Wang Xiangwei
SCMP Columnist
China Briefing
by Wang Xiangwei
China Briefing
by Wang Xiangwei

China’s Xi rose to power on his anti-corruption drive, but the fight’s grown more political – and it’s far from over

  • Nearly 5 million members have been caught in the Communist Party’s anti-corruption dragnet over the past decade under Chinese President Xi Jinping
  • Yet a decisive victory, and achieving the stated goal of ensuring officials ‘dare not, cannot and don’t want to’ be corrupt, still seem elusive
If there were only one lens through which to interpret Chinese President Xi Jinping’s remarkable rise over the past decade, then it would have to be his signature anti-corruption drive.

Since he came to power in late 2012, Xi and his supporters have deftly combined this ruthless effort with a relentless ideological campaign aimed at consolidating power by crushing political rivals and strengthening control over all levels of society.

The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) – the Communist Party’s principal anti-corruption agency, which approves the punishment and expulsion of members – has over the past decade investigated and disciplined nearly 5 million high-ranking and grass-roots officials, or “ tigers and flies” in party parlance.
Copies of a booklet published by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection anti-corruption watchdog at a 2016 news conference in Beijing. Photo: Reuters
At next month’s 20th party congress, Xi is widely expected to further solidify his power by securing a norm-busting third term as party chief and dominating a leadership shake-up that will most likely see more of his allies appointed to leading positions in party and state organs, including the CCDI.

But don’t expect any let up in the party’s anti-corruption efforts – Xi has repeatedly vowed as much and the campaign has, indeed, become one of the most effective tools to instil political compliance and loyalty among its 97 million members.

A ruthless political watchdog with a wide remit

We can glean some fascinating insights about the anti-corruption drive’s changing dynamics by taking a closer look at the CCDI’s announcements of its investigations into a number of senior officials.

Whenever overseas media pick up on such statements, they tend to focus on fallen officials’ corrupt deeds: the huge embezzlement cases, massive bribes and flagrant abuses of power for personal gain.

But the eye-catching and egregious amounts of money involved – often running into the hundreds of millions of yuan – are only a part, albeit an important one, of a much bigger picture. The CCDI’s remit extends much further.

Since becoming more politically driven under Xi’s tandem disciplinary and ideological campaigns, the commission now gives more weight to political discipline and political protocols – usually a reference to whether officials heed and obey the party leadership. Organisational discipline and scrutiny of members’ integrity in public, as well as at work and in their home lives, are also a part of the CCDI’s remit.

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Almost all the officials currently being investigated by the CCDI were first and foremost accused of violating political discipline and political protocols, judging from its recent announcements. These violations are often expressed in such stock phrases as “speaking ill of the party’s policies”, “abandoning ideals and convictions”, “being untruthful and disloyal to the party”, and “resisting investigation”.

After former top judge Shen Deyong, for instance, was placed under investigation earlier this year, the CCDI charged the former vice-president of the Supreme People’s Court with abandoning ideals and convictions, being untruthful and disloyal to the party, and resisting investigation. It also accused him of abusing his power and position to amass a huge amount of bribes.

Officials can also be subject to expulsion for religious activities, even state-approved ones, as the party is officially atheist, characterises religions including Buddhism as “superstition” and forbids religious believers to join.

On Wednesday, Guangdong announced that Xie Xiaodan, a former top official in charge of law and order in the provincial capital of Guangzhou, was expelled from the party and turned over to prosecutors on criminal corruption charges. An official statement gave participating in religious activities as one of the reasons for his downfall.

Inside a Hong Kong bookseller that closed its doors in 2018. Before 2012, many of Hong Kong’s bookstores sold unauthorised books that party officials could be disciplined for reading. Photo: K.Y. Cheng
Reading unauthorised books – particularly ones speculating about China’s politics, its leaders and their family members – can also land officials in hot water. Often published in Taiwan and Hong Kong, these books would in past years attract crowds of mainland tourists – many officials among them – to the shops and airport book stands where they were sold.
Before 2012, even mainland-owned bookstores in Hong Kong would stock such titles as they were often bestsellers, but those days are now long gone. A major turning point came in 2015, with the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers who were allegedly abducted by mainland agents, shocking the international community.

Retroactive charges dash retirees’ ‘red line’ hopes

When Xi launched his disciplinary campaign 10 years ago, the CCDI made it clear that it would primarily target serving officials who continued to engage in corruption after 2012, when Xi became paramount leader. That had once given false hopes to officials who retired before the red line was drawn.

That all changed last year when Cai Esheng, a former top banking official, was detained on corruption charges, nearly nine years after his retirement.
It also emerged last year that Xi had ordered a special task force to coal-rich Inner Mongolia to investigate corruption in the region’s fossil fuel industry dating back 20 years, sending shudders down the spines of most local principal officials. It has already led to a number of arrests.
A coal-burning power plant near a factory in China’s Inner Mongolia. A recent crackdown on corruption in the region’s coal industry led to a number of arrests. Photo: Reuters

Given the widely-known fact that many officials have had extramarital affairs, or condoned family members’ abuse of power for personal gain, discipline regarding their personal lives has also been strengthened. There have been state media reports suggesting that the CCDI has also tried to monitor officials’ after-work activities. For instance, its officers routinely monitor the comings and goings at expensive upmarket restaurants during national holidays. Some local authorities have even issued public warnings to officials about being seen hanging around with young women.

Officials are also required by the party leadership to file detailed disclosures of their financial assets including stocks, bank deposits and other investments, for internal reference.

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The party has claimed that all these institutionalised measures have succeeded in achieving a decisive victory against blatant official corruption, which ran amok from 2002 to 2012 during the era of Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor.

That may sound encouraging. But the recent spate of announcements by the CCDI on new corruption investigations shows that the party is far from reaching its stated goal of ensuring officials “dare not, cannot and don’t want to” be corrupt.