“Corruption and Anti-Corruption in China: A Case Analysis” was an event hosted by the Asian Institute at the Munk School of Global Affairs on 18 April 2016, the last lecture in the East Asia seminar series for the 2015-2016 school year. The event featured a presentation by Professor Xi Xuehua, Director of the Centre for Political Development and Government Innovation, and Deputy Dean of Governmental Management College at the Beijing Normal University. Professor Yiching Wu from the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto acted as the chair for the event. The topic of Professor Xi’s presentation centred on China’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign that has made global headlines in recent years for both the purging of high ranking officials in the Communist Party of China (CPC) and its sweeping agenda thus far to combat corruption at all levels of Chinese society.
Snaring China’s Top ‘Tigers’
Professor Xi began his talk by first revealing the rampant corruption present in the upper echelons of the CPC. In 2015, 23 senior CPC officials at the ministerial level and above –whom the Chinese media have portrayed as ‘tigers’ – were arrested and sentenced for charges of graft, the most notable individual within the group being Zhou Yongkang, the former domestic security ‘tsar’. Zhou was formerly one of the selected few who managed to gain membership into the elite Standing Committee of the CPC’s Central Political Bureau (Politburo), the highest decision-making organ in the country, and was believed by many to be an untouchable political figure. He is now serving a life sentence for having accepted over 130 million yuan (around 26 million CAD) from various bribes. Bo Xilai, the once highly popular Party chief of Chongqing and a former Politburo member who was once a candidate for promotion into the Standing Committee, was also sentenced for life in 2013 after being charged with abuse of power, practicing embezzlement, and receiving bribes that totalled up to 20 million yuan (around 4 million CAD). Finally, Xu Caihou, former general of the Peoples Liberation Army and once the vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, was found to have hoarded both domestic and foreign cash in his residence that reportedly weighed over a tonne after extraction by authorities. He later died from natural causes shortly after being given a suspended death sentence in 2014.
‘Little Officials, Giant Corruption’
According to professor Xi, the distinctive characteristic of political corruption in China that marks it unique from other forms of political corruption abroad is the fact that it has managed to be embedded at all levels of China’s governance structure. Whereas one might expect corruption to exist in higher levels of government, corruption in China has systematically spread its roots across the CPC in all directions: From the grassroots level concerning local officials to the central level concerning high-ranking officials in the Politburo. What is particularly distressing about China’s endemic corruption, however, is the lengths that local officials have gone to illegally hoard massive mounds of wealth and the relative success at which they have been doing so before being caught. As the professor noted, a local official in charge of a ‘street office’ or jiedao banshichu (街道办事处) in the city of Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, was reportedly found to have accepted a bribe totalling 100 million yuan (nearly 20 million CAD). Likewise, in the port city of Qinhuangdao, Hebei province, a local manager responsible for the state-owned water supply company was discovered to have illegally stashed close to 120 million yuan (around 24 million CAD) in his home.
White or Black, if it Catches Mice
Though corruption has always been a feature throughout China’s dynastic history , professor Xi saw the opening of China’s economy in 1978 and the subsequent economic reforms that followed being the root cause of how corruption managed to reach endemic levels since the mid 1990’s. Specifically, he attributed the cause of China’s rampant corruption problem to the CPC’s application of Deng Xiaoping’s “cat theory”, who once famously stated that it made no difference whether a cat is black or white so long as it was good at catching mice. His aphorism was, of course, a call for the CPC to pursue policies pragmatically instead of clinging on to past ideological shackles. Through Deng’s guidance, China managed to move past the narrow confinements of Mao Zedong Thought and began to transition into a socialist market economy, implementing a series of reforms designed to attract Foreign Direct Investment and foster economic growth in China. Consequently, Deng is considered by many to be the chief architect for China’s economic modernization. But his folksy cat aphorism was intertwined with another of his well-known iterations that paved the course for corruption in China to evolve and intensify during its reform years: In order for China to fully embrace its market reforms, it was necessary to “let some people get rich first”. Indeed, following Deng’s famous southern tour of China’s coastal cities in 1992, new opportunities for those already in power to engage in graft practices grew at an unprecedented rate.
