To curb corruption, China must do more than taking down tigers
Chang Ping says the problem with China's fight against corruption has never been the lack of examples to serve as a deterrent: the arrest of top officials alone won't curb abuse of power
Just before July 1, the Chinese Communist Party hit the headlines with news on several high-profile corruption investigations. This could be its way of celebrating the anniversary of the founding of the party, on July 1, or perhaps it was trying to steal the limelight from the annual march in Hong Kong.
On June 27, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection announced that Wan Qingliang, the party chief of Guangzhou and member of the Guangdong Standing Committee, was under investigation for violation of party discipline. Three days later, the Politburo announced it was expelling Xu Caihou, a former vice-chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission, from the party. The decision was taken at a meeting chaired by President Xi Jinping. It said Xu, facing accusations of bribe-taking and other violations, would be handed over to military prosecutors.
On the same day, the central discipline commission disclosed on its website that three other ministerial-ranked officials or executives of state enterprises have also been expelled from the party. They are Li Dongsheng, a former vice-minister of public security; Jiang Jiemin , former chairman of the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission; and Wang Yongchun, a former deputy general manager of China National Petroleum Corporation.
To quote Xi's "tiger and fly" theory of corruption, these few were very big tigers indeed. Xu was a former member of the Politburo while the other four were all members or alternate members of the Central Committee.
Their arrests exemplified the central government's iron fist in fighting corruption and its determination to enforce party discipline, the People's Daily said in a post on its official Weibo channel. "The party will never allow any kind of corruption and the military will never tolerate the corrupt and their shameless dealings," it said.
Many people are still not satisfied, however, because the biggest tiger of them all has yet to be indicted. Former Politburo Standing Committee member and security chief Zhou Yongkang has been under investigation since last year, yet there's been no news of his fate. There are worries this means the investigation has run into a problem, or that a dirty deal has been done that would see the captive tiger freed.
On the fight against corruption, the people and the government are largely in agreement. One, they believe corruption has become such a massive problem that it would bring down both party and country if left unchecked.
Two, they share the view that more of these powerful tigers should be targeted, not only because they deserve punishment for their heinous crimes but also because their arrests would act as an effective deterrent and warning for other officials.
People seem to have forgotten their history. Since the founding of the party, our leaders have not shunned from making an example of some big tigers. In February 1952, in a case billed as "New China's first major anti-corruption case", Tianjin district party secretary Liu Qingyun and Tianjin district commissioner Zhang Zishan were executed by firing squad for accepting massive bribes.
On behalf of sympathisers, party elder Bo Yibo had pleaded for leniency with Mao Zedong, Bo recounted in his memoirs. But Mao replied: "It is precisely because of their seniority, and great contributions and influence that they must be executed, so as to prevent 20, 200, 2,000 or even 20,000 more cadres from committing different degrees of mistakes."
Since then, successive party leaders have said a great deal about the necessity of fighting corruption. And they've captured one tiger after another: Chen Xitong, Chen Liangyu, Cheng Kejie, Tian Fengshan, Hu Changqing, Wang Huaizhong, Zheng Xiaoyu … The list runs on until we get to Xu Caihou today. Xi's pledge to catch flies and tigers is just one way of iterating the party's approach to deter corruption.
The question is: can these negative examples really curb crime? Obviously not, or corruption would not be as serious as it is today.
After Wan was arrested, he became something of a joke on the internet because he was known for his diatribes against the "scourge" of corruption. One memorable line goes: "When we criticise ourselves, we should worry that it's not spicy enough; when we criticise others, we should not fear it is too spicy." Another one was: "To fight corruption, let me be the first to come under supervision."
According to Wan, the "No 1 hand" - the literal translation of a Chinese term that means the top leader - is like the master power switch. To root out corruption, not only is the "No 1 hand" responsible for arresting the guilty, but the top leader himself must not be immune to arrest.
But that is precisely the problem. This is the political reality in today's China. A top leader who has resolved to catch the tigers is himself a powerful dictator who is accountable to no one. The corruption crackdowns that such leaders initiate are often no more than a campaign to take down political rivals and cement their own authority. No matter how many people have been arrested, their achievement in the fight against corruption is nothing to be proud of. History will only repeat itself.
The fight against corruption should be based on the rule of law and freedom of speech. It should have nothing to do with a leader's resolve or interest in the matter.
Everyone in power, including the top leaders, should be subject to public scrutiny, and every corrupt official should answer to an independent judiciary. Sadly, this fundamental principle is too easily lost in the talk about flies and tigers and such like.
In that sense, it might not be a bad thing if Zhou's case has indeed run into obstacles. At least it shows that some checks and balances still exist within the senior leadership and power isn't yet absolute.
Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese