How Serious Is Xi Jinping About Tackling Corruption in China?

The new president has made curbing government excess a central part of his ideology. But how much will he be able to achieve?


Evan Vucci/AP

Roderick MacFarquhar:

Xi Jinping's overriding aim is the preservation of Communist party rule in China, as he made clear in speeches shortly after his elevation to be China's senior leader. Like his predecessors, he is obsessed with the Gorbachev phenomenon and doesn't want to be remembered in history as the Gorbachev of China. To that end he will keep the PLA leadership close to him, as "lips and teeth." And he is unlikely to permit greater political liberalization--reversing the verdicts on June 4 for example--which might contribute to a loss of party control over the population.

What his aim also means is that he cannot have a thorough-going anti-corruption drive that could target his senior colleagues and their cronies. A few egregious cases that become public may have to be prosecuted and Bo Xilai is a special case--though even there the delay in bringing him to trial shows how cautious the leadership is when it comes to members of the Politburo--but it is highly likely that the main targets of the drive will only be middle- to lower-ranking officials.

Winston Lord:

I will keep this very brief for two reasons.

First, I am totally focused on Wimbledon and the purges of Federer and Nadal while I am here in London. Second, Rod has expressed my views precisely.

Xi has to make some progress on corruption, because it is the biggest threat to his highest priority, as underlined by Rod: the control of the Communist Party. So we will continue to see a concerted drive against against Rolexes, Mercedes, shark's fin soup and mistresses, a bevy of attacks on minnows and tuna, and a few against symbolic whales. What we will not see, for Rod's reasons plus Party control of the courts and media, is wrestling with the core problem.

Bill Bishop:

In April Mr. Xi, in his capacity as chairman of the Central Military Commission, approved an order requiring officers to spend time every few years down in the ranks as common soldiers. A commentary on the policy in the Chinese army's newspaper reminded readers that in 1958 Mao Zedong called for every cadre to spend one month a year as a common soldier. These continuing campaigns to "change work styles" and curb corruption are not going away anytime soon, much to the chagrin of luxury purveyors and high-end food and beverage businesses.

Beijing knows that public anger over corruption is high. An incident last Friday is just one example. A minor local official in Jiangsu Province was seen at an expensive banquet and then harassed and prevented from leaving by an angry mob. He cried and pleaded for forgiveness but was able to depart only after the police arrived. He was fired Sunday.

The party is trying to harness popular anger against graft by allowing some oversight online, either through the microblogging site Weibo or the official "informant pages." It is also very cognizant of the risk that things could spiral out of control, so it will keep a tight grip over public participation in the anti-corruption campaign, hence the crackdown on the nti-corruption campaigners agitating outside the system.

Few outside observers believe corruption can be rooted out without broader political changes, but Mr. Xi appears determined to push this current crackdown farther than most believed.

President Xi inherited many challenges, including but not limited to: a troubled economy; a growing debt mess; widespread corruption in the party and society in general; and a huge environmental crisis. Combine those challenges with what looks to be a very significant economic reform agenda that will affect many powerful interests across society, and it may be that the logical response from the party is to batten down the ideological hatches, rectify the party, strengthen control over the military, and increase oversight of the media (especially the Internet) and educational institutions before undertaking those jarring economic changes.

I know, it may be too late, and many are convinced this is just a lot of thunder without the rain. But do not underestimate how serious he is, and how much personal prestige he is investing. The recent Politburo meeting deserves more attention than it has gotten outside of official media.

The comment that this latest meeting signals an upgrading of the "eight rules" is interesting. The corruption crackdown and austerity may in fact deepen.

Roderick MacFarquhar:

I am sure Xi is serious but he cannot attack the elite and maintain tight control. They will get rid of him or he will have to become a military dictator.

Andrew Nathan:

Like Rod and Winston, I'm skeptical for two reasons in addition to those already mentioned.

First, the idea of what's corrupt and what isn't is different in China. Using personal connections to get access and information is considered normal -- and hey, don't we have some of that in our own society too? China doesn't yet have a law that bans insider trading. It's not considered corrupt if an official's family members get rich, which is what Xi's family members have done, according to a terrific investigative report a year ago by Bloomberg.

Second, what's important politically is the optics of the issue -- the appearance of battling corruption -- rather than the substance. Aided by its control of the media and the courts, Party Central has a good chance of creating a corruption-busting image by punishing a few especially hated officials, especially those who got outed on weibo for wearing fancy watches, driving fancy cars, having too many young mistresses, or bragging about their power to abuse ordinary citizens. Public opinion polls have shown that most Chinese think corruption is a problem of their local officials and not of the people at the top. If that image can be sustained, the Party could be safe from an anti-corruption backlash.

Orville Schell:

Mindful of how dynasties and the Kuomintang fell due to uncontrolled corruption, the CCP urge to fight malfeasance in office is born of a deep and frightening historical awareness. And, its efforts may well end up being a do-or-die proposition.

However, it strikes me that Xi and his cohorts have a daunting challenge for three reasons that are all unique to China:

The first is that heads of State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) have relatively low salaries and little prospect of remuneration through such standard procedures used abroad such as stock options. So, they quite naturally turn to other forms of off-ledger compensation like bribes, which enable them to live in the manner to which they understandably imagine their rank and standing as high-level executives ought to entitle them.

Second, there is no private property, which means that officials are in charge of most land transactions, which open manifold opportunities to salt a little away on the side as land deals are consummated.

Third, banks are also state-owned and state-run, which means heads of SOEs sit in the catbird seat when it comes time to match land development deals with loans. And again, it is not difficult to make side deals to enrich oneself each time a loan goes through to fund some big development deal.

Given these three unique "Chinese characteristics" which mark the Chinese economy, it is hard to imagine how by exhortation alone, or even the sternest punishment, the Party can actually be successful in finally rooting out corruption. This is not Hong Kong. And, as any good Christian knows all too well, "The spirit is strong, but the flesh is weak." Moreover, to extend this Christian metaphor, even St. Augustine famously prayed, "Oh Lord! Make me chaste, but not yet!"

It is not had to imagine that even as the anti-corruption campaign goes into high gear, many Party officials, who have not quite got their nest eggs secure, are offering up similar prayers to whatever deity it is that begs their genuflections.

This post also appears at ChinaFile, an Atlantic partner site.