2.2015) attacking him. Zeng is believed to have been portrayed in the article as Prince Qing Yiguang who gave mahjong lessons to Empress Dowager Cixi (standing in for Jiang Zemin).

  5. What has been said above (see para 4) shows that each succeeding regime had its own anti-corruption campaign, but with also a political purpose – elimination of party rivals, in addition to dealing with corruption as a crime. It strongly appears that Xi Jinping has repeated such past practice. Indicating the same are authoritative opinions appearing in China that Zhou Yongkang,  Xu Caihou and Ling Jihua, disgraced on corruption charges, constituted a faction opposing Xi and their actions were deeply intertwined ( former Deputy editor of People’s Daily, Zhou Ruijin, China Digital Times,  21.3.2015). The opinions also find that Xi’s purge of the three could mark his political plotting against the latter, not merely as one of his anti-corruption steps (Beijing Youth Daily, as quoted by New York Times, China Digital Times, 21.3.2015). Important is the direct evidence of Xi’s thinking, being noticed;  it has officially been acknowledged,  for the first time, that Zhou Yongkang , along with Bo Xilai, in addition to being corrupt, indulged in  “Non-organizational political activities” (2014 Annual Report of the Supreme Court, “China’s Supreme Court  uses novel rhetoric in new corruption allegations”, China Daily, USA, quoting Xinhua, 19.3.2015).  Experts have interpreted such activities as attempts to set up a power base in China, alternate to that of Xi jinping ( Liu Dawen, former editor of Hongkong-based political magazine Outpost, Radio Free Asia, 19.3.2015).  It was also reported that Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai once held a secret meeting in Chongqing during which  they advocated “adjusting” the reform and opening-up policy initiated in the late 1970s by former leader Deng Xiaoping, bringing it back in line with Maoist ideas  (Phoenix Weekly, as reported in  http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-01-15/chinese-politicians-formed-banned-clique-state-media/6019638).

  6. The purges that have taken place under Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, at the best, look selective; it is clear that the “tigers” being targeted are mostly the loyalists of the then party supremo Jiang Zemin. Such a path will pose risks to Xi at a time when Jiang, in spite of his old age, still enjoys much political clout. The 19th CCP Congress is scheduled in 2017. Given that all the present Politburo Standing Committee members, excepting Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang will retire at that time due to age factor, it is natural for Xi to face compulsions for beginning   preparations now itself in order to ensure a smooth leadership transition at the next congress.  Xi may at the same time be aware that the inevitable political fallout of his anti-graft work may negatively influence such preparations. As such, logically, he should try to  keep his anti-graft drive within limits at all times. In reality, however, the situation looks different; continuing is the  tendency  to further widen the campaign’s targets , for e.g netting of   new ‘tigers’ like Guo Boxiung and Zeng Qinghong. Future developments will therefore be worth watching.

(The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Distinguished Fellow, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India.Email:dsrajan@gmail.com)

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