Heads continue to roll as China’s anti-corruption drive enters second decade

Heads continue to roll as China’s anti-corruption drive enters second decade

01 Oct 2023 ( SCMP )

China’s anti-corruption drive has entered its second decade with more high-profile casualties, prompting questions about the systemic nature of the problem and the fact that the Communist Party has yet to find an effective cure to eradicate the disease.

Tens of thousands of officials have already been brought down since Xi launched the campaign on coming to power in 2012, and the latest crackdown has snared senior figures he personally selected for promotion.

At least 36 senior cadres – officials of vice-ministerial ranking or above – have been placed under investigation this year.

In July, the PLA Rocket Force, an elite unit responsible for China’s nuclear arsenal, saw its commander Li Yuchao and his deputy Zhang Zhenzhong replaced with no official reason given. Military sources have said that they were under investigation for corruption.

Last month Li Haitao, a former deputy governor of the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, was placed under investigation for “serious violations of [party] discipline and law”, the usual shorthand for corruption.

Xi began the purge on taking power in 2012, a time when many in Beijing were worried that the party’s control over its cadres was too loose.

In the early wave of the campaign – which targeted both senior figures, or “tigers”, and “flies”, meaning more junior officials – a number of figures who had been promoted under the previous leadership were taken down.

But with the campaign entering its second decade in 2023, it is widely accepted that Xi now enjoys unchallenged power and the party has significantly lower tolerance for any disloyalty or wrongdoing.

China’s watchdogs have tacitly admitted the entrenched nature of the problem. In a recent interview published on the website of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the country’s top anti-corruption agency, a spokesman acknowledged the depth of the problem while outlining a new five-year graft-busting plan.

“Following past cases, [we believe] that we have yet to get to the bottom of it, and new cases – in all shapes and colours – are increasing,” the spokesman said.

“Pressing ahead with our anti-corruption struggle is a shared responsibility for the whole [Communist] party,” the spokesman said, adding that the party had “zero-tolerance” and promising to get rid of the disease through “self revolution”.

Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, said the interview indicated that Beijing had accepted that the campaign must continue.

“Part of the context is that there have been calls for relaxing the anti-corruption drive as China needs to revive its slacking economy. But what the CCDI is saying is that it won’t and it will keep going in stamping out corruption,” he said.

Yang said the previous drive was more about consolidation of power by Xi and winning public support.

“This time, in some areas, including the rocket force, the problems have been hidden for a long time,” Yang said.

He said he believed that the leadership may have other considerations because corruption in weapons procurement would directly affect China’s military strength – a priority for Xi.

Andrew Wedeman, a professor of political science at Georgia State University, where he heads the China Studies Initiative, said it was significant that after 10 years of campaigning against high-level corruption, so many senior figures were being targeted.

“The officials [Xi is] taking down now are his people,” he said. “He’s been remaking the leadership of the party, of the state, of the military, for a decade, but yet he’s finding out they were as dirty today as they were 10 years ago.”

Wedeman suggested that the leadership might be worried that the campaign was losing steam and the public had developed “campaign fatigue”.

“Unlike the 2012-2013 rhetoric, however, there is no talk of ‘hunting tigers’. It also warns against ‘war weariness’,” he said.

“I would thus characterise the new plan as an admission that the previous decade of ‘hunting tigers and swatting flies’ has not produced a ‘crushing victory’ and has become bogged down. Moreover, the text [of the CCDI interview] suggests that the leadership senses a growing cynicism and lack of support for the drive,” he added.

“We are told, however, that the crackdown has generated considerable resentment, particularly among those who perhaps came to believe that corruption was tacitly tolerated under Xi’s predecessors.

“My sense is thus that while Xi may have hand-picked many of the current leaders, many of his picks have dirty hands and while some may have cleaned up their act, they must still live in fear that their past misdeeds may come back to haunt them.”

Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said the fundamental causes of corruption were still there a decade after Xi began his clean-up.

“The goal of anti-graft campaigns is to establish a clean environment [for governance], but the CCP has not achieved that yet,” Wu said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.

And Wedeman said Xi had little choice but to continue since he could no longer blame the ills on his predecessors such as former presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.

“For Xi, the fact that his picks may have corrupt skeletons in their pasts – or may well still be engaged in corruption – means that he cannot simply blame corruption on Hu and Jiang.”

“But he cannot, I feel, ‘own it’ because to admit that his people are also corrupt would be an admission not only of the failure of the crackdown, but also his own failure to prevent corrupt officials from being promoted into the senior ranks.”

He said Xi “has tied himself to anti-corruption”, so the only realistic option was keep the campaign going. “If they don’t keep fighting, they have to admit they are losing,” he added.