‘Iron Man’ under siege: Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive
This is the first weekly contribution by Shri. Ravi Dutt Bajpai focusing anti-corruptin drive in China. Weekly Column No. 1001/2014
Xi Jinping is perceived as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Tse Tung. He has discarded the collective decision making process of his predecessors and has appropriated all the powers in the Chinese Communist Party, the executive and the military. He has the most impressive curriculum vitae; the executive head of China as its President, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Chief of China’smilitary. Furthermore, he is also the Chairman of the recently formed National Security Council, a highly centralised group to chart future strategic directions of China. Xi is also the chairman of the leadership group, China’s top leadership unit to decide the course of future reforms. He has been a champion of the Chinese Communist Party and eulogizes communism as a higher ideal than even his own vision of ‘Chinese Dreams’. To any observer it would appear that Xi Jinping is the ‘iron man’ of contemporary China and he holds all the political, administrative, military and ideologicalpowers firmly in his grip.
Xi Jinping’s ascendance to power in 2012 was not entirely smooth and the power struggle between his and Bo Xilai’s factions was all too public and embarrassing for the Chinese Communist Party. Since Xi assumed office, he has demonstrated a missionary zeal in cleaning up the official sleaze and corruption that so typified China’s (mis)governance. It would be naïve to assume that Xi Jinping was not aware of the level of public disenchantment with the Party cadres’ corruption, misrule and apathy before his anointment. Similarly, it would be equally naïve to assume that Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is driven solely by the plight of common Chinese people and not by any political vendetta. However, the anti-corruption campaign of targeting ‘flies’ (small officials) and ‘tigers’ (party bigwigs) was well propagated by the official media, and to a large degree, was very warmly welcomed by the Chinese people. Xi Jinping’s very personal yet highly publicized simplicity like travelling in local buses, eating simple food at restaurants has done well for his personal ratings. Xi is seen as one of the ‘rarest of rare’ specimens of Chinese leadership who has acquired genuine public adulation.
There are speculations that Xi’s personality cult above the collective leadership was necessitated by the lack of both charismatic leadership and dynamic governance by his predecessors. The top leadership group of the Chinese Communist Party was keen to shore up a larger than life portrait of someone who could tower over the internal wrangling and dissonance in the party; Xi Jinping certainly looked the part. However, after two years of relentless anti-corruption campaign, Xi’s leadership is under siege from several influential quarters in the Chinese Communist Party. The Party elders and also leaders from the previous generation do not appreciate his anti-corruption drive. These senior communist functionaries are anxious to save their reputation and also to protect their supporters, relatives and associates from any potential harm. The Party elders have valid reasons to fear Xi’s anti-corruption driveas on the first day of his Presidency, Xi Jinping had vouched to fight corruption.He had publicly announced, “to forge iron, you must have a strong hammer.” Xi’s hammer has struck someprominent individuals, such as ZhouYongkang, formerhead of China’s state security and also one of the nine members of the peak decision-making body, the PolitburoStanding Committee. Xi is taking a very big risk of discarding the tacit deal crafted by Deng Xiaoping, seeking age-based retirement of top leadership in return for future immunity. If the future immunity is withdrawn then the first part of the deal is jettisoned as well.
On the face of it, it may appear that Xi has demonstrated a very Mao like tendency of not institutionalizing his major political initiatives but running them through hand picked men and ad-hoc measures. Xi’s right–hand man,Wang Qishan is leading the anti-corruption campaign and most of the corruption cases are treated as Party indiscipline issue rather than as criminal offence. The vice like grip of the Chinese Communist Party on the administration, police and judiciary will never allow any proper investigation or court procedure against its own bosses. Xi is facing massive resistance in his efforts to reform the administration and judiciary by liberating these state organs from the Chinese Communist Party. The Party elders understand that these changes do not mean a simple change in the governance structure but unraveling of the Communist Party’s monopoly over power.
The protests in Hong Kong have delivered a great opportunity to all the Chinese political elites affected by Xi’s anti-corruption campaign to form a unified front. However, these disgruntled Party elders should recognize that these protests in Hong Kong may have been sparked by demands for democratic rights, but they are a representation of pent up frustration with corrupt and apathetic governance in the territory. There are approximately 150,000-200,000 cases of public protests every year in China, mostly provoked by thecorruption of local level Party functionaries. It is not surprising that since 2010 China’s internal security apparatus has surpassed its external defense setup.
Xi Jinping’s power may seem limitless but his options seem to be limited. If this anti-corruption drive captures more high-profile leaders it may cut his authority in both ways. On the one hand the Party power brokers may decide to find ways to undercut Xi’s authority, while on the other, uncovering of further major scandals may inflame common people to reject the Communist Party’s ruleover their lives.Xi Jinping would have to make a hard choice of identifying himself either as a die-hard reformer ora die-hard communist. Xi has Zhao Ziyang or Mikhail Gorbachev as examples of reformers in socialist societies. Neither a politician nor a nationalist would like such comparisons; it will be an anathema to astaunch nationalist politician like Xi Jinping.
( Ravi Dutt Bajpai is currently pursuing a Masters in International Relations at Deakin University, Melbourne. He is associated with the Institute for Post Colonial Studies in Melbourne and is a regular social and political commentator with the Hindi daily, Prabhat Khabar, published from Bihar and Jharkhand. With expertise on China, India and Australia in world/Asian politics, he is a regular commentator on Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) in Hindi in Australia. Email id: email@example.com. )