HONG KONG — Let’s call them anti-graft Fridays.
China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) typically rolls out news at the end of the work week, announcing major busts before weekend revelry kicks into gear. It’s the designated watchdog group for the internal control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), tasked with safeguarding disciplinary purity. In a nation plagued by corruption, the CCDI stays busy these days. Last month, it hit a high note when it rolled out a four-part documentary about the nation’s anti-graft campaign, spearheaded by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Chairman Xi has been head of the CCP since late 2012, and was elected to the presidency nearly two years ago in a landslide victory, with only a single vote against him, in the election held by the National People’s Congress. He holds power over party, military, and state, but nobody outside of the Communist Party’s inner circle can truly explain his rise within the power structure of the People’s Republic. Despite being the son of a party official who was purged before the Cultural Revolution, Xi managed to hold a variety of governmental positions in the past few decades, leaving his footprints in significant posts and slowly climbing the ladder of the Party. At the same time, his family managed to amass a spectacular amount of wealth. Otherwise, little is known about him. Even with the development of a cult of personality in ways unseen since the days of the proto-Chairman, Mao Zedong, President Xi’s public demeanor remains robotic and distant, unlike the Chinese leaders of previous eras.
At home, President Xi’s time as the paramount leader of China has largely been framed by an extremely aggressive anti-graft campaign. His unending hunt for “tigers and flies” has led to the disciplining of cadres for minor offenses like paying for lavish banquets with public funds or using government vehicles as personal transportation, as well as the purging of high-level officials for more serious wrongdoings and greedier cases of graft.
Some of the bigger names that have been purged from public office are Bo Xilai, the Communist Party Secretary of Chongqing, one of five cities of significant political importance; Zhou Yongkang, a member of China’s Politburo Standing Committee, which is the most powerful decision-making entity within the CCP; Ling Juhua, a top adviser to Hu Jintao, who was once chief of the CCP and president of China; and Xu Caihou, a former general of the People’s Liberation Army and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, where he was, ironically, in charge of discipline inspection.
It’s said that Jiang Zemin, one of President Xi’s predecessors and possibly the most influential retired Chinese politician, is fuming.
There are two popular interpretations for what is happening in China. The first is that President Xi is addressing a prime concern of Chinese society. For years, corruption spread like a plague in the country’s massive bureaucracy. As social media usage continues to grow in China, proof of misdeeds by apparatchiks have surfaced at an unprecedented scale, sometimes in the form of photos posted by drunken officials themselves. In its worst form, corruption in China kills. The 2008 earthquake in Sichuan cost the lives of around 70,000 people, nearly 5,000 of whom were students taking refuge in substandard schoolhouses—popularly called “tofu-dreg” schoolhouses because of their construction no more solid than bean curd. When those schools were being built, local government officials saved on construction materials and pocketed the difference.
The second interpretation of the anti-graft movement, and a more cynical take, is that Xi Jinping is purging the old guard to establish a new power base.
It might sound like a case of rule of law versus rule by law, but the two takes are not mutually exclusive.
In any case, President Xi isn’t about to end his campaign and declare the mission accomplished. In fact, he’s been pushing harder, and the latest prey in his tiger hunt were 16 generals whose names were released by state media last week. It was an atypical public announcement, given the usual hush-hush when it comes to military affairs in China.
One way to think about Chinese politics is to break down the CCP into geographical factions. The party might govern as one body, but there are small bands within that have their own agendas. Zhou Yongkang was a powerhouse in the Sichuan faction. Ling Jihua was of the Shaanxi faction. The generals who were promoted by President Xi to take on more political roles within the People’s Liberation Army are from the Nanjing Military Region.
Aside from the continued push for investigations of possible corruption, President Xi has implemented other reforms that concentrate power in his own hands. Last year, he created the National Security Commission, with himself as the head, because “[strengthening] the unified leadership of the state security work is an urgent need.” At the same time, he has formed a number of “leading small groups,” which are entities made up of top level CCP officials who advise the Politburo and deal with leadership issues. These actions were not pioneered by Xi; his predecessors have made similar reforms. But under the current administration in China, they have reached an intensity unseen before in the People’s Republic. As the paramount leader of China, President Xi has preserved the leadership structure of the CCP and loyalty toward his office. Even though major figures of the CCP have been expelled from the party, its functionality remains fully intact.
There is no sign that Xi is about to stop the purges any time soon. If anything, the winds of change are blowing harder than ever. Xi has promised deeper reform and the rule of law in 2015. The four-part documentary series released by CCDI was a smashing hit, and each episode ended with a note that President Xi’s theory of reform is the only correct theory. As a leader, he is more popular than ever. The general belief is that there are many bad apples in the barrel of government, and they need to be thrown in the trash. When these figures fall, there may not be a direct and immediate impact on the lives of ordinary Chinese citizens, but there is a sense that justice is being served, and that’s a wonderful thing. However, the danger lies in the concentrated power that Xi has placed in his own hands. The mechanics of the Chinese government remain hidden, and public participation and criticism are not encouraged.
All signs suggest Xi Jinping has established his legitimacy as China’s paramount leader, not through a near-perfect ballot box victory, but by addressing a massively important social issue—possibly the issue that has hampered China’s growth. But until his anti-graft campaign takes down many more princelings known to be corrupt, it will still look like political maneuvering.