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Home > Blogs > Anthony Harrington > How to view Xi's crackdown on corruption?

How to view Xi's crackdown on corruption?

How to view Xi's crackdown on corruption? Anthony Harrington

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In a country where graft has become so endemic that there are probably very few officials left with clean hands, launching a major anti-corruption campaign has multiple meanings. By definition, since graft is endemic, those prosecuted need to be selected for special investigation. That opens the way for an anti-corruption campaign to become a very useful tool for a new leader to consolidate his power base. The legal and investigative system can be used to remove some of the heavyweight oppositional pieces from the chessboard, thus helping to keep other opponents silent and in line. In the eyes of many, this is exactly what the Chinese President Xi Jinping is doing with his current anti-corruption campaign.

Since much of the corruption in China is a private affair that goes on among top officials and businessmen behind closed doors, dragging crooked deals out into the open for public scrutiny is difficult. To solve this dilemma, Chinese prosecutors use much the same tricks as the EU anti-competition authorities, which is to say they combine Draconian penalties (in their case up to and including the firing squad) with leniency for “whistle blowers”.

A favorite trick once the Chinese investigators have homed in on a “tiger” target, in the shape of a high ranking official, is to arrest a number of junior staff who worked closely with the main target. They get off lightly if they provide evidence of the scams the senior official has been involved in.

This tactic appears to be a central weapon in the investigators armory as they go after their biggest target yet, the former national security chief and senior Politburo Standing Committee member, Zhou Yongkang. On 17 July, the South China Post ran a story about the authorities starting formal proceedings against three senior officials, all of whom have worked with Zhou. They are: Jiang Jiemin, the former director of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission; Wang Yongchun, a deputy manager at China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and former public security deputy minister; and Li Dongsheng. All have been detained for alleged corruption.

The authorities also tend to go after family members, where it seems that some of the graft has trickled down. Zhou’s son, Zhou Bin, is also under investigation and an alleged gangster and Sichuan coal mining tycoon, Liu Han, with whom Bin had dealings, has been sentenced to death. He was found guilty of 13 charges, including murder, running casinos and illegally selling firearms. Bin and Han were said to have sold coal mining equipment to a foreign buyer, making themselves millions and creating a huge loss for the State owned coal company.

Interestingly, according to the South China Post:

"More than 150 Communist Part officials went to oversee Liu Han’s trial, including the vice-president of the country's top court, Li Shaoping, deputy chief prosecutor Zhu Xiaoqing and other security and propaganda higher-ups."

Doubtless they were all there to see fair play. Ho ho. Imagine the uproar in the UK if 150 of Prime Minister David Cameron's staff and civil servants turned up to oversee a court hearing. They'd be shown the door post haste by the judge and the press would have a field day.

Xi Jinping's problem is that - perfectly properly since corruption is endemic - he is embarked on a witch hunt that has no natural end until virtually the entire official apparatus of the state has been jailed or shot. Long before that point was reached, of course, the system would implode. This is doubtless why two former Chinese presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, are said to be pushing for Xi to row back on his campaign. The Financial Times reported that President Jiang recently sent Xi a message warning that "the footprint of this anti-corruption campaign cannot get too big". The hope appears to be that Xi will agree not to put Zhou on trial but to keep him under indefinite house arrest. At the moment that doesn't look likely.

In fact, of course, Xi is not the least bit trapped by his own strategies. As the (currently) undisputed strong man, he can opt at any point to declare that "enough is enough" as far as his purge is concerned. What he had to do was to clean up the Party in the eyes of the public before the whole edifice rotted and went smash. This is a rather different exercise from actually cleaning up the whole Party - which, as we have said, wouldn't leave him very much left to work with!

Xi may be feeling that punishing some "pour encourager les autres", in Voltaire's well known phrase, will dial down the graft, while efforts to ensure more transparency and better governance in corporate and state activities works to cut back on the opportunities for officials to enrich themselves. The more serious longer term problem that Xi and the Party face as they bring this about is that, since just about no one in the Party believes in the Communist "creed" any more, the one solid remaining reason for seeking party membership, pre-Xi, was that it was seen as the glorious high road to riches. Keep the officials on the straight and narrow and the vast majority may well end up saying, "Sod this for a game of soldiers, I'm off..."

Where would this leave the Party, exactly?

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Tags: China , Communist Party , corruption , Politburo , Xi Jingping
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