China Power

Xi Jinping’s Next Tiger Hunt

After Zhou Yongkang, the anti-corruption campaign aims at the PLA and Shanghai — two power bases for Jiang Zemin.

Xi Jinping’s Next Tiger Hunt
Credit: Xi Jinping image via Kaliva/Shutterstock

As Zach, Ankit, and I discussed on The Diplomat’s Asia Geopolitics podcast this week, Chinese media have been adamant that the investigation into Zhou Yongkang does not mark the end of the anti-corruption campaign. The take-down of Zhou Yongkang, the highest-ranking Party leader ever to be investigated for corruption, is a natural high-water mark for the anti-corruption campaign. For months, many of the high-profile leaders and executives ensnared in the probes have been stepping stones on the way to an investigation of Zhou himself. Still, the CCP is adamant that this is not the end of the campaign. With this ultimate “tiger” now in the bag, what will Xi do for an encore?

There are already some indications. For one thing, Xi Jinping is taking advantage of the 87th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Liberation Army to highlight the importance of weeding out corruption in the military. The high-profile take-down of former Politburo member and PLA general Xu Caihou may have just been the early stages of an anti-corruption drive focused on the military. During a visit with troops in Fujian, Xinhua reports, Xi “pledged a harsh strike against military corruption.”

A separate commentary in Xinhua argued that the “anti-graft campaign in the Chinese army is vital for the nation’s drive to build a strong army that is able to defend its people at a time of ominous threat in the region.” Xi Jinping has placed a strong emphasis on creating a modern, battle-ready military in China. While Western analysts have focused mostly on the technological aspects of this modernization drive, the organizational aspects are just as important — including stamping out corrupt practices such as office buying that prevent better qualified personnel from ascending China’s military ranks.

Thus, China’s military seems to be one focus on the anti-corruption campaign as it moves forward. This effort is focused not only on investigating and prosecuting high-profile “tigers” like Xu Caihou, but also on instituting tighter controls over the perks enjoyed by the military, from luxury cars to real estate. At the same time, China’s military is restructuring its recruitment requirements in an attempt to attract more educated troops — a crucial aspect of a modern military.

The focus on China’s military doesn’t mean that civilian officials can breathe easy. With Zhou Yongkang effectively out of the way, the corruption fight needs to adopt a new target, and Shanghai is apparently the lucky winner. On the heels of the Zhou Yongkang announcement, China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection has sent a team to Shanghai, where it plans to remain for the next two months. As China’s commercial hub, Shanghai might be the most natural place for business-minded government workers to enrich themselves. However, as Financial Times points out, the wide-ranging anti-corruption campaign to date has left Shanghai curiously untouched. That is about to change.

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The new focus on Shanghai may indicate that Xi Jinping has his sights set on an even higher target than Zhou Yongkang: former president Jiang Zemin. Jiang, though he officially stepped down from the Politburo Standing Committee in 2002, has remained incredibly influential behind the scenes. In fact, Jiang appears to have been especially involved in the selection of the current Polituburo Standing Committee — five of the seven current members have ties to Jiang’s faction. And Jiang, whose main power base began in Shanghai, will forever be associated with the city. Financial Times suggests that Xi Jinping may be attempting to remove the last vestiges of the retired leader’s influence on the CCP. The effort may already be underway — Xu Caihou, the highest-ranking military official to ever be purged from the CCP, had ties to Jiang. Zhou Yongkang himself is also considered an Jiang ally.

There are conflicting reports on Jiang Zemin and the anti-corruption campaign. This week Reuters reported that Jiang and Hu had both signed off on the investigation into Zhou Yongkang, suggesting Xi still needed consensus from his predecessors to continue the campaign. However, Financial Times reported in April that both Jiang and Hu Jintao had urged Xi Jinping to halt or at least scale back the fight against corruption. According to FT, Hu and Jiang had already given their approval for the investigation into Zhou, but were concerned about Xi tackling other high-ranking Party officials in addition to the former security czar. If that’s true, the next few months, especially the campaigns in the military and in Shanghai, will show us whether or not Xi took his predecessors’ advice.