Political and economic reforms key if Xi Jinping is to win the war on graft

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 August, 2014, 4:08am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 August, 2014, 6:55am

More than six months ago, Communist Party discipline chief Wang Qishan said the fight against corruption had to deal first with the symptoms - misdeeds by officials - in order to buy time to devise a systematic approach to tackle the causes. Time to do this may be running out, judging by revelations this week of divisions over the crackdown among the elite and growing concern about where it is leading.

In one report President Xi Jinping, who has staked his authority on the campaign, is quoted as saying "two armies of corruption and anti-corruption are in confrontation and are in a stalemate". The conflict comes down to the question of which poses the greater threat to the party's legitimacy - corruption or the risk to unity of the continued pursuit of errant officials, which has hurt powerful interest groups.

More than a month ago, growing criticism and doubts prompted Xi to defend his stance at a meeting of Politburo members, according to a report this week sourced to the party chief of Baishan city in Jilin province, Li Wei. A person familiar with the meeting confirmed details of the president's reported comments. Xi is said to have rejected a "school of thought" that the anti-graft crackdown would only plunge the country into chaos. Li added that the leadership had vowed to see the anti-graft campaign through to the very end.

Separately, 13 academics, writing in a magazine affiliated with the People's Daily, have warned that the crackdown could trigger a backlash from corrupt "tigers" - senior officials - and that they, too, might fight to the end. Critics have already claimed Xi is using the anti-graft campaign to consolidate his power and that the distraction is paralysing decision-making.

Wang's remark about buying time confirms that, ultimately, the problem is a system of government in which officials wield so much power over the economy that it has fostered rampant corruption at every level. Xi's campaign may have paved the way to addressing it. Given his reference to stalemate, it may now be time to shift the focus to political and economic reforms that reduce the role of government in the economy and the scope for abuse of power, and make it more transparent and accountable.

This week's summit of the Communist Party elite reportedly under way at the seaside resort of Beidaihe will be a test of Xi's authority to carry the party with him on reform.