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Xi’s Anti-Corruption Campaign: Moving China’s ‘Cheese’

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Xi’s Anti-Corruption Campaign: Moving China’s ‘Cheese’

The fight against corruption goes beyond arresting officials — it will touch the lives of every Chinese person.

Xi’s Anti-Corruption Campaign: Moving China’s ‘Cheese’
Credit: Xi Jinping image from Kaliva / Shutterstock

Supporting anti-corruption is right and proper — you don’t need a reason for it, right? And yet I have to write a piece defending myself; you can see how serious the situation is. I personally don’t care if I am misunderstood, but the attitude more and more people have toward anti-corruption can’t help but incite caution and consideration.

Anti-corruption is the will of the people; only a few corrupt officials oppose the anti-corruption movement – this has been the common consensus for many years, right? But as soon as the current government showed it meant business – that it wanted to “scrape the poison off the bone” – more and more people’s initial excitement has turned to slight unease and dislike. I can see the seriousness of the problem from the changes in the way my friends react to my support for anti-corruption. In pursuing anti-corruption, whose “cheese” have Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan moved?

Of course, the anti-corruption campaign will touch on the basic interests of some people, first and foremost the corrupt. According to reports, in the past few years of anti-corruption, we’ve already seen close to 200,000 corrupt officials arrested, dismissed, or set aside. The “casualty rate” is close to that of a revolution. At the beginning, some officials thought that this was just a case of a new government asserting its authority, that everything would “go back to normal” after a little while. Those officials have finally discovered that’s not the case.

But has anti-corruption only moved the “cheese” of government officials? Definitely not. The source of corruption is unlimited power and unsupervised government, but the hallmark of Chinese corruption is that it has already infiltrated into every aspect of society and life. We can say that corruption has become a lifestyle for several generations of Chinese. This is even more true when it comes to the elite groups of Chinese society.

Take the wealthy elite as an example. The past three decades of opening up have been managed from the beginning by government. If you want to become rich, you can take a shortcut not by looking for a market, but by relying on the mayor. So any anti-corruption activities that touch the mayor also affect business people – that’s not hard to understand.  As for intellectuals, ever since the troublemakers at the end of the 1980s were put down, intellectuals have increasingly relied on the powerful. Today we have this general pattern: when an official has some meat to eat, he’ll give the intellectuals some soup to drink or even leave them a few bones. So we see that the more “meat” the authorities have to eat, the more opportunities intellectuals have to get soup or bones – as long as you don’t use your knowledge to challenge authority. After it became common for officials to keep mistresses, college professors – and, according to some reports, even middle and elementary school principals – have naturally advanced with the times, going from being “engineers of the spirit” to being “developers of the flesh.”

Don’t think that because you don’t belong to the elite groups mentioned above – the powerful, the wealthy, and the intellectuals – that you can escape the storm of anti-corruption. Unless you don’t live in China, the campaign to eliminate the corruption that has already infected many people’s lifestyles will certainly “move your cheese” : the rural inn you run no longer has any customers; girls who have no choice but to prostitute themselves to earn money discover that officials don’t dare to come calling. When your family has a problem, those friends and relatives within the government you used to be able to call to “fix” issues will say that “the heat is on” – leaving you at a complete loss as to what to do next.

Corruption has already become a lifestyle – perhaps few people know this better than me, after having worked inside and outside the system and lived in China and abroad. I have felt countless times just how corruption has changed the basic necessities of life for Chinese people. Only by going to other countries to live for a while can China’s “elites” finally have an epiphany: how many universally accepted rules have we already changed or even destroyed in the name of culture, local customs, and the characteristics of our system?

If the current government’s anti-corruption campaign can continue and deepen it won’t be as simple as catching a few officials or changing a few government work styles. Far from it! The campaign must gradually change the lifestyle we have grown accustomed to over the past few years and move every single person’s “cheese.” That is the great significance of Xi and Wang’s campaign against corruption.

The problem is that not everyone has realized this. From a short-term perspective, anti-corruption will be greatly inconvenient and will cause resentment. Anti-corruption isn’t robbing from the rich to feed the poor – on the contrary, a great number of the poor and downtrodden who make a living by relying on the scraps left behind by the rich and powerful will see their “quality of life” drop thanks to the anti-corruption movement. As for us “elites,” life won’t be quite as convenient as before and money won’t come as easily.

What to do? Corruption has already caused Chinese society to lose its moral baseline, making Chinese people unique in the world. Corruption is also the root of inequality and social injustice; corruption could cause various crisis to break out at any time, bringing China’s economy back to its starting point despite many years of development. Therefore, anti-corruption is no longer a choice – it is a necessity. Now that anti-corruption has become unassailably “politically correct,” many people who resent the current anti-corruption efforts have to find other ways to complain, such as complaining that China should practice institutional anti-corruption. It seems to me that up until now, China has always relied on institutional anti-corruption.

