The three groups of untouchables in China’s corruption crackdown
Deng Yuwen believes Communist Party leaders have set a bottom line of not targeting the scion of the nation’s founders, Politburo members and retired party elders, despite promises of a no-holds-barred anti-corruption campaign
In the recent Chinese hit drama In the Name of the People, Sha Ruijin, party secretary of the fictional Handong province, tells the graft-busting hero Hou Liangping that the clampdown on corruption has “no ceiling and no floor”. A zero-tolerance policy will be adopted and all will be investigated, regardless of status or rank. At the end of the series, Gao Yuliang, deputy secretary of the Handong political and legal affairs commission, and Qi Tongwei, director of the public security department, are arrested along with a number of “tigers”. The pledge was made good.
In reality, China’s leaders often make similar statements. Nevertheless, judging from the arrests so far, it is clear that the campaign has succeeded in ensuring there’s “no floor” but is far from having “no ceiling”.
The current crackdown on corruption that began with the 18th party congress in 2012 has been the fiercest in Communist Party history. According to unofficial estimates, some 200 officials at the provincial level and above have been caught. This includes many members of the current Central Committee; Zhou Yongkang (周永康), a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee; and Guo Boxiong (郭伯雄) and Xu Caihou (徐才厚), both former vice-chairmen of the Central Military Commission.
Yet, many Chinese are not impressed. From the start, there have been murmurs of disapproval, with some calling the campaign “selective anti-corruption”, or a front for a purge, or a power struggle. As the current leadership prepares to undergo the five-yearly power transition this year, such views have become more, not less, commonplace.
To be fair, we should not doubt the leadership’s sincerity and determination in tackling corruption. Fundamentally, the battle is being waged not because of any one leader’s proclivity, but out of a need for the party to safeguard its own rule. As leaders have repeatedly stressed, corruption is a scourge that, if left untouched, will lead to the party’s and the nation’s demise. If these words were uttered in the past just for show, today’s leaders mean them because they sense that the party’s survival is at stake.
That said, critics of the anti-corruption drive have a point. The campaign today has come under considerable “ceiling pressure”. In other words, it is stuck in a bottleneck. And I believe a breakthrough now will shatter the balance of the entire political system and lead to unpredictable political consequences.
But where does this “ceiling pressure” come from? I believe it’s because the leadership set a bottom line for the campaign right from the start – that is, no matter what happens, three groups of people are off-limits: the “second generation reds”, or children of the People’s Republic’s founding fathers, Politburo members, and the retired elders of the Communist Party.
First, the hong erdai, or “second generation reds”. The explanation given for the fact that no one from that generation has been tainted with corruption charges is that they have a strong sense of national duty and are incorruptible. This does not hold water. It’s true that most of them grew up in a privileged environment and are not wanting, but to say that they are above it all is just not credible. Human nature is the same everywhere, and no one is born corrupt or incorruptible. In fact, as has been repeatedly demonstrated in the cases uncovered so far, the closer people are to the power centre, the more opportunities there are for corruption.
There can be only one reason why no one from that generation has been implicated – the hong erdai have been ruled untouchable. After all, they are the natural supporters of communist rule. Perhaps more than their predecessors, this generation of Chinese leaders appear to have a strong sense of legacy, and feel strongly that a nation forged by the party elders must not be lost in this generation. In some sense, the special status accorded to the hong erdai stems from the same ideological framework. If one among the hong erdai is tainted with corruption, it might shake the people’s faith in communist rule. This is why they are off limits.
When it comes to current Politburo members and the party’s retired elders, it is likely that they have been given a pass because of the need to preserve a balance of power. In the current round of the crackdown, the highest official caught so far has been a vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a position that is nowhere near as powerful as a seat on the Politburo. Even in the Jiang Zeming (江澤民) and Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) eras, some Politburo members were hauled up for corruption (even though they were likely ousted as a result of a power struggle). But not this time.
This is because the leadership needs high-level support for the sweeping campaign against corruption. If those at the top also become targets for investigation, it may trigger political infighting and party division, perhaps leading to another “Bo Xilai ( 薄熙來 ) incident”. If this happens, not only will the anti-corruption campaign get nowhere, but it may well land the party in a political crisis.
The government bureaucracy may be corrupt, but if the core of the ruling party is relatively clean, the party may still leave the people with a good impression. This is why the occasional overseas reports of corruption involving Politburo members have been dismissed by the Chinese government as acts with an ulterior motive.
Watch: Zhou Yongkang sentenced to life in prison
How then should we make sense of the downfall of Zhou Yongkang? His case, linked to the Bo Xilai fallout, is an exception rather than the rule. Besides, it is widely believed that it was the previous leadership that worked together to bring Zhou down. From the current leaders’ perspective, Zhou’s case (and the downfall of Ling Jihua, a key aide of former president Hu) can be seen as a warning to the elites to behave. But because of the potentially huge consequences of such a high-profile downfall, it is safe to say that there will be no retired party elders following in Zhou’s footsteps.
The leadership’s bottom line has ensured a smooth run so far for the anti-corruption drive, and will continue to do so. However, in an authoritarian country, a kink in the process may quickly get out of control. The recent revelations by the fugitive tycoon Guo Wengui, for example, may well trigger a reaction big enough to breach the “ceiling”of the anti-corruption drive, after which it will be anyone’s guess what happens next in Chinese politics.
Deng Yuwen is a researcher at the Charhar Institute think tank