Upon becoming general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 2012, President Xi Jinping put forward a frank assessment that endemic corruption among party elites and cadres threatens to delegitimize the reform process and undermine the CPC’s rule. Xi announced a broad anti-corruption campaign and vowed that the party’s graft watchdog would be “striking tigers and flies at the same time” – a signal that both prominent officials and grassroots cadres would be equally held accountable.
In the two years since the anti-corruption campaign began, it has proven to be the longest reaching and most impactful clampdown effort since the reform era began in 1978. Anti-graft inspectors have launched thousands of investigations, ending the political careers of hundreds of officials engaged in bribery, embezzlement and acquiring illicit funds through land deals, official infrastructure projects and land development. The scope of the anti-corruption efforts has not spared those in the CPC’s inner circle, creating anxiety within the party.
Zhou Yongkang, one of China’s most powerful men until his retirement in 2012, has been the most prominent official probed for abuses of power. During his tenure as the head of the CPC’s political and legislative affairs committee, Zhou’s only superiors were the president and prime minister. He was a member of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) and oversaw the state’s internal security, judicial system, law enforcement, and paramilitary operations, operating with a larger budget than China’s military.
The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) – the party’s formidable anti-corruption agency – has also detained reputable officials known to be Zhou’s protégés and opened investigations into the extraordinary wealth of his family members. It is widely believed that the long delays in announcing the probe against Zhou were due to huge inner-party resistance, indicating that Xi engaged enormous political capital in order to create conditions for the investigation.
There have also been major clampdowns on provincial governments. Nearly half of the 13-person provincial Standing Committee in coal-rich Shanxi province is currently being investigated over an odious mining deal inked by the head of a state-owned resource conglomerate, prompting an unusually blunt rebuke by a member of the PSC calling on the provincial government to “improve its political ecology.”
Members of the provincial government of Yunnan have come under investigation by the CCDI over illicit land and construction deals. Guangdong has experienced a massive crackdown on the province’s rampant sex trade. General Xu Caihou, a retired member of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA),faces charges for bribery in the highest-profile graft case in the army’s history. Investigators have also been deployed outside of China to track down the illicit assets of officials with children and spouses living abroad.
Throughout the Western world, analysts have generally framed these developments as the dominant faction of the CPC settling scores with opponents and rivals, rather than anti-corruption measures being an integral part of reform process. Such a broad anti-corruption policy serves manifold purposes. Xi’s capacity to consolidate his authority and over the party apparatus is undoubtedly a key aspect.
Although there are likely internal differences over how to implement anti-corruption measures and inherent sensitivities over probing incumbent and retired members of the inner circle, the upper party echelons are well aware that the CPC cannot risk being perceived as failing to institutionalize the rule of law in a meaningful way. Clamping down on entrenched interests in the energy sector, the PLA, and the domestic security apparatus are a perquisite for implementing further economic reform measures that Xi’s administration has committed itself to.
Anti-graft policies have the clear support of the CPC leadership because they view the clampdown as essential in maintaining the party’s legitimacy, though there are concerns that internal resistance to zero-tolerance policies can accentuate factionalism and create inner-party discord. Prosecutions of high-ranking officials and former members of the PSC should be seen in the context of potentially offsetting the party’s institutional balance, though there are no outward indications of that happening as of yet.
In regards to addressing the party’s legitimacy, the anti-corruption campaign has been wildly successful at garnering public support. A Pew Research Center survey has shown Xi’s approval rating at 92 percent. Though Xi has replaced odious officials with some of his allies in the process of the campaign, it is imperative to recognize this as a measure being taken to neutralize figures with vested interests that would oppose various reform measures rather than any cronyist maneuver.
Reviving the ‘Mass line’
Xi has pledged to push on with the anti-corruption campaign even if it dents his reputation. The current administration’s efforts to create a more accountable status quo is part and parcel of a wider campaign to build strong, reliable, and representative institutional bureaucracies needed to usher in a post-reform period. One of the central objectives of Xi’s administration is to run state bureaucracies within the scope of the law, with the aim of restoring faith in legal structures.
To bring about the stated reforms, a multidimensional approach is needed to overhaul the way the party operates. The excesses and open displays of hedonism that have characterized the reform period have come under scrutiny from Xi, who has sought to offset opulence by reviving the ‘Mass line’ organizational theory developed and applied throughout the Mao era. The methodology of the mass line campaign involves members of the party investigating social conditions and forging policy strategies based on the ideas and concerns of citizens.
Xi’s own mass line campaign was conducted between June 2013 and September 2014 and described in terms of “purifying” the CPC by eliminating“hedonism and extravagance,” which implied the elimination of official perks such as vehicles and housing, and also the ability to give and receive luxury gifts. In state-media, the campaign was described as “a guideline under which CPC officials and members are required to prioritize the interests of the people and exercise power on their behalf.”
The mass line campaign was introduced in according with the anti-corruption drive to cleanup undesirable work styles, but mainly to address the widening gap between the party and the general public. In efforts to reduce red tape and excessive bureaucracy, the numbers of official meetings were reduced by 586,000 or 24.6 percent, while some 137,000 administrative approval items were cut or assigned to the lower authorities, according to state-media.
