Xi's Corruption Crackdown

April 3, 2014 Topic: Politics Region: China

Xi's Corruption Crackdown

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

This has compelled Xi to go slow and compile an airtight case, which is in keeping with the Party’s penchant for presenting legal fait accompli. By the time the Party announces Zhou’s arrest, a guilty verdict will be inevitable and the remainder of the process will be merely procedural. In ‘normal’ cases, investigations can take many months, and Zhou’s is far from a normal case.

When it comes, Zhou’s arrest will mark the climax of Xi’s anticorruption campaign at the ‘tiger’ end of the scale. Corruption in China is endemic, extending from top to bottom and across all sectors of society and the economy. It is impossible to root out even a tiny percentage of the overall corruption, and Xi will have to stop somewhere. Since to a large extent the Party rules the country by cultivating vested interests, removing too many of these vested interests too rapidly could threaten support for the Party’s continuing rule. The trick is to balance moves to restore the Party’s reputation while redefining the parameters of “acceptable corruption”.

It is difficult to see how Xi can go much further than punishing Zhou and his associates. Although high-profile energy executives have been targeted within the wider Zhou investigation, Xi is unlikely to turn on the powerful quasi-oligarchs of China’s State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs). These SOEs control major economic sectors such as energy, telecoms and finance. The people who run them fill leadership positions with their families and friends, which places entire sectors of the economy in the hands of the few. This causes all kinds of economic inefficiencies and is likely to hinder Xi’s economic reforms, even though he was careful to put off SOE reform to a future juncture.

The sheer abundance of currency, bonds, real estate, cars, gold and antiques already seized from Zhou and his associates is astonishing. Zhou’s long-rumoured abuses of power are equally legendary, and will perhaps come out in the wash at some point. Clearly, in any campaign targeting corruption Zhou would be a candidate nonpareil. Yet the motivation behind the investigation is political. Zhou’s seemingly inevitable conviction will send a political message to Party officials, but will have minimal impact on official corruption, which will require fundamental changes to the political structure and political culture. It may also give a short-term boost to the Party’s image among Chinese citizens. Of course, in the long term, the Party legitimacy will require more systematic reforms, including better accountability mechanisms and meaningful political participation. The biggest impact of the Zhou case may thus be in terms of how it further consolidates Xi’s power and thus his capacity to implement his economic reform package.

Jonathan Sullivan is Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham. Follow him on Twitter: @jonlsullivan.

Image: Flickr/thierry ehrmann. CC BY 2.0.