China’s ongoing campaign against corruption initiated by Xi Jinping, who was appointed at the 18th Party Congress in November 2012 to the nation’s three top posts including Chinese Communist Party (CCP) general secretary and Central Military Commission (CMC) chairman, has gained rapid momentum over the past year. Xi Jinping has deftly used the campaign to exercise and strengthen his authority over the party and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). He is simultaneously whittling down resistance from entrenched, powerful interests in the state economy, namely, the state-owned-enterprises (SoEs) and especially its cash-rich petroleum industry, to help implement his economic reform programme.
For the first time since the People’s Republic of China was founded, a number of senior officials above the rank of vice-minister are under investigation. Quite unprecedentedly, incumbent politburo member Bo Xilai was sentenced on charges of corruption and investigations are underway against erstwhile powerful security czar and Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member Zhou Yongkang. While there is unquestionably a strong political agenda inherent in the campaign to neutralise Xi Jinping’s rivals, it has made the cadre and officials apprehensive, prompting them, according to official reports, to smuggle their ill-gotten wealth out of China.
There has been popular anticipation since Xi Jinping’s appointment to the top posts that he will move against corrupt cadre and officials. The appointment of fellow “princeling” Wang Qishan, widely seen as a tough economic administrator with a “clean” reputation, as PBSC member in charge of the party’s anti-corruption watchdog Central Discipline Inspection Commission (CDIC) fuelled this expectation.
Resentment against corrupt cadre and officials and their ostentatious lifestyles was widespread in the months leading up to the 18th Party Congress. A survey to assess the causes behind the increasing incidence of popular protests revealed that corruption, along with pollution and adulteration of medicine and food, ranked at the top of the list. Even the normally reclusive “princelings”, who constitute a most powerful group in China, gave public voice to their unhappiness at the rampant corruption and ostentatious lifestyles of party, military and government cadre and officials. The sentiments were more forcefully expressed by China’s growing number of “netizens”. In a recent interview, CDIC deputy secretary Wu Yuliang revealed the public interest in activities of the CDIC and disclosed that its website receives 1.2 million “hits” daily and had so far received 230 million “visits”.
The impression that Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive has been more intensive and sustained appears substantiated by CDIC reports claiming the number of indictments in 2013 increased by 16.2 per cent over the previous year. There is an emphasis on netting “tiger cubs”, or senior party cadre and high-level cadre or “tigers”.
Reports from Beijing for many months say Xi Jinping is personally supervising investigations against Zhou Yongkang, who was a staunch supporter of Politburo member and rival Bo Xilai. Public security vice-minister Fu Zhenghua, a Xi Jinping loyalist, has been entrusted with the investigations. Reports leaked via the Hong Kong media in the past few days claim that over 90 billion Yuan, or $14 billion, have been seized from over 300 family members, protégés and aides of Zhou Yongkang during four months of investigations. Many have been held or detained while investigations continue. If Zhou Yongkang is finally arrested and sentenced it will be the first instance of a PBSC member being sentenced since the CCP captured power in 1949. Leading up to investigations centred on Zhou Yongkang, many senior officials associated with him have been investigated and held on corruption charges. Prominent among them are PetroChina vice-chairman Jiang Jiemin, deputy manager Li Hualin, Chengdu Party secretary Li Chuncheng, Hunan vice-governor Ji Wenlin and vice-minister for public security Zheng Shaodong.
The PLA has not been spared either. In a move designed to dispel any speculation that Xi Jinping or the CCP does not have a firm grip over China’s armed forces, former vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission Xu Caihou was reported to have been taken from his bed in Beijing’s 301 Military Hospital on March 16 and placed under “shuanggui” or secret house detention. Pleas for mercy as Xu Caihou was suffering from cancer of the pancreas were reportedly rejected by Xi Jinping. His wife, daughter and personal secretary were arrested the same day and large sums of money recovered from them. Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post quoted a retired Shanghai-based PLA senior colonel accusing Xu Caihou of taking money for granting promotions, a practice he said was endemic in the PLA. Last year an associate of Xu Caihou, Major General Gu Junshang of the powerful and cash-rich General Logistics Department (GLD) was arrested on corruption charges. A senior official of the PLA’s CDIC overseeing the GLD recently confirmed that the Major General continues to be under scanner.
There has been a constant flow of reports of corruption and ostentation living by PLA officers. In June 2012, deputy director of the PLA’s GLD General Liu Yuan, a friend of Xi Jinping and son of late Chinese president Liu Shaoqi, addressed 600 PLA officers on New Year’s Day. He described corruption in the GLD as “huge”, though “visible” and “reachable” and warned that cleansing the PLA of corruption was a matter of “life and death for the Communist Party and the PLA”. The dismissal and probe of Gu Junsheng followed within days. In June 2012, PLA officers were instructed to declare their assets. Promptly on taking over as CMC chairman Xi Jinping issued a series of directives restricting the hospitality extended to senior PLA officers inspecting units, dishes served at official banquets and gatherings, and prohibiting the purchase of luxury limousines. Auditors were tasked to fan out across the PLA and audit expenditures. Xi Jinping further tightened his grip at the Third Party Plenum last November by bringing the PLA under CDIC’s direct purview. Xu Caihou is the first high-profile casualty since then.
Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign along with his insistence on frugality in public life has undoubtedly boosted his popularity, but at the same time it will generate anger and opposition. Whether Xi Jinping can continue the campaign with this vigour and target senior cadre will demonstrate how powerful he really is.
The writer is a member of the National Security Advisory Board and former additional secretary in the cabinet secretariat, Indian government.