New measures were implemented to curb dinner-table waste and eliminate extravagant official receptions, while some 8,200 officials were punished for using public money to purchase gifts, meals and entertainment. More than 74,000 party members and officials were punished for violating rules for rejecting pomp and extravagance. 162,629 phantom names were removed from the government payroll, while 114,418 vehicles were retrieved after being deemed excessive for use in regular government affairs.
China’s expenditure of public funds for government vehicles, overseas trips and official receptions was reduced by a whopping RMB 53 billion ($8.6 billion). Self-criticism sessions were also held and monitored by supervisory bodies, which were sent to every city and county as an enforcement tool. The mass dismissal of officials and senior cadres has affected grassroots economic growth on a minor scale, though it has created better promotional prospects for rising young figures – who will be cognizant of the new realities in place under Xi’s leadership – to take the reigns, deepening party control over provincial cadres.
These measures embody an effort by the Xi administration to borrow ideological components from the revolutionary period to rewrite the rules of the reform period at the political grassroots level. A renewed focus on egalitarianism can also be seen in the recently proposed changes to the cadre evaluation system, which previously only focused on provincial GDP growth, but will now measure social security, economic development and access to education and healthcare as criteria.
Comprehensive judicial reforms
Western conventional thinking has the tendency to equate one-party rule with the arbitrary use of power and a lack of accountability, overlooking the capacity of countries to develop legal structures that reflect their cultures, political traditions and domestic circumstances. At the recent Fourth Plenary Session of the CPC Central Committee meeting that concluded in late October, the Chinese government introduced important judicial reforms that represent a significant step forward in ensuring accountability and greater judicial independence.
The latest central committee meeting was the first to examine the rule of law as a central theme, while the communiqué released as a result of the session unveiled new measures to prevent and punish officials for interfering in legal cases through personal connections, favors or bribery. Judges will be allotted greater independence, while prosecuting bodies will be given space to institute public interest litigations, according to the communiqué, which also called for the country’s constitutional supervision system to scrutinize party conduct.
Amendments have been passed to simplify the process of suing China’s central and local governments over abuses of power, property rights, commercial operations, illegal detention and other misconduct. Citizens previously resorted to petitioning the central government to raise issues of abuses. Under the new amendments, government officials would have to personally appear before the courts to respond to allegations. Courts can also order government authorities to fulfill contractual obligations deemed to be breached.
Chinese authorities have also unveiled plans to offer more comprehensive legal protections for whistleblowers that lawfully divulge information through official channels. There was great need for such legislation to be introduced and much pressure on the government to respond to acts of retaliation against the whistleblowers. More than 70 percent of corruption prosecutions were based on whistleblower tips, and of that percentage, around 70 percent were retaliated against.
While some may claim these developments do not go far enough to establish a truly independent judiciary, the incremental approach is consistent with China’s cautious method of implementing reforms. The primacy now placed on the rule law is creating positives by prioritizing constitutionalism and judicial transparency, while enforcing far greater government accountability. Deepening the party-state’s rule of law – rather than adopting features of Western-style democracy – will be the impetus for any future political reforms under Xi’s tenure, reflecting Confucian thinking that places great importance on how governments are run rather than who is running them.
The New Left
While the judicial reforms and anti-graft measures in some sense reflect the Confucian tradition of government officials being subject to the highest ethical standards, the policies of the Xi administration should also been seen as endorsements of the New Left movement, a prominent intellectual grouping comprised of leftist academics and economists in favor of blending egalitarian Maoist policies with market socialism to offset the deep social inequality brought on by the growth-centered policies of recent decades.
Members of the New Left see the need to strike a balance between the revolutionary and reformist policies and legacies of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Intellectual voices within the movement believe in a future without Western-style democracy, drawing on the emancipatory and egalitarian thought of Mao as the key component of a representative, indigenized brand of political reform. The New Left has also championed the ‘Chongqing model’ for development, referring to the policies of disgraced municipal Party Secretary Bo Xilai, who was ousted in 2012.
Bo was widely regarded as the most prominent Mao revivalist for championing campaigns to sing Maoist songs, but also as a result of his policies governing Chongqing, in which he channeled market profits from state-owned enterprises toward poverty alleviation programs, transportation infrastructure, and affordable housing. Xi visited Chongqing before Bo’s ouster and made very affirmative statements about the policies being implemented there.
Speeches and policies combining reform with Maoist rectification indicate that Xi’s administration is decidedly influenced by the politics of the New Left. Figures associated with the movement have also publically endorsed Xi, claiming that he “had fully absorbed their political agenda.” In contrast to his predecessors, Xi Jinping places greater importance on political ideology as a means of consolidating control over the party and pushing ahead with reforms. Ideology should be seen as the starting point for envisaging the kind of reforms that Xi will continue to introduce during his tenure.
Nile Bowie is a political analyst based in Malaysia who has written for a number of publications, his expertise lies in a number of areas, with a particular focus on Asian politics and geopolitics, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.