Of course I know that anti-corruption should start from the institutional level. But I’m even more aware that corruption has already infiltrated every aspect of our lives, permeated into many people’s blood, and become a lifestyle for many elite groups. And under those circumstance, there’s no chance of reforming the system, much less using a perfect method of institutional anti-corruption! All of the civilized systems invented by humanity – including democracy – would have a hard time solving China’s current corruption problem. With the development of interest groups and the solidification of the social hierarchy — with a ruling party that has 80 million members and a regime where tens of millions of officials control the gun, the pen, and the sword — in so many years how many decent people have stood up and shouted for reform? Do you really expect such a country and society can change for the better overnight? It’s never happened before anywhere in the world or throughout history.

The reason I support anti-corruption definitely isn’t because I support these non-institutional methods for fighting corruption. Rather, it’s because China’s institutional anti-corruption can only truly start once we’ve suppressed the current moment toward corruption. I support anti-corruption because as soon as this government started using anti-corruption to limit the power of officials, we’ve seen all sorts of reforms come out designed to promote a sound, market economy. I support anti-corruption because under the current conditions in China, a powerful anti-corruption campaign is indispensable for launching deep reforms and social transformations.

Prior to the anti-corruption campaign, the powerful, the wealthy and the intellectual elites are not so much victims of corruption as co-conspirators. Over the past decades, among hundreds of millions of elites, how many people sincerely advocated for reforms and were willing to make some sacrifices? Most of them were just following the rules of corruption and fighting to get themselves more “cheese.” And the masses aren’t blameless either: so many people who cannot even get “bones” and “soup” just dance with the meat eaters. They are docile and obedient toward those in power, even fondly remembering dictators, while keeping a distance from those people and ideas who want to fight for their rights. With this kind of country, society, and people, it would be very difficult to complete a democratic transformation. And even if we forced such a transformation, the corrupt forces would certainly give themselves a makeover and continue harming the people. The resulting period of economic chaos and stagnation would be the same as those experiences by Russia and other newly-democratized Asian countries.

I support anti-corruption because I feel that a forceful anti-corruption campaign, one that breaks the current benefits pattern and changes lifestyles, will make the enormous group of elites become reformers. Yes, those unshakeable elites who blocked every step of reform could in the future lead the mainstream of reform efforts! As the anti-corruption effort heated up, I have some government friends who used a joking air to let out their true thoughts. One said: right now, we hope for that “constitutionalism” you always spoke of, to protect our property from being seized. Another told me that we hope for intra-Party democracy, so we can choose a leader who won’t fight corruption. One more friend even more coolly said that the rule of law is the most reliable approach, because he cannot bear the current anti-corruption measures that are not in line with the rule of law.

My friends, did you ever think of rule of law when officials were taking bribes and embezzling money? Did you ever think about the constitution protecting private property when officials colluded with businessmen to infringe on the rights of ordinary people through forced demolitions? Why didn’t you mention democracy while enjoying unlimited power for so many years? And if officials don’t raise these ideas, you have no way to do it. If you expect corrupt officials to push reforms through, go ahead and dream your “China dream.”

For years, China’s elites have listened to me talk about democracy, but deep down no one has agreed with me. As long as the elites are living a comfortable life, who among them is really willing to let poor people vote on sharing their wealth and power? When local public servants are required to study the socialist core values (and universal values) like freedom, the rule of law, and democracy, most of them don’t agree — or worse, they look down on these values because those concepts are incompatible with using Chinese “characteristics” to make a quick buck. Trust me, when these elites “dare not, cannot and don’t want” to be corrupt — when they have no money to keep mistresses and cannot hide their cash everywhere — they will be more willing than us to study the “12 Socialist Core Values”!

This “scrape the poison off the bone” style of anti-corruption will not only affect the corrupt; it will move every person’s “cheese.” But unless you want to keep living as you have, I think everyone should truly adjust their thoughts to support anti-corruption. First, imagine what impact a life without corruption would have on you and think about what role you want to play in that new life.

This piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. The original post can be found here.

Yang Hengjun is a Chinese independent scholar, novelist, and blogger. He once worked in the Chinese Foreign Ministry and as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. Yang received his Ph.D. from the University of Technology, Sydney in Australia. His Chinese language blog is featured on major Chinese current affairs and international relations portals and his pieces receive millions of hits. Yang’s blog can be accessed at