Like the leaders before him, China’s President Xi Jinping understands the biggest problem of a ruling Party is for it to become divorced from the people. Being President of a country with one-fifth of all humanity and the fastest growing large economy is a wonderful platform to write a book. President Xi has done just that with Xi Jinping: The Governance Of China, a tally of his attempt to recount the ways which he remains married to the people.
It seems President Xi has ripped a page from the book of Deng Xiaoping who once said, “Why was our party so powerful in the past? In the war years, we often said that if the party member made up 30 percent of an army company, that company must be very good and have a strong fighting capacity. Why? Because party members were invariably the first to charge and the last to withdraw on the battlefield, the first to bear hardship and the last to enjoy comforts in daily life… Now some Party members are different. They join the party in order to be first to enjoy comforts and last to bear hardship.”
A Rotten Head
Xi grasps the power of the proverb: “A fish rots from the head down.” Leadership is the root cause of an organizations failure. Xi Jinping’s “Governance of China” is sprinkled with an anti-corruption heading.
According to Business Insider, “China has investigated over 25,000 people for corruption in the first six months of 2014. Probes into major cases were up 14% year-over-year. 182,000 officials were punished by discipline inspection agencies in 2013, up 13.3% year-over-year.” Many countries can lay claim to the meaning of the “fish rotting” proverb, but regardless of its source, the outcome is often true. When an organization or state fails, it is the leadership, or lack of, that is the root cause. It seems China’s Xi Jinping got the memo from Premier Deng and has grasped the meaning of this proverb. He appears to understand that leadership and accountability must begin at the top.
Upon his elevation, Communist chief Xi has warned that corruption has the potential not only to bring about the demise of the party but also bring about the downfall of the country. In a closed-door meeting with members of the new Politburo of the Communist Party of China, Xi spoke powerfully about the need to reverse out-of-control corruption that he acknowledged in other nations, which was directly responsible for political unrest and the ultimate collapse of those governments.
At the time, Xi did not mention countries, but he was clearly referring to Egypt, Libya and other totalitarian, corrupt governments that have been tossed out in the wake of the Arab Spring revolutions. However, corruption and environmental degradation could also bring down the Chinese Communist Party. Pollution is a visible sign that a government does not care for its people. Recent air quality was so bad in Beijing that bloggers referred to it as “Airpocalypse.”
There is an old expression that perhaps you have heard from your mother or grandmother: “You have only one chance to make a first impression.” Xi has perhaps grasped the reigns of power in China tighter than any leader since Deng or perhaps Mao. Xi Jinping is resetting the stage for what is acceptable behavior by top Chinese officials. His anti-corruption campaign has gone after both “tigers and fleas,” – both senior and junior officials.
Seeming extremely comfortable in his own skin, Xi exhorts party leaders to conduct the people’s business in a more down-to-earth way without enriching themselves at the expense of the people.
Painting The Lobby
There is also a business technique used by new leaders called “painting the lobby.” As a new leader, one must demonstrate early on, in concrete ways, that a new day has arrived. Xi has been busy “painting the lobby” by setting a new tone for leadership in China. His strong anti-corruption language signals to the world that there is a new leader in town and the party will not tolerate abuse of official power. In speaking to his colleagues, Xi reminded them using an old Chinese proverb, “Things must first rot before worms grow.” He clearly sees corruption as a threat to his party and leadership legitimacy. It seems that he is acting on another old Chinese saying as he implements tough new anti-corruption and conspicuous consumption by top officials: “Kill the chickens to scare the monkeys.”
Within weeks of enacting the new policy, a top-level Chinese official was investigated for “breaching party discipline,” an action that underscores the seriousness of the leadership’s new anti-corruption drive.
In the first pages of his book Xi lays down a marker in his speech: The People’s Wish for a Good Life Is Our Goal: “we are taking on the important responsibility for the Party. Dedicated to serving the people, our Party has led them in making remarkable achievements, which we have every reason to be proud of. Nevertheless, we should never be complacent and rest on our laurels. In the new circumstances our Party faces many severe challenges as well as pressing issues within the Party that need to be addressed, particularly corruption, being divorced from the people, and being satisfied merely with going through formalities and bureaucracy on the part of some Party officials. We must make every effort to solve such problems. The whole Party must stay on full alert. ‘It takes good iron to make good products.’
