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The Mixed Rationales and Mixed Results of Xi Jinping’s Anticorruption Campaign

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What corruption entails and how it can best be combatted is contingent on political culture, as demonstrated by the world’s foremost case—China.

The Mixed Rationales and Mixed Results of Xi Jinping’s Anticorruption Campaign

Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, the hallmark of his leadership and greatest source of his popularity has been a relentless anticorruption campaign. Three years in, Xi’s crusade is gaining steam. Approximately 750,000 of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 88 million members have been punished following investigations by Xi’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), a powerful body that is part inspector-general and part ideological watchdog. Twice as many party members were prosecuted in 2015 as in 2013.

No Chinese or foreign critic claims that Xi is mistaken about the scale of the problem. Since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms sparked explosive growth in the 1990s, national and local officials have had constant opportunities for graft, and they have seized them. Corruption pervades government offices, but it is also widespread in hospitals, where patients make illegal payments to scalpers and medical personnel to secure appointments, book beds, and receive proper care; in public schools, where parents pay “sponsorship fees” to secure their children’s admission; and in most other institutions. For citizens raised on a socialist ethic of fairness, self-sacrifice, and shared poverty, the corruption of CCP cadres not only hurts them financially, but also erodes their belief in a party that, since Mao’s day, has promised to Serve the People. To restore the party’s legitimacy, Xi had no choice but to declare war on corruption and try to return the CCP to its ascetic roots.

Xi is not merely out to change party members’ behavior; in good Maoist fashion, he wants to change their minds. The guiding slogan of his anticorruption strategy is Won’t, Couldn’t, Wouldn’t (bù gǎn, bùnéng, bùxiǎng). In the campaign’s first phase, cadres won’t dare be corrupt, because punishment is certain. In the second phase, they couldn’t be corrupt even if they wanted to, because institutional improvements will preclude it. In the third phase, it wouldn’t cross their minds to be corrupt, because they will have been purified through socialist culture.

Despite the heads that have rolled and the support he has garnered, Xi’s signature initiative is a delicate balancing act. Conceptual and operational challenges, together with Xi’s leadership style, could make this campaign to ensure the CCP’s survival a threat to its stability instead.

Conceptual Issues

Selling Xi’s anticorruption message to an increasingly well-informed public is a challenge, even for a populist leader who controls the media. Xi’s program reasserts the party’s primacy through Maoist disciplinary measures and through the slogan, The Party Leads All Affairs—Party, Political, Military, Civil, and Academic—East, West, South, North, and Center. He is declaring that only the CCP can save China, even as he warns that the party’s endemic corruption is China’s greatest threat. That this square circle is causing confusion is evinced by reports of cadres’ doubts on the eve of the 2016 meeting of the National People’s Congress.

To restore the party’s legitimacy, Xi had no choice but to declare war on corruption and try to return the CCP to its ascetic roots.

Most Chinese political campaigns are explained to the party and public through carefully crafted rationales based on Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong thought, but Xi has offered no theory to explain how such a saintly party was coopted. The liberal idea — that power is inherently corrupting and that all leaders need checks and balances, a free press, and independent judiciaries to keep them in line — is inadmissible in Beijing. The party’s implicit explanation for corruption is that bad people do bad things. Reports on fallen officials do not stop at describing how much they stole; they detail how many mistresses the thief maintained, how often he solicited prostitutes — no prurient detail is omitted if it will convince readers that the accused was depraved despite his or her party membership. Salacious personal stories are used to deter questions about systemic causes of corruption and to obscure the contradictions in Xi’s program.

Chinese commentators have raised questions from the first about the sincerity of the anticorruption campaign, suggesting that Xi’s true goal was to clear out his predecessors’ patronage networks and consolidate his own power, rather than to rectify the party itself. The jury is still out, but evidence to date suggests that Xi is pursuing both goals. Corruption does undermine the party’s legitimacy. Xi needs party members to fall in line (kànqí), and he needs to win back the support of the people if he is to rule effectively. But he has taken a hands-off approach to established elites; he has not yet taken on any of the powerful, rapacious princelings (hóng èr dài: the offspring of revolutionary party heroes) or second-generation officials (guān èr dài) who share Xi’s own political pedigree. Xi wants a pure party, but he is also using the campaign to purge officials who do not owe their loyalty to him.

Campaign Execution and the Threat of Instability

In August 2015, party media ran and reran an editorial railing against the “unimaginably fierce resistance” that Xi’s reforms were encountering at local levels. Policies were not being implemented — an extraordinary admission for the CCP. The common Chinese explanation for bureaucratic paralysis is that local leaders do not want to make mistakes or do anything that will get them noticed. Better to lay low and wait out the anticorruption campaign. Nearly every cadre has done something that was not strictly by the book, after all, so any misstep, or even proper execution of a policy that hurts the interest of a vindictive colleague, could have the CCDI anticorruption cops knocking at the door.

Xi’s anticorruption campaign has made enemies in the party and People’s Liberation Army. Whether or not rumors that Xi has faced assassination plots are true, there undoubtedly are factions that will attack Xi if he falters or fails. These latent threats seem to be making Xi more averse to criticism, more wary of aspersions on his competence, more needful of total obedience, more isolated within his small sphere of advisors, more prone to control information, and even more inclined than before the anticorruption campaign to double down rather than compromise when he meets resistance.

In February, it was announced that Xi is “The Core” of the CCP and, as such, needs unceasing protection (jiānjué wéihù Xí Jìnpíng zhège héxīn). Against the background of the anticorruption campaign, making Xi the Core threatens the CCP succession mechanism that helps maintain stability in China. As the Core, Xi has abandoned the collective leadership model that enabled the transitions from Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin, to Hu Jintao, and then to Xi himself. It is unlikely that Xi’s successor will be christened as the Core from day one of his term, as no leader who could sustain such a status will be permitted to build his own patronage network while Xi is in power. After Xi’s term ends in 2022, therefore, either he will remain the untitled power behind the throne, as Deng did, or Xi’s successor will have to spend his first five years clearing out Xi’s entrenched networks, as Xi is now doing to Jiang’s and Hu’s appointees.

The emerging Xi-ist political model is wasteful at best, and could prove destabilizing. It derives from the daunting challenges that China faces, from Xi’s leadership style, and from the anticorruption campaign’s failure to address the systemic causes of the party’s rot. The net result is that China’s system is becoming more fragile, even if its leader is strong.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

Robert Daly is director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center.


About the Author

Robert Daly image

Robert Daly

Director, Kissinger Institute on China and the United States

Robert Daly, the Director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, has compiled an unusually diverse portfolio of high-level work: He has served as a US diplomat in Beijing; as an interpreter for Chinese and US leaders, including President Carter and Secretary of State Kissinger; as head of China programs at Johns Hopkins, Syracuse, and the University of Maryland; and as a producer of Chinese-language versions of Sesame Street. Recognized East and West as a leading authority on Sino-US relations, he has testified before Congress, lectured widely in both countries, and regularly offers analysis for top media outlets.

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Kissinger Institute on China and the United States

The Kissinger Institute works to ensure that China policy serves American long-term interests and is founded in understanding of historical and cultural factors in bilateral relations and in accurate assessment of the aspirations of China’s government and people.  Read more