China Briefing

Wang Qishan's most important mission to date: dousing the flames of corruption

Wang Qishan is no stranger to emergencies. But his current mission as graft-buster is to extinguish a blight that threatens the party itself

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 September, 2014, 7:21am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 February, 2016, 12:19pm

When Wang Qishan was named head of the Communist Party's anti-corruption agency in late 2012 as part of a sweeping reshuffle of the top leadership, the announcement was greeted with dismay by some investors. They lamented that Wang should have been given the portfolio for economic and financial affairs given his business acumen and deep, inside knowledge of these areas.

It turns out now that the mainland leadership could not have chosen a better person to lead the unprecedented assault on rampant official corruption after President Xi Jinping made tackling graft one of his top priorities.

Over the past two years, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection has launched investigations into tens of thousands of officials, including three dozen senior cadres detained on corruption charges. They include Zhou Yongkang, the former security tsar, plus former provincial and local party chiefs and the heads of major state-owned enterprises.

Now the commission has become the most feared agency among the Communist Party's 80 million members - it has sweeping powers to detain suspects for as long as it sees fit and to even deny officials access to their families or lawyers.

Despite its extraordinary power and extralegal status, the commission has widespread support of ordinary citizens.

However, many investors and China watchers have also been wondering how long the campaign will last amid speculation that some retired leaders including Jiang Zemin have warned Xi and Wang not to go too far.

Some investors are concerned about the economic impact as the anti-corruption drive has specifically targeted government extravagance, notably officials' lifestyles, triggering a plunge in revenue for restaurants and hotels and spending on luxury goods. But Xi and Wang remain undeterred and are determined to push ahead with the campaign.

In fact, mainland analysts familiar with the thinking of the leadership said retired leaders including Jiang have voiced strong support for the anti-corruption campaign as they realise the party's legitimacy was in jeopardy if graft remained uncurbed. That is why Wang was persuaded to take the helm of the anti-corruption drive in the first place.

There is good reason why Wang is often called the "chief fireman" - he is one of the most politically savvy officials who the leadership turns to in times of crisis.

Following the Asian financial crisis in 1997, former premier Zhu Rongji sent him to Guangdong to handle the bankruptcy of a major state investment firm and to oversee tough negotiations with angry foreign creditors.

During the height of the Sars epidemic in Beijing, Hu Jintao parachuted him into the city as mayor to handle the crisis and contain the disease.

According to people who have met him, Wang has a sharp tongue and a wry sense of humour, often commanding dinner-table talk, but publicly he has remained low-key compared to other top mainland leaders.

His off-the-cuff speech to a group of government advisers late last month, made public by the mainland media over the weekend, has made clear his thinking on the anti-corruption campaign.

In a speech to standing committee members of the political advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, Wang used his typical folksy language to reiterate why he would lead the anti-corruption drive until the end of his term in 2017.

He also further explained his theory of how to ensure party members "don't dare to commit corruption, cannot be corrupt and don't want to be corrupt".

He suggested that the tough campaign had made headway in forcing cadres to eschew corruption, but that was merely aimed at treating the symptoms and not the cause of graft.

He also recommended that institutional reforms be undertaken to ensure officials could not be corrupted, nor even have the desire to be corrupt.

He forcefully dismissed the suggestion that the leadership should consider forgiving corrupt officials who have retired and should focus instead on serving cadres, arguing that both groups should be targeted.

Wang also directly addressed the issue that the anti-corruption drive had encouraged many officials to do nothing so as to avoid attention.

The authorities would focus on bad officials who did more harm, he said.

More interestingly, at a time when the authorities are tightening controls over the media, Wang praised the important role of the media and the efforts of ordinary mainlanders to expose the officials' corrupt conduct through social media. He said this particular method of naming and shaming bad officials would be a potent weapon in fighting corruption.

"This is a battle we can't afford to lose," he was quoted as saying.

Even though Wang is the right leader to lead the campaign, his age works against him. He will be 69 in 2017 when his current five-year term expires and the party elects a new round of leaders.

As the party has an unwritten rule that only officials aged 67 or younger can serve another five-year term, Wang is expected to retire in 2017.

It is little wonder that there are already murmurings among certain officials over whether the party should make an exception and allow Wang to continue his job for the sake of the anti-corruption campaign.

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