China’s anti-corruption crusade may be strategy to keep power

Communist elite’s purges seen by some as pretext for removing rivals

Zhou Yongkang: a former oil boss and security tsar who amassed power, he has been at the centre of investigations since July last year. Experts say the inquiry is driven by internal politics not justice. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Zhou Yongkang: a former oil boss and security tsar who amassed power, he has been at the centre of investigations since July last year. Experts say the inquiry is driven by internal politics not justice. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images


At a building site in Changsha, in Hunan province, not far from where Communist China’s founding father Mao Zedong comes from, a series of 33 cartoons attacking corrupt local cadres appeared on a wall.

The local government said the cartoons “convey negative energy” and were “excessively ironic” in the way they depicted bent cadres amassing bribes.

“Someone may have painted public service messages on the wall to promote the government’s anti-corruption campaign. However, they convey too much negative energy and unnecessarily place the government in a bad light,” one local worker said.

For the moment, the cartoons are going to stay, as they feed into China’s ongoing battle against corruption.

Since President Xi Jinping made his pledge to root out graft in China, whether it involves massive wealth accumulated by the powerful “tigers” of the elite or backhanders palmed over to the “flies” at the bottom of the Communist Party, he has taken some significant scalps.

The biggest is Bo Xilai, the former party boss in Dalian and Chongqing who was purged last year, and is serving a life sentence for corruption and abuse of power, while his wife sits in jail for murder.

Since Bo, the biggest “tiger” is former oil boss and security tsar Zhou Yongkang, who was a member of the party’s all-powerful politburo standing committee until 2012 and his public defenestration is expected to take place any day, while other big names include Xu Caihou, former vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission.

“The main drive of the fight against corruption is to maintain power,” says Zhang Lifan – whose father, Zhang Naiqi, was persecuted during the Anti-Rightist Campaign in the 1950s, and who suffered himself during the Cultural Revolution. “If you stand in the wrong line, you will be targeted. Secondly, the system is a corrupting system. Corruption has affected the system. In order to improve the stability of power and reduce the conflicts among the people, they have to fight against the corruption.”

Power vs corruption

“It is difficult to say the proportion of those fighting against corruption and the purge of Xi’s opponents. But I believe fighting for the power is the main drive of the anti-corruption campaign. It is a purge of opponents and about maintaining power,” said Zhang.

The Communist Party’s main corruption watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), has been very keen to ensure there is public backing for its efforts.

After a plenary session to review its work over the past year, during which it netted some very senior catches, the CDDI said the campaign “required political composure, restraint and patience” and said it was “not just a whirlwind campaign and efforts should not spur “mass movements” that disturb social order: “The anti-corruption campaign should continue forward steadily, step by step.”

Combating corruption needed public support and participation and more “positive energy” from the public and media would be of great benefit. Acts of defiance toward counter-corruption measures and actions that spark intense public criticism will be “cleaned up”, the document warned, and it urged all cadres to take responsibility.

As long as members of the party work together, we will certainly come through this grave and complicated situation.”

Greater efforts to enforce discipline, build confidence and enrich judgment are needed, and the session, attended by 125 CCDI members, reviewed and passed a report presented by Wang Qishan, the CCDI chief.

State bodies

About 153 state-owned enterprises, banks and financial institutions are under the microscope of a group which is part of the state council, China’s cabinet, called the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission. Six state-owned enterprises under the care of the central government have been inspected and, in the latest round, eight more were scrutinised. “State-owned enterprises are the most targeted because those companies are most corrupt and they have seriously affected tax revenues. And also senior cadres within the party are targeted,” said Zhang Lifan.

Among senior executives at state-owned enterprises caught up in the investigation are Ren Yong, assistant general manager of Dongfeng Motor Corporation; China Southern Airlines’s vice-general manager, Chen Gang; and its operations director, Tian Xiaodong.

The CDDI has offices in 52 of more than 140 central Communist Party and government departments. In December, it established seven offices in central government departments, the CPC Central Committee, the top legislature and national political advisory body.

President’s family wealth

Xi’s own family has become enormously wealthy during his ascent to power, although the president himself has been ring-fenced from direct links to his family’s billions and no one has made a direct link between him and corrupt activities.

“Xi or his family, comparing to previous leaders, has not been involved in many businesses,” said Zhang. “There is no evidence at the moment that his family is corrupt. He must have warned his family to get out of any corrupt business or to be clean, so nobody can use his family to attack him.”

“The people are not benefiting directly from this anti-corruption campaign. People are just playing a role of audience and watching a great show. After all, this show has never been so good as it is now. It’s a bit like the Cultural Revolution. People were happy when other people were being attacked. People are not benefiting. All the money that was confiscated is not returned to the people even though it is our tax money. Instead, the government has taken it and put it into the national treasury. Instead, the fight against corruption can devalue the yuan and the economy will decline, which will affect people’s lives.”

According to the CCDI, cases involving 68 high-level officials are under investigation or have been closed. A total of 71,748 Chinese officials were punished in 2014 for violations of the eight-point anti-graft rules. Since the campaign started, about 270,000 cadres from the ruling Communist Party have faced sanctions.

At the same time, the most recent report by Transparency International, in December, suggests that corruption has actually become worse in China since Xi took over the leadership in 2012.

In its survey of 175 countries, China came away with 36 points, putting it in 100th place, the same as Algeria and Suriname, a steep drop from its 80th place the previous year.

The debate in Changsha about the “ironic” cartoons continues. Apparently the images will not be painted over, but will be “improved” to make sure they are more on message and present the anti-corruption campaign in a “clearer way”.