Jake's View
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 April, 2014, 1:04am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 September, 2014, 6:46pm

Xi Jinping may be in over his head with anti-corruption crusade

President's bid to root out graft threatens the system's foundation, and could destroy him


Jake van der Kamp is a native of the Netherlands, a Canadian citizen, and a longtime Hong Kong resident. He started as a South China Morning Post business reporter in 1978, soon made a career change to investment analyst and returned to the newspaper in 1998 as a financial columnist.

President Xi Jinping has said before that the fight against corruption would "go after the tigers as well as the flies", meaning no one was immune.

China Briefing
SCMP, April 7

Let's examine three scenarios here for what Mr Xi may be up against in either tigers, flies, or the whole range of species in between.

For scenario one, we shall take the cynical approach. We will say that he is cementing his power base by bringing selective corruption charges against rivals who have knives hidden behind their backs. The charges may be fully justified but their purpose is an exercise in palace politics, not a purge of corruption.

This scenario certainly fits the circumstances of many regimes that scorn the ballot box. Traditionally, you accuse your rival of being a Trotskyite, a capitalist roader or otherwise a deviationist from pure political thought. In today's context, a sex scandal or corruption charge will do as well.

I doubt, however, that this is what we have here. I am no reader of the Zhongnanhai tea leaves, but it strikes me that Xi has things pretty much under control. He has acceded to the presidency in the established formal manner, has already jailed at least one serious rival, and has seen the previous incumbent out the door. He doesn't need an anti-corruption drive to establish his authority.

So let us try scenario two and the angelic view. In this one, corruption is a serious but not endemic problem on the mainland. It can be eradicated by resolute action if the senior leaders of government are sufficiently determined to do it.

Xi certainly seems the sort of person who would fit the bill here. He is clearly offended by corruption, and no taint of it has attached itself to his own name. His colleagues apparently support him, and so far he has had all ranks of officialdom quaking in their boots that his eyes may turn their way. A real clean-up is in process.

And now scenario three. This one says that corruption is an invariable public-sector characteristic. The greater the role that government plays in any economy, the more graft there will be.

Studies done by the corruption watchdog Transparency International certainly confirm that the public sector is much more vulnerable than the private.

What is more, once corruption reaches a certain level in any sector it becomes all pervasive. To keep your job you must pay or take your share of the bribe. You otherwise pose a threat of exposure to your colleagues, and they will conspire to get rid of you.

When corruption reaches this level, it also works its way into the pay structure of those who participate in it. The bribe is shared down the ranks and becomes a regular and reliable part of everyone's annual income. It is not always an equitable share but no-one is denied. Everyone is in.

To threaten everyone, flies as well as tigers, with prison sentences for corruption is then to criminalise a large proportion of the population and seriously undermine its livelihood.

Administrative measures can have no success against corruption that has become this pervasive. Only a fundamental restructuring of the entire economy can do anything about it.

It is thus all very well for a national president to say that he will stamp out corruption and stage a few demonstration trials of egregiously corrupt officials. But for him to try and change an entire system of corruption through police action is to invite a widespread groundswell of reaction that may result in sweeping himself away.

It is my belief that this is the circumstance in which Xi actually finds himself, and it is my worry that he may not recognise it. He comes across to me as a true believer who may not see the danger to himself, and the consequent danger to the stability of the country.

As Mikhail Gorbachev was in Russia, Xi is fundamentally a believer in communist principles. He cannot accept so basic a flaw in them without questioning the roots of his own political beliefs or his own authority.

Yet I cannot imagine that he would care to follow where Gorbachev has trod. Bag yourself a few tigers, Mr Xi, but don't threaten the flies.