China’s Corruption Problem: A Catch-22
Image Credit: Flickr/ SFTHQ

China’s Corruption Problem: A Catch-22


Corruption presents a catch-22 challenge for Chinese leaders.

On the one hand, countless Chinese leaders have warned that corruption is an existential threat to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). For instance, just before handing over the reins of power in November 2012, former General Secretary Hu Jintao warned, “If we fail to handle this issue well, it could prove fatal to the party, and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state.” He added: “All those who violate Party discipline and state laws, whoever they are and whatever power or official positions they have, must be brought to justice without mercy.” In the days after taking over as head of the party, General Secretary Xi Jinping reiterated this message a number of times. For example, in a speech to the new Politburo, Xi warned: “A large number of facts show that corruption could kill the Party and ruin the country.”

There is almost certainly some truth to these assertions. Graft by officials has long been a lightning rod for anger among the Chinese public. Moreover, with social media, it has become increasingly difficult to conceal it from the public eye. Political systems have been brought down by less. Indeed, as Xi warned the Politburo, in other numerous other countries, “corruption has played a big role in conflicts that grew over lengthy periods, and it has led to popular discontent, social unrest and the overthrow of the political power.”

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Even if corruption doesn’t directly create social unrest, it can undermine the party indirectly. Indeed, it was officials and state-owned enterprises (SOEs) getting preferential treatment that created the enormous imbalances plaguing the Chinese economy. Thus, unless China’s leaders can tackle the corruption problem, they will not be able to rebalance the economy towards greater consumption. And a failure to do this will result in prolonged economic stagnation that will threaten the party’s vitality.

But while a failure to tackle corruption threatens the CCP’s future, the reverse is also true. As has become increasingly apparent in recent weeks, President Xi and his allies’ anti-graft campaign has been encountering increasing resistance from within the Party. This was most notable in a speech Xi reportedly made to local officials, in which he said: “The two armies of corruption and anti-corruption are in confrontation, and a ‘deadlock’ has appeared” in the anti-corruption campaign. He also pledged: “To fight against corruption, a person’s life and death, personal praise or blame, do not matter.” To make good on this pledge, Xi ordered anti-graft investigators to inspect regions that he had previously led.

This intra-Party resistance comes as no surprise. Indeed, as The Diplomat has long noted, rebalancing the economy will by definition mean rooting out graft within the Party’s ranks. This puts the Chinese leadership in quite the bind because graft is the glue that holds the Party together. In the absence of ideology, people join the CCP in order to use their membership to advance their economic interests. Cracking down on their ability to do so will reduce loyalty to the Party.

This is significant because the Party’s membership stands at 80 million strong. Within its ranks are nearly all of China’s elites, who would be needed to lead any overthrow of the current political system. As recent events in the Arab world (see, Tahrir Square and the Syrian Civil War) have once again underscored, mass political uprisings do not succeed unless they can gain the support of at least some of the country’s elites.

Like corruption itself, even if the anti-graft campaign doesn’t directly undermine the CCP, it can still do so indirectly. For instance, by bringing down Zhou Yongkang, a former Politburo Standing Committee member, Xi has likely ensured that future political transitions in China will be much more contentious. This in itself can threaten to undermine the Party’s future.

This is the catch-22 China’s leaders face: not tackling corruption will almost certainly sink the Party, but tackling it too vigilantly will almost certainly do the same.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief