Zhou Yongkang

Xi Jinping has much to learn from Deng's example of winning over allies

Minxin Pei says creation of a pro-reform coalition must follow graft purge

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 August, 2014, 5:09pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 August, 2014, 3:34am

In the boldest move yet since President Xi Jinping launched his anti-corruption campaign, China has announced the start of a formal investigation into "serious disciplinary violations" by one of the Chinese Communist Party's most senior figures, Zhou Yongkang. A "mega-tiger" has been brought down. But is that what China really needs?

Since 2012, when Xi began "hunting tigers", three dozen ministers and other high-level officials have fallen into his net. But Zhou is no ordinary tiger. A former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, Zhou was considered untouchable.

Other members have been purged in power struggles. But the defeated have typically retired quietly.

The prosecution of Zhou is a watershed event. It unambiguously demonstrates Xi's personal authority and political resolve. But the question remains: what exactly does Xi hope to achieve with China's most fearsome anti-corruption campaign in more than three decades?

The conventional wisdom is that the threat of prosecution serves Xi's goals of consolidating power and compelling the bureaucracy to implement economic reforms that run counter to its interests. The two prongs of Xi's political strategy - cleansing the party and reinvigorating China's economy - are thus complementary.

This strategy has considerable merit. But even the Machiavellian dictum that a ruler should encourage his citizens' fear rather than their love can go only so far. The most successful political leaders are skilled coalition-builders.

Consider Deng Xiaoping , China's most successful reformer. The grand coalition that he forged upon his return to power in 1979 was essential to bringing about the economic transformation that followed.

The question today is not whether Xi has amassed enough authority to effect change in China, but whether he has built a coalition capable of advancing his declared goal of reviving pro-market reforms. And, so far, the answer seems to be no.

Since taking over the presidency, Xi's actions have been both resolute and contradictory. On one hand, he has been aggressively pursuing "tigers" and "flies" (lower-level officials), while curbing, at least temporarily, the privileges enjoyed by Chinese officials. On the other hand, he has launched an equally ferocious campaign against political liberalisation, arresting and jailing leading human-rights activists and cracking down on China's once-vibrant social media.

The risks of waging a two-front war are obvious. If Xi's fight against corruption is genuine, it will engender fear and resentment among the Chinese bureaucracy. While officials feign compliance with Xi's economic-reform agenda, they will seek any opportunity to stymie it. The absence of significant real progress since Xi unveiled his economic blueprint last November suggests that this is already happening.

At the same time, Xi's tough stance against political reform is diminishing hope among liberals. Of course, this group - including intellectuals, social activists, journalists, and entrepreneurs - has little institutional power. What it does have is the capacity to influence ordinary Chinese - making them a valuable addition to a pro-reform coalition.

Deng recognised this potential in the 1980s; unless Xi follows suit, he will find it increasingly difficult to rally the public behind his vision for China's future.

This is not to say that caging Zhou was not a good move. But Xi must now shift his focus from bagging another quarry to winning over new and perhaps unexpected allies. His long-term success - and that of China - depends on it.

Minxin Pei is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Copyright: Project Syndicate