Xi made obvious that party members should take a clear stand against corruption and remain vigilant about the abuse of power by relatives. The anti-corruption campaign is also a less than subtle way to settle old scores, naturalize his potential adversaries, and grab power. The former party chief of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, was found guilty of bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Party leaders have to be looking over their shoulder, wondering what steps Xi will advance next on the issue of corruption going forward. Time will certainly tell whether Xi’s actions represent a new direction or are simply a way of diverting attention away to corruption that might be too close for comfort.
As Xi began his presidency, Bloomberg News made a bold claim, reporting on Xi’s extended family status as a “princeling family,” and using their political connections to accumulate immense wealth. The New York Times also reported a similar scandal about outgoing premier Wen Jiabao’s family. Both stories were quickly scrubbed from the Chinese Internet. Recently Reuters reported the latest high level arrest of former domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang and expelled him from the ruling Communist Party, accusing him of crimes ranging from accepting bribes to leaking state secrets and setting the stage for his spectacular trial.
The noose continues to tighten. The New York Times reports, “The Communist Party has begun an investigation of a top aide to former President Hu Jintao, demonstrating the lengths to which President Xi Jinping is willing to go in his campaign to root out official corruption in China.”
The change in “governance” will continue. Unlike earlier anti-corruption campaigns that petered out after a few high-profile arrests, Xi and his anti-graft chief, Wang Qishan, appear determined to press ahead. “This is just the beginning,” Wang was quoted as saying in October by the official Xinhua News Agency. Most recently China executed prominent business tycoon (a tiger) Liu Han worth billions for leading a “mafia-style” gang of loan sharks, gun runners and contract killers,
I do not raise these issues to cast aspersions on China or to interfere with their internal affairs. I do not wish to denigrate the remarkable progress China has made throughout recent history. I do not wish China to fail. To the contrary, as I have written on many occasions, the world needs China to succeed. Without maintaining a “mandate from heaven,” this is not possible. In fact, the West had its share of corruption during its industrial revolution.
The United States is not as pure as the driven snow when it comes to corruption. Eric Hobsbawm in his book, The Age of Capital: 1848-1875, points out that the United States was “the most lawless place on earth, with rampart corruption.”
The Chinese people are not oblivious to the corruption and abuse of power by those in power in China. Microbloggers are using technology to expose corrupt officials. To date, Internet users, utilizing pseudonyms and acting without fear of being identified or punished, are attempting to open the eyes of average Chinese people in exposing the ugly underbelly of Chinese corruption.
In 2012, Human Rights Watch reported that the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislative body, passed the decision to strengthen the protection of online information. The decision contains troubling provisions that require Internet access and telecommunications providers to collect personal information about users when they sign up for Internet access, a landline, or mobile phone service. Paragraph 6 of the decision also applies to service providers that allow users to publish online, who must be able to connect
pseudonyms to real identities when citizens post information.
While on the one hand, Xi appears to be clamping down on party corruption, on the other, the party is actually stripping ordinary people of the most effective tools of self-policing. Premier Deng had it right. Party leaders cannot continue to be “first to enjoy comforts and last to bear hardship.”
As Xi obviously grasps, the world has witnessed what happens when corruption levels become intolerable for the masses. “Serve the People” or “Service for the People” is a political slogan, which originates from the title of a speech by Mao Zedong, as the party struggled to take power in 1944.
Time will tell if Xi’s vaunted “paint the lobby” will fade or whether this is a new day of “Serve the People.” Clearly the 21st century “China dream” is the completed rejuvenation of the Chinese nation retiring to the “Middle Kingdom” by no later than the celebration of their centenary in 2049.
May Xi’s book be a best seller—proper governance of China is important to the people of China—and all of humanity.