By Daisy Ni (PO ’21)
China has gone through momentous changes in the past few decades, growing to become the second largest economy in the world. This progress, however, has been accompanied by political corruption, a fact acknowledged by President Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). During his past term, Xi made anti-corruption a core priority and had embarked on an aggressive anti-graft campaign. This cause will remain central to his policies in his next term as well, as outlined in his speech during the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party last week.
Corruption is deeply rooted in the Chinese political system. While China slowly liberalized to adapt elements of capitalism into their market activities, the CCP has been simultaneously consolidating its control. The resulting socialist-market hybrid economy under centralized politics allows the CCP to retain control over major sectors of the economy, such as in the allocation of land, capital, and labor. Thus, Chinese politics and business are closely tied, allowing members of the CCP opportunities to take advantage of their privileges to exploit state resources for their own private gain. Through such corruption, the CCP has gradually developed from a body representing the interests of the working class, as it had been in 1949 during the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, to a body that in many ways resembles an aristocratic political elite.
Instances of corruption are often perpetuated by the authoritarian nature of the communist regime and protected by the political structures themselves. For example, the CCP rejects the principle of separation of powers, thus banning the creation of an independent judiciary. In fact, judges often receive guidance from the government, injecting bias and conflicts of interests in rulings to leave corrupt officials unaccountable and protected. Furthermore, the nomenklatura system allows Xi and his allies to control the appointments of thousands of top cadres; this lack of transparency shields officials from the consequence of their actions, and allow the elite class to continue advancing their own status and privileges.
Anti-corruption legislation does exist in China. The Anti-Unfair Competition Law and Criminal Law both aim to prohibit active and passive bribery in the public and private sector. Most notable, however, is Xi’s anti-graft campaign that has vowed to crack down on “tigers” and “flies”—both powerful leaders and lowly bureaucrats. Led by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the anti-graft campaign has disciplined about 1.4 million officials in the past five years through highly visible campaigns.
However, there has been concern about whether Xi’s motives are sincere. His campaign is unprecedented in that it seeks to transform the people who make up the state rather than the structure of the state itself; he takes no steps in addressing the root of corruption as an institution, prompting critics to question if he is really serious about his cause. In fact, Xi has actually taken measures to shut down and restrict policies that are usually associated with anti-corruption campaigns, such as democratic trends, media, and civil society watchdogs. This lack of commitment to full reform highlights the self-interest angle in Xi’s motivations—it provides an opportunity to selectively dispose of political rivals under the pretense of corruption and establish allies in their place, strengthening Xi’s hold on the Communist Party and government.
Whatever his motives, Xi has constantly reaffirmed his commitment to eliminating corruption, especially in compliance, with his pledge to enforce the “rule of law.” He has announced the establishment of the National Supervision Commission, a new anti-graft unit that will work alongside the Central Commission of Discipline Inspection (CCDI); the new unit will have access to personnel, resources, and power of the CCDI. It represents the fortification of Xi’s ambitions and influence over China, significantly expanding his anti-graft campaign beyond its current scope by having the power to investigate even civil servants who are not necessarily party members. Slowly but surely, Xi seems to be weeding out individuals deviating from his vision of his government and country.
Worthy to note, however, is the change in leadership of the anti-graft initiative. At the National Congress, Xi’s new line-up in leadership included the replacement of the old head of the CCDI, Wang Qishan, with Zhao Leji. Wang, who had stood as the second most powerful man in Chinese politics and who was mainly responsible for the drive and aggression of the anti-graft program, had exceeded the unofficial age of retirement and was thus ineligible for reelection. It remains unclear which directions Zhao will take the CCDI, but the unit’s influence may face instability in the absence of Wang at its helm.
Corruption serves as an obstacle to efficiency and growth in the Chinese political system, with no easy way for reformation due to its entrenchment within the nature of Chinese politics itself. Xi’s initiatives prove merely reactionary instead of preventative, but have nevertheless accompanied—or perhaps served as the catalyst for—the growth of his own central authority to become vital to his success. The start of his second term, with a new team of leaders, marks a new future not only for the anti-corruption cause, but for China as a whole.