Xi's Corruption Crackdown

China's leader is taking on his biggest foe yet. But how far can he go?

Last autumn saw the conclusion of China’s most politically charged trial in decades when former rising political star Bo Xilai was sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty of “bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power”. Looming on the horizon is an even more sensational tale of official corruption that promises to relegate Bo to a lurid footnote. In pursuing former security tsar Zhou Yongkang, President Xi Jinping has given a demonstration of his power and a popular face-value commitment to cleaning house. In doing so he risks further exposing the rotten core of the ruling Communist Party and establishing a worrying precedent for powerful leaders with skeletons in their closets. Former leaders Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin are reported to have sent Xi a warning not to overreach or do anything to endanger the Party’s capacity to rule and to stay in power.

Ever since Mao Zedong’s internal rivalries spilled into the streets as the Cultural Revolution, the unwritten rule in Chinese politics has been that current and former members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of political power in China, are immune to investigation. As Teng Biao puts it, the motto for Chinese officials is “make it to bureau head and you will be spared the death penalty. Make it to the Standing Committee and you will be spared any penalty.” Yet all indications are that we about to witness the breaking of this entrenched Party taboo. The net is slowly closing in on Zhou Yongkang, who served under Hu Jintao until both retired as part of the transition to a new Party leadership in 2012.

When Xi Jinping became Secretary General, one of his first acts was to launch an anticorruption campaign that promised to target “flies” (low-ranking officials) and “tigers” (high-ranking officials). Corruption had spiraled out of control under the conservative, constrained leadership of his predecessor Hu, creating bottlenecks in the economy and unrest in an increasingly unequal society. Investigative reports by the New York Times, Bloomberg and other Western media outlets, demonstrate how China’s top leaders and their families have used positions of power and influence to stockpile vast fortunes.

Yet, even by the extravagant standards of Chinese corruption, Zhou was unusually assiduous in his efforts to reap the rewards of high office. It was reported on March 30 that authorities have seized nearly $15 billion assets in assets from Zhou’s family and associates.

The scale of Zhou’s activities aside, it is hard to get worked up over a phenomenon that is so ‘normalized’ that the word corruption barely has any meaning. In reality corruption is the lifeblood of the Communist Party; a vital mechanism that allows it to buy support in exchange for favours in the form of land sales or exclusive access to parts of the economy. It is impossible for the Party to eliminate corruption, because it is too widespread, too entrenched and, in some ways, too useful. As scholarly work on the Chinese leadership emphasizes, the Party’s priority is to stay in power; corruption helps it to do so.

The Party currently has around eighty million members. As Richard McGregor suggests, if we add their closest family relatives, then perhaps as much as one third of China’s total population has a direct personal stake in the Party’s fortunes. Not all Party members are corrupt, or join the Party for personal interests. But the Party is the only social organization, the only vehicle in Chinese society that can provide such a high degree of social and economic “mobility.” Much of this mobility functions on the corruption spectrum, ranging from building personal networks and exercising guanxi to the egregious nest feathering of which Zhou will inevitably be found guilty.