‘A Waterfront Pavilion Gets the Moonlight First’
As China began reforming its State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), professor Xi stated that China’s ‘princelings’ – the offspring of former leading CPC officials – have been at the forefront of trying to take advantage of the many benefits allocated to SOEs by the CPC. These benefits included the privilege of having unlimited access to low-interest loans from both the Chinese state and China’s state-owned banks as well as having a monopoly over their respective domestic markets. Due to the influence that princelings held from their familial and political ties, they were easily able to obtain senior management positions at various SOEs and, consequently, were able to obtain a sizable portion of the enormous profits during China’s soaring growth period since the 1990’s. Bao Tong, a former senior CPC official now a political dissident towards the ruling party, once described this inherent favorable advantage China’s elite held with the famous Chinese saying: ‘A waterfront pavilion gets the moonlight first’.
Additionally, as the CPC began to transition its property rights regime from state ownership to private and corporate ownership in conjunction with its series of market reforms, China’s land market became a major source corruption for officials at the local level. As land became more and more of a precious commodity as coastal industries began to expand inland, cadres saw a lucrative opportunity to gain huge amounts of revenue by seizing land use rights from private owners while giving little to no compensation back in return. They then engaged in the real-estate market by putting these lands up for sale to commercial property developers, discretely pocketing some of the proceeds during sales while the rest went to filling up the coffers of their respective local governments.
Anti-Corruption as Political Struggle?
Since the start of Xi Jinping’s highly vigorous anti-corruption campaign in 2012, speculation over the actual purpose behind it has elicited rumours both domestically and overseas that the campaign is really a demonstration of an ongoing political struggle. In response to this, Professor Xi stated his strong belief that Xi Jinping’s anti-graft campaign should not be seen as such because of its continued commitment thus far to eradicate China’s endemic level of corruption. If the launching of the campaign was truly intended to remove potential political threats to Xi Jinping and his camp, Professor Xi argued, it would have ended earlier with the snaring of China’s aforementioned top ‘tigers’.
While China’s ongoing anti-graft campaign may not necessarily be intended as a campaign of political struggle, however, professor Xi agreed that it certainly has and continues to be a political one. For a party that has for much of the latter part of its modern history depended and legitimized itself on the basis of leading China on a rapid and sustained economic growth, a deceleration in the country’s growth rate since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis has forced the CPC leadership to look for alternative avenues in maintaining its legitimacy as a single-party state. At the same time, the professor agued, rampant corruption has been a visible political problem to the Chinese general public since its explosion in the 1990’s. The CPC is fully aware of the growing public awareness of corruption as one of the leading sources for the widening of China’s socioeconomic inequality and how it serves to undermine the public’s faith in the party’s meritocratic governance system. Thus, the fear of losing legitimacy has been one of the key political reasons as to why the CPC has been so heavily invested in its ongoing anti-corruption drive.
The Anti-Corruption Campaign from 2016 Onwards
In his concluding remarks, Professor Xi outlined some of the reasons as to why there is a need for Xi Jinping and the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) – China’s top anti-corruption bureau – to revamp the ongoing anti-graft campaign in the coming years. First, despite the campaign’s success at ensnaring hundreds of thousands of corrupt officials since its inception in early 2013, its impact at stamping out China’s endemic corruption still remains largely limited to scraping only its surface. The campaign has yet to target the root causes of corruption, which would require the CCDI to deeply extend its efforts into overhauling the systematic and institutional mechanisms conducive to favourable graft conditions for tempted officials. In addition, the professor argued that the CCDI should start to shift their attention more from snaring China’s corrupt ‘tigers’ to capturing the corrupt ‘flies’ that pervade all of China within the local scale. This is because the significance behind some of their arrests are clear: Certain local officials across China are bound to have both the resources and the willingness to deeply traverse into the world of corruption where even ‘tigers’ may not dare to cross.
As the date for the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China begins to near, professor Xi believed that the anti-corruption drive would continue despite the coming change in government leadership in the fall of 2017 (Xi Jinping will still be in power as the congress will signify the halfway point of his presidency). Though there remains significant doubt by observers as to whether or not the campaign will either intensify or wane after this pivotal party meeting, the professor remained optimistic that the continuance of Xi Jinping’s ongoing anti-corruption drive would ultimately benefit both the CPC and the rest of Chinese society.
Bryan Roh is a third year student studying Sociocultural Anthropology and Contemporary Asian Studies at the University of Toronto, Woodsworth College. Bryan currently serves as both an event reporter and copy-editor for Synergy’s East Asia editorial section. He holds a research interest in South Korea’s rise to become a middle power in international relations as well as exploring the peculiar resiliency of Asian authoritarian states like China.