Since ascending to the Chinese Communist Party General Secretary position in late 2012, Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign has targeted widespread graft in Chinese officialdom. Deeply rooted corruption in China contributes to income inequality and compromises the legitimacy of the Communist Party. Skepticism also surrounds the campaign, with experts asking to what extent the campaign is an attempt to reaffirm domestic social power, and whether the campaign is a means to an end, or an end in itself.
What do the experts think?
Christopher K. Johnson
Senior Adviser, Freeman Chair in China Studies, CSIS
Professor of Government & Director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies, Claremont McKenna College
Professor of Chinese Politics & Director of the Lau China Institute, King's College London
Why has Xi Jinping made rooting out corruption one of his top priorities?
Johnson: I like to refer to it as Xi having a sort of multi-layered cake of motivation for the anti-corruption campaign. There’s no question at the so called tiger level, where they’re targeting senior officials that it is very politicized. . . . At the so-called flies level, mid and lower ranking officials, I think the motivations really are quite different. Watch
Brown: It’s about restoring the reputation of the Communist Party and about narrowing the gap between the ruled and those who are ruling. Watch
Pei: Xi is very worried about how corruption is weakening the party, especially the discipline inside the Chinese Communist Party. Listen
Johnson: When Deng Xiaoping restarted the reform process after the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, he devolved a lot of power from the center to the provinces. . . . The anti-corruption campaign is a key tool by which [Xi] is seeking to recentralize that authority. Watch
Pei: [Xi] wants to generate popular support, and fighting corruption is a sure fire way of giving him enormous public support. Listen
What effect has the campaign had so far? How many people have been arrested? Are most of the people who have been targeted tigers or flies?
Pei: The number of county level [and] city level officials that have been arrested as a result of the anti-corruption campaign in the last three years on an annual basis is about 50 percent more than before 2013. Listen
Pei: In terms of tigers–these are officials with the rank of vice minister or vice governor and above–as of today, the number is about 150. That averages to 50 a year, and that’s a lot, that’s double the number of officials arrested in any given year before the anti-corruption campaign. Listen
Brown: It has really drawn blood, in ways that no other kind of campaign like this has ever done. They’ve always been sporadic in the past . . . but this has been sustained. Watch
Johnson: The campaign has helped bring to the surface broader concerns that they [the CCP] have about, can the party actually supervise itself, or do they need a more independent mechanism, some sort of an independent corruption commission to oversee the party. Watch
Brown: The effort now is ambiguous: is this campaign a political purge, is it against Xi Jinping’s enemies, is he an autocrat? Or is it really to . . . restore the moral mandate of the Party? Watch
A country’s ability to attract or persuade others is a key component of its “soft” power. How successful are China’s leaders at cultivating soft power?
What are some of the economic, political, and social consequences of corruption in China?
Pei: Corruption has led to the proliferation of corruption networks centered around individual leaders, and these leaders have become very powerful as a result. . . . These networks not only threaten the organizational integrity of the CCP, but can also pose potential political challenges to the top leadership. Listen
Brown: When you’ve got a booming economy, billions disappearing is not as massive as when your economy is now down to under seven percent. Watch
Pei: In the future, if China wants to continue to perform well economically, fighting corruption is an absolute necessity. Listen
Johnson: The main effect is the impact that it has on the party’s relationship with society. People don’t trust the party in the way that they used to, they don’t see it as necessarily helping their lives. Watch
Will the anti-corruption campaign have a long term effect on corruption within China?
Pei: I do not think so, because the campaign deals with corruption only at one level, and in a particular aspect, that is official corruption, involving government officials, government contracts, land, and so forth. There are many other aspects of corruption. Listen
Brown: It’s a 21st century version of the Cultural Revolution, in a sense, where Xi Jinping is kind of a Maoist leader. It is recreating the culture of the Communist Party of China, and creating a party which in Xi Jinping’s words is “closer to the people.” Watch
Pei: To get rid of corruption in an economy, you really have to strengthen the rule of law, you have to downsize the government, reduce the role of government in the Chinese economy, and also liberalize the press, give the press more leeway in exposing corruption. None of these efforts have occurred in China. Listen
Brown: I think this time there is an attempt to inculcate a kind of “rule-abiding” discipline within the Party, because there is an awareness that this is a treacherous time. If the Party is not able to discipline itself . . . then it will lose its mandate to rule, and it will be game over. So the stakes are high, and that’s why I think this struggle is not going to disappear any time soon. Watch
In terms of both personnel and financial support, China has become one of the largest contributors to the United Nations. How else is China supporting the United Nation’s mission?
How can we measure the success of the campaign?
Johnson: A key definition of success will be that once Xi has . . . managed to get the party in the position that he wants it to be, does he then turn towards a more reform-oriented agenda, toward opening the political system. Watch
Brown: It’s hard to measure popular support in China, but Xi Jinping by all accounts, anecdotal and according to the Pew research, is a popular leader. Watch
Johnson: After the Third Plenum, which tabled all of these many reforms, there has been very little movement on things like state owned enterprise reform, hukou system reform . . . there are real doubts beginning to develop as to whether Xi is doing the anti-corruption campaign as a means to an end, or as an end in itself. Watch
Brown: The fundamental problem with the corruption struggle is [that] it’s negative politics. It is good for the public to see greedy officials smashed up, but they also really want to see rising living standards, a sense of optimism, better housing, better health, and on those issues, so far, the Xi Jinping leadership has been about promising, but not delivering. Watch