Can Xi Jinping’s corruption battle in China place the people above the Communist Party?
Chi Wang says while the Chinese president’s sweeping anti-graft campaign has already felled over a million tigers and flies, the real long-term test is to root out the culture of corruption, updating people’s values to those that befit a more prosperous nation
President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign has been a topic of discussion since it was initiated five years ago. In his 19th party congress speech, laying out his goals for the Communist Party and for China as a whole, Xi renewed his pledge to tackle graft.
The campaign has already reached over 1.5 million officials. Why, then, did Xi again single out fighting corruption as a key priority? Xi made it clear in his speech; he sees corruption as a threat – to the party in particular. This explains both the scope of the anti-corruption campaign and its limitations.
The danger corruption poses for the ruling leadership is clear from looking at China’s history. In imperial China, a dynasty would form under the mandate of heaven, then grow and prosper. Over successive generations of rulers, however, corruption would take root, and the people would lose faith in their ruler, calling the mandate of heaven into question. Ultimately, one dynasty would decline and a new one would rise in its place.
The dynastic cycle has seemingly outlived imperial China. The 1912-1949 Republic of China was also beset by corruption. Mao Zedong’s highlighting of the corruption among Kuomintang leaders helped the Communists, with proletariat values and grass roots origins, win the civil war.
I left China in 1949 to study in the US, returning 23 years later, in 1972, on behalf of the US government to help initiate cultural exchanges. I witnessed a fledgling country trying to put itself back together after war and internal strife. People seemed honest and focused on making the country better. They talked about serving the people, not serving themselves. There was no room for corruption.
This is not the case today. As China prospers, there’s room for corruption to once again take hold.
The Communist Party is not immune to the dangerous consequences of corruption. Thus, as economic growth slows and its undesirable side effects, which of course include corruption, become more apparent, party legitimacy is at risk.
Watch: Anti-corruption campaign ‘disciplines’ over a million party officials
Thus, the anti-corruption campaign is a natural extension of Xi’s main priority – maintaining party legitimacy and personal power. For him, corruption itself is secondary. The goal of his campaign is to prevent the weakness and instability of the central government that often results from corruption.
The campaign has been well-received by the people, and has also reasserted the power of the central government. As for Xi, the campaign has solidified his power even further. His lack of personal corruption has made him stand out as a pillar of integrity against the corrupt tigers and flies. Now, his personal power is stronger than anything China has seen in decades.
However, one must wonder how sustainable this campaign truly is. It has been accompanied by other policies that, while helping to keep control in the hands of the leadership, also limit the reach of the campaign itself. For example, Xi’s anti-rumour campaign and other crackdowns on free speech have made it difficult for the general population to report their experiences with corrupt local officials.
The motivations behind Xi’s campaign limit its effectiveness in truly fighting corruption. While many public arrests have been made, it’s still only a drop in the bucket. The structures and culture that allowed corruption to grow have not been changed.
Increasingly, I find myself questioning the motivations and trustworthiness of Chinese individuals and companies I am considering working with. There is a new feeling that everyone is out for themselves. While I know this sentiment does not apply to everyone in China, it’s clear that the overall norms and values need to be adjusted. The issue of corruption is about more than just arresting a few bad apples – it’s about updating the people’s values and culture to fit the country’s new reality as a more prosperous nation.
Watch: China’s anti-corruption purge hits elite Central Committee
In the years before Xi leaves his position, he will have to decide if fighting corruption is his true goal. If it is, he will need to change his approach. Right now, his campaign is a temporary tool to appease the people and shore up central authority. In order to fight corruption in the long term, however, China needs to do more. China needs an effective and strong legal system to help curb future corruption, while ensuring the anti-corruption campaign is systematic and equitable in its prosecutions.
But I’m not sure this is something the leadership will pursue, considering the current legal system is not independent but controlled by the party. China also needs to reform its government system in a way that continues to encourage innovation, growth and efficiency, without relying on the incentive of corruption to move things along – not an easy task.
Watch: Xi Jinping calls for great victory for socialism with Chinese characteristics
Xi faces a difficult balancing act. If corruption continues unchecked, the central government will weaken and the people will question the party’s legitimacy and ability to maintain order. If Xi is unable to say he succeeded in fighting corruption, his personal legitimacy will be questioned. If the costs of the anti-graft campaign become too high, however, it might lose the support of the people.
While China is not the only country dealing with corruption, this campaign will surely be a defining aspect of Xi Jinping’s presidency. However, will the fight against corruption continue to be about the good of the Communist Party, or will it expand to be about the good of the Chinese people?
Chi Wang, a former head of the Chinese section of the US Library of Congress, is president of the US-China Policy Foundation