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What’s Behind Xi’s Anti-Corruption Campaign?

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China Power

What’s Behind Xi’s Anti-Corruption Campaign?

A report from Reuters says Xi is using anti-corruption to promote his allies. That’s not Xi’s only motivation.

What’s Behind Xi’s Anti-Corruption Campaign?
Credit: Xi Jinping image via Kaliva /

A new report for Reuters says that Chinese President Xi Jinping is using the anti-corruption drive to remove his rivals and place his allies into power. Reuters, citing anonymous sources “who have ties to the leadership,” said that Xi was particularly interested in promoting officials who would support his reform agenda. “The anti-corruption (drive) is a means to an end. The goal is to promote his own men and like-minded officials to key positions to push through reforms,” one source told Reuters. According to the sources, Xi was expected to promote around 200 officials from Zhejiang, a wealthy and progressive province to the immediate south of Shanghai. Xi himself served as party chief in Zhejiang from 2002 to 2007. As a result, in addition to being more reform-minded, many top officials in Zhejiang have personal ties to Xi.

The most intriguing use of the anti-corruption drive thus far has been the systemic purging of officials closely tied to former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang. Reuters reports that over 300 people with ties to Zhou (including relatives and those who worked with Zhou) have been questioned or even arrested. That number included ten officials of vice minister rank or higher. Removing Zhou and his circle would take care of a potential rival for Xi, even while opening up a bonanza of new positions for Xi’s allies.

Zhou’s downfall also sends an important political message to other would-be rivals: Xi has the power to topple officials at the highest levels. Reuters’ sources claim that Xi has so far faced little opposition from other powerful party figures. This is in direct opposition to previous reports suggesting that retired Chinese leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were urging Xi to end the campaign.

However the sources also said that restoring public faith in the Communist Party of China (CPC) is a major goal of the anti-corruption drive.  Around the time Xi came to power, there were a spate of incidents where Internet sleuths accused lower-ranking CPC officials of corruption. For example, Yang Dacai, head of Shanxi’s work safety administration, was targeted by netizens after a picture showed him smiling at the scene of a deadly bus accident. Netizens uncovered photo after photo of Yang wearing high-priced luxury watches, which would be well out the price range of Yang’s official salary. Yang, dubbed “Watch Brother” by social media users, was eventually charged with corruption and sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Stories like Yang’s challenged public trust in the party, as they highlighted both corruption and the government’s unwillingness to act without substantial public pressure. Xi has now effectively co-opted the Internet ‘investigations’ into corruption. In addition to rolling out his own high-profile anti-corruption campaign, Xi has simultaneously cracked down on “internet rumors” and citizen movements designed to fight corruption (for example, the New Citizens’ Movement, which called for government officials to publicly disclose their assets). This kills two birds with one stone: Xi is seen as an anti-corruption fighter, even while his government quells public anti-corruption sentiment that exceeds the bounds of the official campaign. As a stability-preservation mechanism, it’s hard to beat a campaign that increases popular approval even while cracking down on dissent.

Anti-corruption drives are true win-win scenarios for Chinese leaders. They contribute to an image of good governance, raising public approval of the individual in charge as well as the CPC in general. And they also allow a new leader to effectively complete a purge of the old guard. He can then promote those whose loyalties lie with the present rather than the past leadership.

Xi is not the first to recognize the double political benefits of a judicious anti-corruption drive. Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao also implemented a new anti-corruption campaign shortly after taking power. According to Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College, Hu nearly tripled the prosecution rate of corrupt officials in 2003—but after this initial purge, the rate fell. Hu apparently accomplished his goal and then discarded the anti-corruption drive.

But Xi has already sustained his campaign longer and with more zeal than his predecessors, hinting that his goals are different. For one thing, if (as the Reuters report suggests) Xi is most interested in using anti-corruption as a tool to achieve reform, then it’s still too early to bring the campaign to an end. While Xi has laid out an ambitious reform agenda, the actual implementation is just getting started. The anti-corruption drive makes reform easier in a variety of ways. It lets Xi promote pro-reformist allies to replace purged officials, but also cows others into backing (or at least not opposing) more ambitious reforms. Reuters even suggests that Xi plans to use the corruption probe as pseudo-blackmail, purposefully leaving some implicated military officials in power so Xi can lean on them later to support tough reforms. Ending or even drawing down the campaign would thus be detrimental to Xi’s overarching reform goals.

Second, Xi has made the anti-corruption drive a key part of his administration, in a way that his predecessors did not. Were Xi to abandon the campaign, it would reflect poorly on him personally. While Xi does not face public opinion in quite the same was as his democratic counterparts, his image is clearly important to him—Xi has completely discarded the Hu Jintao-model of leadership in favor of crafting a more populist persona. Xi eats dumplings in popular restaurants, enjoys basketball, and may or may not have taken an anonymous taxi ride through Beijing. Democratically elected or not, Xi is crafting his image as a “man of the people”—and as such, must be seen fighting on behalf of the people. Accordingly, the anti-corruption campaign has become central to Xi’s legacy, not merely a throw-away tool to a political end.

In other words, Reuter’s report is likely correct—as Xi’s anti-corruption drive fells political rivals, he will replace them with allies. However, that motivation only scratches the surface of the complex factors behind Xi’s calls to swat both “tigers and flies.” If solidifying political power was Xi’s only goal, he would likely be winding down the campaign now. Instead, Xi has promised that the second year will be more intense than the first.