Xi Dishes the Dirt to Stamp Out Corruption

Thomas Chan (left), a former Sun Hung Kai Properties executive, and Thomas Kwok, former co-chairman of Sun Hung Kai Properties, sit in a prison van as they leave the High Court in Hong Kong on December 22, 2014, guilty of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office and conspiracy to offer an advantage to a public servant. The author writes that salacious personal stories about corrupt officials are used to deter questions about systemic causes of corruption and to obscure the contradictions in Xi’s landmark anti-corruption program. Tyrone Siu/reuters

This article first appeared on the Wilson Center site.

Since Xi Jinping came to power in China in 2012, the hallmark of his leadership and greatest source of his popularity has been a relentless anti-corruption campaign.

Three years in, Xi's crusade is gaining steam. Approximately 750,000 of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) 88 million members have been punished following investigations by Xi's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), a powerful body that is part inspector-general and part ideological watchdog. Twice as many party members were prosecuted in 2015 as in 2013.

No Chinese or foreign critic claims that Xi is mistaken about the scale of the problem. Since Deng Xiaoping's reforms sparked explosive growth in the 1990s, national and local officials have had constant opportunities for graft, and they have seized them.

Corruption pervades government offices, but it is also widespread in hospitals, where patients make illegal payments to scalpers and medical personnel to secure appointments, book beds and receive proper care; in public schools, where parents pay "sponsorship fees" to secure their children's admission; and in most other institutions.

For citizens raised on a socialist ethic of fairness, self-sacrifice and shared poverty, the corruption of CCP cadres not only hurts them financially, but also erodes their belief in a party that, since Mao's day, has promised to Serve the People. To restore the party's legitimacy, Xi had no choice but to declare war on corruption and try to return the CCP to its ascetic roots.

Xi is not merely out to change party members' behavior; in good Maoist fashion, he wants to change their minds. The guiding slogan of his anti-corruption strategy is Won't, Couldn't, Wouldn't (bù gǎn, bùnéng, bùxiǎng).

In the campaign's first phase, cadres won't dare be corrupt, because punishment is certain. In the second phase, they couldn't be corrupt even if they wanted to, because institutional improvements will preclude it. In the third phase, it wouldn't cross their minds to be corrupt, because they will have been purified through socialist culture.

Despite the heads that have rolled and the support he has garnered, Xi's signature initiative is a delicate balancing act. Conceptual and operational challenges, together with Xi's leadership style, could make this campaign to ensure the CCP's survival a threat to its stability instead.

Selling Xi's anti-corruption message to an increasingly well informed public is a challenge, even for a populist leader who controls the media. Xi's program reasserts the party's primacy through Maoist disciplinary measures and through the slogan, The Party Leads All Affairs—Party, Political, Military, Civil, and Academic—East, West, South, North, and Center.

He is declaring that only the CCP can save China, even as he warns that the party's endemic corruption is China's greatest threat. That this square circle is causing confusion is evinced by reports of cadres' doubts on the eve of the 2016 meeting of the National People's Congress.

Most Chinese political campaigns are explained to the party and public through carefully crafted rationales based on Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong thought, but Xi has offered no theory to explain how such a saintly party was co-opted. The liberal idea—that power is inherently corrupting and that all leaders need checks and balances, a free press, and independent judiciaries to keep them in line—is inadmissible in Beijing.

The party's implicit explanation for corruption is that bad people do bad things. Reports on fallen officials do not stop at describing how much they stole; they detail how many mistresses the thief maintained, how often he solicited prostitutes—no prurient detail is omitted if it will convince readers that the accused was depraved despite his or her party membership.

Salacious personal stories are used to deter questions about systemic causes of corruption and to obscure the contradictions in Xi's program.

Chinese commentators have raised questions from the first about the sincerity of the anti-corruption campaign, suggesting that Xi's true goal was to clear out his predecessors' patronage networks and consolidate his own power, rather than to rectify the party itself.

The jury is still out, but evidence to date suggests that Xi is pursuing both goals. Corruption does undermine the party's legitimacy. Xi needs party members to fall in line (kànqí), and he needs to win back the support of the people if he is to rule effectively.

But he has taken a hands-off approach to established elites; he has not yet taken on any of the powerful, rapacious princelings (hóng èr dài : the offspring of revolutionary party heroes) or second-generation officials (guān èr dài) who share Xi's own political pedigree. Xi wants a pure party, but he is also using the campaign to purge officials who do not owe their loyalty to him.

In August 2015, party media ran and reran an editorial railing against the "unimaginably fierce resistance" that Xi's reforms were encountering at local levels. Policies were not being implemented—an extraordinary admission for the CCP.

The common Chinese explanation for bureaucratic paralysis is that local leaders do not want to make mistakes or do anything that will get them noticed. Better to lay low and wait out the anti-corruption campaign. Nearly every cadre has done something that was not strictly by the book, after all, so any misstep, or even proper execution of a policy that hurts the interest of a vindictive colleague, could have the CCDI anti-corruption cops knocking at the door.

Xi's anti-corruption campaign has made enemies in the party and People's Liberation Army. Whether or not rumors that Xi has faced assassination plots are true, there undoubtedly are factions that will attack Xi if he falters or fails.

These latent threats seem to be making Xi more averse to criticism, more wary of aspersions on his competence, more needful of total obedience, more isolated within his small sphere of advisors, more prone to control information, and even more inclined than before the anti-corruption campaign to double down rather than compromise when he meets resistance.

In February, it was announced that Xi is "The Core" of the CCP and, as such, needs unceasing protection (jiānjué wéihù Xí Jìnpíng zhège héxīn). Against the background of the anti-corruption campaign, making Xi the Core threatens the CCP succession mechanism that helps maintain stability in China.

As the Core, Xi has abandoned the collective leadership model that enabled the transitions from Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin, to Hu Jintao, and then to Xi himself. It is unlikely that Xi's successor will be christened as the Core from day one of his term, as no leader who could sustain such a status will be permitted to build his own patronage network while Xi is in power.

After Xi's term ends in 2022, therefore, either he will remain the untitled power behind the throne, as Deng did, or Xi's successor will have to spend his first five years clearing out Xi's entrenched networks, as Xi is now doing to Jiang's and Hu's appointees.

The emerging Xi-ist political model is wasteful at best, and could prove destabilizing. It derives from the daunting challenges that China faces, from Xi's leadership style, and from the anti-corruption campaign's failure to address the systemic causes of the party's rot.

The net result is that China's system is becoming more fragile, even if its leader is strong.

Robert Daly is director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.