It became clear that Chinese President Xi Jinping had taken his campaign against rampant government corruption to a new level when – after years of blunted attempts by China’s leaders to end military graft – he recently decided to take down the highest-ranking general yet to be expelled from the party.
Although the staggering number of officials caught in this campaign has helped affirm Xi’s consolidated power within the leadership, some analysts have expressed concern that the campaign has been too excessive, has been primarily driven by factional politics, has dissuaded officials from making decisions, and has weakened China’s economy. These arguments are not only inaccurate and misleading, but they also distract from the critical positive changes that the anti-corruption campaign and associated reforms can bring to Chinese society.
While Xi’s campaign has been deep and pervasive, it has not been excessive. A large number—but only a small percentage—of officials have been affected. China has over 5,000 officials who rank at the vice minister level or above. Of those officials, only 32 have been arrested, amounting to only roughly one-half of 1 percent of high-ranking officials.
Although the primary leaders of the campaign—namely Xi Jinping and Central Commission for Discipline Inspection Chief Wang Qishan— are both princelings in the faction led by former President Jiang Zemin, their factional association has not been a major driver of the campaign. In fact, the four largest corruption cases (namely Bo Xilai, Liu Zhijun, Xu Caihou and Zhou Yongkang) have all involved heavyweight leaders in the Jiang camp.
Despite having targeted these members of his own camp, it is also unlikely that Xi has strained his relationship with his two main patrons, former President Jiang and former Vice President Zeng Qinghong. Instead, he has most likely made a deal with them. Yet the majority of the prominent members of the Jiang camp, including some who were very close to Bo Xilai, Liu Zhijun and Xu Caihou, still remain in power.
Even as the CCP has taken a magnifying glass to official behavior, leaders have not been dissuaded from making decisions or hurt the functioning of the bureaucracy. Instead, there have been clear positive changes to official behavior resulting from the fear of being caught for any wrongdoing. But there is no evidence that officials have stopped making decisions out of fear of being reprimanded. In the end, officials will be removed from office if they fail to ensure that the government is functioning properly and produce economic growth.
Finally, any decrease in consumption resulting from a decline in official corruption will not irreparably hurt the economy—it will help it. Even if real estate agents, high-end restaurateurs and makers of liquor and high-end foods continue to experience declines in sales, China’s economy will not be significantly affected. Instead, with tax dollars that previously served to fund these unsanctioned purchases being returned to public coffers, that money can be spent on the projects it was supposed to fund initially, thus leading to improved infrastructure, public services and employment rates. Most important, in the long run the economy will be bolstered as the successes of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign increase his political capital, thus allowing him to implement deeper economic reforms that will induce greater confidence in China’s economy.
The real risk for Xi is that, as a result of his success, he neglects to spend the necessary political capital to strengthen institutional reforms. An ad-hoc, campaign mode can reduce corruption in the short term, but systematic legal and political reforms are critical to bring fundamental change toward good governance in China.
In the next few years, Xi should implement important measures like official income disclosure, property registration, conflict of interest regulations, and judicial independence. Otherwise, a new wave of official corruption will inevitably reoccur and completely undermine his previous unprecedented achievements.
Cheng Li is Director of the John L. Thornton China Center at The Brookings Institution, where Ryan McElveen is Assistant Director.