The Corruption Crackdown

"Sinocism is the Presidential Daily Brief for China hands"- Evan Osnos, New Yorker Correspondent and National Book Award Winner

Recently I was asked by a news outlet to comment on the ongoing corruption crackdown. I am not sure what quotes they will use or when they will publish so decided to post my full answers here.

The two main questions were basically “what is going on with the crackdown” and is Xi “more like Mao than Deng”?

Here are my guesses. Yes, we are all guessing:

I think the corruption crackdown is just getting started. Xi Jinping became General Secretary and Wang Qishan took over the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Communist Party of China (CCDI) in November 2012. It takes a while to get up to speed, consolidate power and push investigations through the system.

As for the question of whether the corruption crackdown is about consolidating power, of course it is, these crackdowns almost all have an element of that. It is a mistake however to conclude that it is only about reshuffling officials so Xi can put his people in place. I believe that Xi is serious about improving governance and cleaning up at least the more egregious corruption in both the Party-state and the military. Improving Party-state governance does not mean making political reforms in any Western sense but it does mean trying to build a more adaptable and accountable authoritarianism, while cleaning up the military is necessary to achieve his stated goals of building a strong, professional military. I think the anti-corruption efforts are also clearly about reining in and in some cases removing special interests that are resisting the very ambitious reform plans passed at the Third Plenum of the 18th Party Congress in November 2013. Caixin has translated into English a recent interview with a Chinese scholar who also makes this point, along with several other important ones.

There are only so many “tigers” the corruption investigators can go after but the flies over time are in many ways more important than the tigers. Most people never see a tiger in their lives but have to deal with flies almost every day.

Power consolidation is of course very important and we should consider the ongoing investigation into Zhou Yongkang and his allies at least in part in that light. There is little doubt these people were engaged in remarkable amounts of corruption, and there are all sorts of unproven rumors about plots and deals among this group in the runup up to the 2012 18th Party Congress, but taking down this network has also allowed Xi to gain control over the security services, and much faster than most observers expected.

Given the interests affected by this corruption crackdown, it is vital for Xi to have under his control the elements of hard power that can keep grumbling and complaining about the campaign from spiralling into much more serious and viable resistance. My understanding is that by the third quarter of 2013 he had successfully consolidated control over this system.

The other vital source of hard power is of course the military. The June 30 announcement of the investigation into retired General Xu Caihou, along with recent promotions of several generals as well as the reshuffling of officers in six of the seven military districts look to be further signs that Xi has also consolidated control over the PLA, ahead of what is likely to be an intensifying corruption crackdown inside the PLA.

The ongoing CCDI reforms and the five year graft fighting plan announced in late 2013 should be taken seriously as a sign that they are trying to institutionalize this crackdown and make it not an occasional campaign as in years past but rather a continuous, “new normal”. Plenty of people in and out of China argue that without an independent judiciary and a freer media there is no way these efforts can successfully rein in corruption. They may be right, though Xi and Wang appear to disagree with that assessment and would probably happily point to India and say “oh really?”.

I don’t think anyone is naive enough to believe that corruption is going away in China, given both how rife it is not just in government and throughout society but also because it is a near constant presence in China’s several thousand years of history. The real question is can Xi Jinping curb it enough to mitigate a serious threat to the Party’s rule and clear the way for some of the mooted, ambitious and painful reforms?

I find most of the comparisons of Xi to Mao to be quite facile. Of course Xi was influenced by Mao, everyone of his generation was. But so far there is no evidence that Xi wants a redux of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. The Party now aggressively blocks mass citizen participation in the corruption crackdown outside of very structured channels managed by the CCDI, after cracking down on Weibo and dramatically reducing the use of Weibo as a channel for individuals to out misbehaving officials. The Mass Line Education Campaign, scheduled to run through September 2014, is not evidence of a throwback to Maoism, as Dr. Alice Miller clearly explained in a 2013 paper. Nor is the ongoing ideological retrenchment evidence of Maoism. There were several ideological crackdowns in the Deng Xiaoping era, including intense campaigns against things like “bourgeois liberalization” and “spiritual pollution”.

Xi can’t both achieve the “great renewal of the Chinese nation” and launch a new Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution was an abject disaster that set China back decades, and Xi knows that better than most people.

Readers should not confuse me with an optimist. The Chinese leadership has a very difficult fight ahead and their ultimate goal is not what many observers or liberal-minded people want. But that does not mean we should just assume it will fail, or not be “good enough” to buy them more time and create the space for serious economic reform and an evolution into a more accountable, adaptable authoritarian regime with realistic aspirations to becoming a superpower.

PS. Readers interested in the cult of Mao Zedong might enjoy The Badges of Chairman Mao Zedong-毛主席像, my SAIS master’s theses from 1995.