China Briefing

Xi Jinping's wider ambitions in rooting out graft

The president has consolidated extraordinary power to battle for the legitimacy of the party, a move that points to his visions for his legacy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 August, 2014, 6:27am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 February, 2016, 12:18pm

What is Xi Jinping's endgame?

That is the most frequently asked question among the investors who try to make sense of the president's sweeping anti-graft campaign, which could have profound political and economic implications for the mainland.

Since Xi came to power in November 2012, he has made it his top priority to tackle rampant corruption, a campaign that has seen tens of thousands of Communist Party officials punished, including more than 30 very senior ones. The biggest anti-corruption drive since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949 reached a new level when the leadership announced a formal probe into Zhou Yongkang, the country's security tsar for five years and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee until 2012. That was preceded by a formal investigation into Xu Caihou, one of the People's Liberation Army's top generals until 2012.

As Xi's campaign has sent a chill across the bureaucracy and elicited loud cheers among ordinary mainlanders, questions have been raised about his motives. In particular, many people have been wondering how long the campaign will last and whether Zhou's downfall marks the beginning of the end of the drive. A more cynical view holds that Xi's corruption drive is merely part of his efforts to consolidate power by targeting adversaries and protecting allies.

As the annual informal gathering of current and former party elite is reportedly under way in Beidaihe, there have been suggestions that Xi could be under pressure from other leaders to scale down the corruption drive and shift the focus back to stimulating the economy. Indeed, some investors have started to complain the corruption drive has already produced an unintended consequence - scared officials withdrawing into stasis and delaying approval of many projects as they pay little attention to performing their daily duties while wondering if they could be the next target.

While the speculation is not without basis, there are also strong signs that Xi's campaign is far from over, and many people have underestimated his determination to bolster not only his own power but also the party's, while pushing for a radical reform agenda.

Even by the party's autocratic style, it has been an extraordinary feat for Xi to consolidate his power to a degree that has given rise to comparisons with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping - and all in less than two years. He has managed to become an undisputed leader with sweeping power over the party, the economy, the military, national security, internet security and foreign policy, to name a few.

His rapid consolidation of power would not have been successful without a cross section of support from party elites, including ex-president Jiang Zemin, who is still believed to wield strong influence behind the scenes.

Party elites are also likely to support a strong leader after witnessing what happens when there isn't one. Xi's predecessor, Hu Jintao, failed to exercise control over the nine-member standing committee, giving rise to the saying: "Each of the nine dragons ruled their fiefdom without a clear leader". This has been widely blamed for the lack of any major reform drive and the rapid rise of official corruption during Hu's 10-year reign.

The argument that Xi's anti-corruption drive is no more than a power grab also fails to appreciate his political ambitions. As a son of a former reformist party leader, Xi appears to harbour grand ambitions to shape his political legacy on a par with that of Deng, who put China on the path of reform and opening-up.

Xi is also trying to shore up the party's legitimacy, which has been battered by corruption, threatening its ability to rule. Indeed, a popular saying on the mainland goes: "Even corrupt officials believe corruption is out of control".

As he takes on senior officials, or "tigers", he faces strong passive resistance from powerful vested interest groups, prompting mainland scholars to warn that some "tigers" could strike back. According to mainland media and sources, Xi reportedly told officials he was disregarding "life, death, and reputation" in the fight against corruption as he acknowledged the campaign had reached a stalemate.

All this means Xi will have no choice but to continue his drive, as any relaxation would give the "tigers" opportunities to fight back.

There is credible speculation that following Zhou's downfall, the next "tigers" to fall are likely to include one of the most trusted aides to Hu and a former vice-premier in the previous administration.

In response to suspicions that his allies are protected, the leadership has sent anti-graft investigators to Shanghai and Zhejiang , where he used to work as their local party chief.

This shows the anti-graft drive will continue unabated for the foreseeable future. But Xi is also under pressure to break the stalemate and ease worries about his intentions, which could be achieved by riding the momentum to push for radical reforms.

The promise to discuss ways to promote the rule of law at an upcoming annual meeting of the party's central committee members is a step in the right direction. They should also waste no time in overhauling the state-owned sector and attacking its monopolies, which are seen as one of the biggest stumbling blocks to allowing market forces to play a decisive role in the mainland economy, as promised in a key party document late last year.