China really ought to have more people like Xu Zhiyong. A law professor, legislator, and civil activist, Xu has worked tirelessly over the past decade in ensuring that China lives up to its constitutional ideals. Writing in The New Yorker in 2009, Evan Osnos described Xu as someone "as close to China gets to a public-interest icon." He even received recognition in the Chinese press for his efforts.
But in May, things took a dark turn for Xu. He sent an open letter to authorities calling for the release of 10 people who had been arrested for publicly demonstrating against corruption. Like the activists, and several others who had been similarly detained, Xu advocated that public officials disclose their financial assets in an effort to improve government transparency.
On Tuesday, Chinese officials arrested Xu in his Beijing apartment, seizing his computers and cell phone in the process. His current whereabouts are unknown.
In the past several months, the Chinese government has carried out a crackdown against anti-corruption activists in the country, arresting at least 15 since January. This process has ensnared not only well-known activists like Xu Zhiyong but also those like Liu Ping, Li Sihua, and Wei Zhongping, three men quietly detained in Jiangxi Province in April.
In the context of Chinese history, the crackdown is hardly news: The People's Republic has never cared for agitators. But what's different about Xu's case is this: Rooting out government corruption happens to be of President Xi Jinping's stated policy goals. Upon becoming China's president last November, Xi vowed to eliminate the "tigers and flies" who had enriched themselves through bribery and patronage.
Why, then, is the Chinese president going after the very people who, in theory, could most help him achieve his goal of rooting out corruption in China?
The answer is simple. Xi Jinping doesn't actually want to end corruption. According to Minxin Pei, a professor of Political Science at Claremont McKenna University, there is an old Chinese saying: "Corruption might destroy the Party, but fighting corruption will definitely destroy the Party." Corruption is the lifeblood of the Chinese government, as Pei says: "The Communist Party is a patronage machine and patronage by definition is corruption. Fighting corruption would require Chinese government officials to live like monks, and nobody joins the Chinese government in order to live like a monk."
Xi Jinping couldn't do much about corruption, even if he wanted to. But what Xi can do is this: crack down on the appearance of corruption. And that's exactly what he's done. Since becoming president, Xi has, among other things, famously asked Party cadres to carpool and cut back on the boozy, lavish dinner banquets that so typified Chinese official privilege. Cutting back on these ostentatious displays of corruption won't actually taking care of the problem -- but, as Andrew Wedeman of Georgie State University says, it "works well as a PR campaign." And that, there, is the issue: Corruption itself isn't bad. It's the public relations nightmare that accompanies corruption that, for the Communist Party, is the real problem.
That's where Xu Zhiyong comes in. The particular cause he advocated in this case -- the unwillingness of Party officials to disclose their assets -- is indeed sensitive in China: Both the New York Times and Bloomberg are firewalled in the country after reporting on the wealth amassed by former Premier Wen Jiabao and Xi Jinping, respectively. But discussing the issue of wealth disclosure itself isn't necessarily taboo in China: Current Vice Premier Wang Yang said last year that he expected officials to comply by this request eventually, and last year a local cadre in Hunan Province published his personal financial information on Chinese social media. Furthermore, the Chinese government isn't afraid of general vigilance against corruption: There's even established a hot line for people who see something that doesn't look right.
But Xu's problem this: as a well-known, experienced activist, he has the potential to cause widespread public recognition of a corruption problem. Unlike earlier generations of activists, Xu can utilize social media in order to promote a cause, and that, more than anything else, is what the Chinese government fears: losing control of the public narrative. What starts as a campaign to force officials to disclose their assets might, as Pei says, then turn into a campaign for greater press freedom. "It doesn't take a political genius to see the risks Xi Jinping faces," he said. But unfortunately for Xi Jinping and his colleagues, there's only so much you can crack down on the Internet; and corruption isn't just going to go away on its own.