China Power

Why China’s Anti-Corruption Campaign Will Be Successful

They are catching both tigers and flies successfully, but to continue, they will need to be more institutionalized.

On June 30, The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection announced that one of China’s most senior military officials, Xu Caihou, had been expelled from the Chinese Communist Party for accepting bribes. Later, the CCDI also announced that three other senior officials had been expelled from the Party, including Jiang Jiemin, Wang Yongchun and Li Dongsheng.

Although rumors about General Xu had been around for some time, it is still shocking for many ordinary Chinese to learn that Xu had been expelled from the Party because General Xu had been one of the most powerful persons (as vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission) in the Chinese military for about 10 years before he retired in 2012.  China’s Xinhua news agency reported that President Xi Jinping had presided over a Politburo meeting about military discipline and approved the decision to expel Gen. Xu from the Party. Thus, there are already more than 30 senior Chinese officials who have been brought down since Xi started the anti-corruption campaigns, including Su Rong who was the vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference National Committee.

The reactions from Chinese netizens are overwhelmingly positive as they quickly approved President Xi’s actions. And all of sudden, the website of the CCDI has become a popular website for Chinese netizens to learn about investigations into both tigers and flies. Almost everyday there is news about investigations at all levels of Chinese officials. The website has also been very effective in receiving anonymous information about corruption from ordinary citizens; for example, the website received more than 24,000 reports in the first month since its opening in 2013.

What is interesting is that virtually nobody (especially in the Western media) predicted this when Xi first took over the leadership in 2012 and promised to catch both tigers and flies. This again shows that Chinese politics are extremely difficult to predict. Perhaps partly because of the unpredictable nature of Chinese politics, most Western scholars and pundits were or still are skeptical of China’s anti-corruption campaigns. They have some good reasons to be pessimistic, but ultimately they are going to be wrong about China’s anti-corruption campaigns because there are two widely shared misperceptions about these anti-corruption campaigns.

The first misperception about China’s anti-corruption campaigns is that internal power struggles are the main motivation for them. In other words, there is a widespread belief that the current leaders are just using anti-corruption campaigns to get rid of their competitors. Although such conspiracy theories appear attractive to less sophisticated minds, they are actually incorrect. On the contrary, Xi’s anti-corruption campaigns have received wide support from Party members and ordinary citizens, suggesting that there is a consensus among the Chinese leadership that these anti-corruption campaigns must be done now because otherwise the Party would lose legitimacy and power soon. As the campaigns have demonstrated, almost every official is vulnerable, including low-level government workers who receive basic perks. There are stories about how some government workers are even thinking about quitting their jobs because of the anti-corruption campaigns. Thus, the real purpose of the current anti-corruption campaigns is to establish a new system of governance that would avoid the fate of 亡党亡国 (collapse of the Party and the state).

The second misperception about China’s anti-corruption campaigns is that many believe that only democracy can curb corruption in China. As one scholar claims, “greater transparency, rule of law and democracy are the only effective ways of fighting corruption, the current anti-corruption campaign does not feature any of these. In this respect it is the same as previous campaigns and cannot be expected to be any more effective.” But this view is flawed. A large literature (here, here, and here) on the relationship between democracy and corruption shows that there is no necessary relationship between the two. We just need to look at two countries in Asia to understand this point: India and Singapore. Despite being the largest democracy in the world, India is still plagued by the problem of corruption. Interestingly, China’s ranking in the corruption index is higher than India’s, suggesting that China is less corrupt than India is. And Singapore is very successful in fighting corruption despite the fact that it is not a democracy yet. This supports the view that democracy is not a necessary condition for fighting corruption as a set of other factors such as institutions and culture matter more.

The good news for China is that the current leadership under Xi Jinping is very serious about institution building in fighting corruption. On the same day that Gen. Xu was expelled from the Party, the Party also announced a new reform on the system of discipline inspection. The key of the new reform is to establish a more autonomous and more powerful institution of discipline inspection. Whether this will be effective will be tested in time, but for now we have good reason to believe that China’s anti-corruption campaigns are serious and will be successful.