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Xi Jinping’s Anti-Corruption Campaign Enters a Crucial Phase

Apr 11, 2014
  • Minxin Pei

    Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 Professor of Government , Claremont McKenna College

Since he became the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in November 2012, Xi Jinping has invested much of his newly acquired political capital in two initiatives.  One was an ambitious and far-reaching economic reform agenda, which was unveiled at the 3rd plenum of the Central Committee last November.  The other was an intense drive against corruption, which was launched almost immediately after Xi settled into his office. 

Minxin Pei

Although the two initiatives are, strictly speaking, separate.  In reality they are closely linked.  Without market-oriented reforms that reduce opportunities for abuse of power, it is impossible to root out corruption.  Similarly, a sustained campaign against corruption is a political precondition for successful economic reforms. 

To date, Xi’s government has made greater progress on the anti-corruption front.  This fight has lasted longer while the drive for reform has barely started.  Most importantly, Xi’s campaign on graft is a centralized, top-down effort.  It is comparatively easy to use the power of the CCP’s in-house anti-corruption agency, the Central Discipline and Inspection Committee, to investigate and punish officials who have committed misdeeds.  By contrast, economic reforms require negotiations among stakeholders with competing interests and implementations by local governments and various bureaucracies – a far more complicated, slow, and uncertain process. 

That is why Xi’s war on corruption has achieved initial success.  Figures released by the CCP’s own anti-corruption committee show that that more than 182,000 party members, including 17 high-ranking officials at levels of vice-minister and above, were punished for various misdeeds in 2013. 

The sustained intensity of Xi’s campaign has caught most observers by surprise.  Initially, many suspected that, like his predecessors, Xi would simply use a brief crackdown on corruption to purge political rivals and gain popular support.  But today, 18 months into his administration, hardly a day passes without the fall of a tiger (a high-ranking official) or several “flies” (mid-level or junior officials).  It is becoming clear that Xi’s fight against corruption is quite different from that of his predecessors. 

Among many things, the most critical decision Xi has made on this issue is the appointment of a very capable senior official – Wang Qishan – to the head of the Discipline and Inspection Committee.  Known in China as a “fire-fighter” for his proven ability to handle crisis and deliver results, Wang, a close political ally of Xi, has not disappointed. 

In the past year, Wang instituted two changes that significantly enhanced the party’s ability to uncover criminal acts perpetrated by local officials.   One is to dispatch a large number of “roving inspection” teams to provinces and large state-owned enterprises.   Although the practice of sending inspection teams to local governments and bureaucracies was established more than a decade ago, Beijing had not sent out a large numbers in the past. 

However, things are different this time.  The roving inspection teams sent by Wang are headed by recently retired senior officials who report directly to Wang’s committee.  During their tours, these teams privately interview local officials to gather information on the misconduct of their colleagues.  Thus, it has become much harder for local officials to conceal their crimes or protect each other because some of their colleagues, out of fear or spite, have incentives to denounce them to the roving inspection teams. 

A second important initiative credited to Wang was the requirement that any corruption investigation conducted in a jurisdiction must be reported to the anti-corruption agency at a superior level.  In the past, local officials could cover up the wrongdoings of their colleagues with relative ease because they did not have to report to their superiors such investigations.  Now it will be much more difficult to do so because of the reporting requirement, which was formally endorsed by the party at the 3rd plenum last November. 

However encouraging the initial results of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, the war is far from won.  In fact, it is entering a crucial phase. 

Xi has gained immense public support for his resolve to crack down on corruption inside the party and the state.  But this campaign is not without political costs.  The fall of various “tigers” and “flies” has increased political insecurity inside the party and could even cause internal division at the top.  Xi may have to balance the need to fight corruption with the desire to maintain elite unity. 

An even more difficult challenge facing Xi is how to sustain the campaign.  So far it has been waged from top down, in a typical centralized fashion.  Continuing such campaigns will be more costly and yield decreasing results (because local officials will quickly learn to adapt).  A more promising approach that will build strong foundations for better governance is to utilize the rule of law and the power of the media and civil society.  This approach will increase transparency and reduce the costs of monitoring the bureaucracy.  Of course, this is a risky strategy politically because of expected opposition from those who fear instability, but Xi and his colleagues may have no choice if they want to demonstrate their commitment to clean government and good governance. 

Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

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