If observers of the Chinese political scene are impressed with the anti-corruption drive launched 18 months ago by China’s new leader, Mr. Xi Jinping, they should be. Working together with his energetic colleague, Mr. Wang Qishan, who is the Communist Party’s new anti-corruption chief, Xi has put a large number of corrupt officials behind bars or under investigation. The most recent example is a former deputy provincial party secretary of Sichuan, Mr. Li Chuncheng, who will be prosecuted for corruption.
With the official announcement of Li’s expulsion from the party and his pending prosecution, it is likely that the party’s leadership will soon start formal disciplinary proceedings against Li’s patron and former boss, Mr. Zhou Yongkang, a recently retired member of the Politburo Standing Committee who was once China’s internal security chief. Although the Chinese media has not yet named Zhou as a target of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, his family members, including his son and daughter-in-law, have been detained. Many of his former lieutenants in China’s oil industry, law enforcement and Sichuan province (where Zhou was the party chief from 1998 to 2002) have fallen into Xi’s anti-graft dragnet.
There is little doubt that the case against Zhou will mark Xi’s most important achievement in cleaning up the Chinese Communist Party. By sending a “mega tiger” – a popular Chinese term for a very senior official – to prison, Xi will strengthen the credibility of his resolve that anybody who has committed corrupt deeds, regardless of his rank and status, will be held accountable.
The conventional wisdom among the China-watching community is that Xi’s decision to bring charges of corruption against a retired senior leader of Zhou’s stature carries enormous risks. It will certainly break the unwritten rule in the post-Mao era that sitting and retired members of the Politburo Standing Committee are untouchable. The protection granted to the top-most leaders in China has allowed the party to resolve its internal conflicts through bargaining and compromise, thus maintaining the critically-needed elite unity. The fear now is that, by abolishing this informal rule, Xi could make many of his colleagues fearful of politically motivated anti-corruption investigations. In the worst case, such fear may precipitate power struggle and split at the very top.
Given the enormous political momentum enjoyed by Xi since his appointment as the general secretary of the party in November 2012, such fears are real, but perhaps a bit overblown. In understanding the political dynamics at the top of the Chinese leadership hierarchy, we need to look at the overall balance of power. What distinguishes the current leadership in China is that Xi’s potential opposition is too weak to put up any meaningful resistance, let alone plot a concerted counter-offensive against Xi.
This favorable balance of power will enable Xi to continue his anti-corruption campaign. However, killing “tigers” and “flies” (a fly is a derogatory term for a low-level official) is much easier than changing the corruption culture that permeates China. For Xi to succeed in restoring integrity to the Chinese state, his next mission is far more difficult. Jailing corrupt officials treats only the symptoms of corruption, not its underlying causes. To truly make a difference, Xi’s campaign will have to take on the culture of corruption in China.
Since the early 1990s, this culture of corruption has taken root in China’s economic, social and political activities. Typically, Chinese officials who grant business permits, control the allocation of valuable resources (such as land and mining rights), and enforce regulations expect bribes as a condition of performing their official duties. Even within the Chinese officialdom, legitimate government business cannot be conducted without lavish entertainment or exchange of gifts and favors. Gaining private benefits in the course of conducting official business has become an insidious norm in the Chinese state.
Unfortunately, such corrupt norms have spill-over effects. The most egregious manifestation of the corruption culture is in routine social activities. For instance, gaining access to quality healthcare and education often requires “red envelopes” or “donations” that are really cash bribes. To be sure, such corrupt practices in Chinese society have complex causes, the most obvious ones being distorted prices and severe shortage of high-quality supply. But the costs to Chinese society have been devastating. As a result of the contagion effects of the corruption culture, ethical standards and conduct in most, if not all, of China’s professions, in particular education, health, and finance, have been deteriorating.
Purging this culture of corruption in Chinese society is obviously a long-term project for Xi and his colleagues. While moral exhortations may help, the ultimate solution will lie in comprehensive reforms that include expanding supplies, correcting price distortions, enforcing regulations, and increasing transparency. Given the deleterious demonstration effect of corruption inside the Chinese state on Chinese society, it makes good sense to prioritize the drive against official corruption.
The near-term danger Xi faces in taking his anti-corruption campaign to the next level is a “work strike” by officials at the lower levels of the Chinese state. The political pressures generated by Xi’s anti-corruption campaign have made many officials, at least temporarily, afraid to accept bribes, luxury gifts, or extravagant entertainment. But their resentments against such deprivations will most likely be expressed in their refusal to perform their government-mandated duties. One could imagine that many of these officials would simply sit on their hands and do nothing because nowadays they gain no private benefits from performing their public duties. The ultimate aim of this “work strike” is to force the top leadership to come to terms of the reality of corruption and acquiesce the very practices Xi has been trying to eliminate with his campaign.
If this analysis is true, then the tougher fight against corruption still lies ahead. To win this fight, Xi will not only have to continue killing “tigers” and “flies”, but also start cleaning up the environment in which such creatures breed and survive.
Minxin Pei is the Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.