China’s Anti-Corruption Campaign Enters Crucial Phase

May 12, 2015 Last Updated: May 19, 2015

Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign has recently reached an impasse: the trial of a powerful former security czar is delayed; the anti-corruption chief gave a rallying speech in a province that was supposed to have already been purged; and the investigation and purge of top ranking officials has slowed to a trickle.

Analysts say that this pause is a sign that the Party’s factional struggle is at a critical stage, and that choices made in the near future will be decisive—leading either to a thorough crushing of the faction that opposes Xi, or potentially a weakening of Xi’s power, and possible retribution in the future.

“It’s a matter of ‘you die, I live,’ for Xi Jinping and Jiang Zemin.”
— Chen Pokong, Chinese communist politics analyst

Adding to the debate most recently was the Chinese-language news magazine Mingjing Monthly, which opened its latest issue with the screaming headline: “Brakes pulled on anti-corruption campaign; ‘Big Tiger’ hunt halted.” The story claims that Jiang Zemin, the former regime leader, and Zeng Qinghong, his henchman, have effectively put a stop to the Party rectification campaign led by Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan, the disciplinary chief.

Cover of the June 2015 issue of overseas Chinese language publication Mingjing Magazine. (Screen shot/Mingjingnews.com)
Cover of the June 2015 issue of overseas Chinese language publication Mingjing Magazine. (Screen shot/Mingjingnews.com)

The piece says that Zeng Qinghong is blocking Zhou Yongkang, China’s former security leader, from being sentenced to death despite Zhou’s confessing to numerous murders, and demanding that several top officials—including Ling Jihua, the aide to Hu Jintao, the Party leader preceding Xi Jinping, and Guo Boxiong, formerly second in charge of the military forces—be let off with a mere slap on the wrist, due to their ties to Jiang Zemin.

Mingjing also attempts to call into question the legitimacy of Xi and Wang’s campaign, pointing to the alleged self-enrichment of Xi Jinping’s own family members. Whether the publication is reporting the news or attempting to make it, at the behest of political forces in China, is unclear—but in either case, observers agree that Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption push appears to have stopped pursuing high-profile targets, and many cases against top officials appear stuck in limbo.

The claim that the old guard of Jiang Zemin and Zeng Qinghong are behind the scenes staying Xi’s hand appears credible, according to Chen Pokong, an author and analyst of Chinese communist politics.

“It’s a matter of ‘you die, I live,’ for Xi Jinping and Jiang Zemin,” Chen said in a telephone interview, using a common Chinese phrase to describe political warfare.

Since the 100th “tiger”—a Party reference to high-ranking officials—former deputy chairman of the Inner Mongolia Regional Committee of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Zhao Liping, was arrested end March, arrests have dwindled, and only two officials were arrested since then.

The trial of former Politburo member Zhou Yongkang has also been pushed back, reportedly because he is looking to withdraw his confessions, according to Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.

Also, Wang Qishan toured the eastern China province of Zhejiang from May 8 to 10—an area whose biggest “tiger,” former deputy chairman of the Inner Mongolia Regional Committee of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Si Xinliang, has already been taken in. As purges normally take place after Wang visits an area, China commentators are baffled as to why Wang toured Zhejiang instead of neighboring Shanghai, which is the traditional power base of Jiang Zemin, despite a number of investigations and purges that have already taken place there.

Chen Pokong says that Xi and Wang have to push their anti-corruption campaign forward quickly, to root out Jiang forces before they strike back.

Gao Wenqian, a scholar who has authored a biography of Zhou Enlai, presented his analysis of the state of the campaign during a Voice of America political talk program.

“It’s a war of life and death for Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan. They’re riding a tiger, and they can’t get off. The scope and scale of the campaign has exceeded what they anticipated—and if they were to carry it out to the end, then the Party might fall. But if they stop short, they might be eaten by the tiger,” he said.

“So they don’t know how to go forward. They take a step, say something, take a step, and say something else.”

If Jiang Zemin—who is pushing 90 years of age—gets severely ill or dies, the path will likely be smoother, Chen Pokong says. But if he continues to pose resistance to Xi Jinping’s agenda, all the way until the 19th National Party Congress in 2017, then the current leadership could potentially face “retribution.”

Chen has a novel suggestion: team up with the liberals and reformers to battle against the conservatives.

“At the moment, Xi Jinping is trying to take down both conservatives and liberals, something that doesn’t help his case,” Chen said. But if he sells the anti-corruption to the public as a genuine law-building exercise, and actually divests power from the Party into genuinely independent institutions, then he will be engaged not merely an internal Party struggle, but an exercise in putting China on a more legitimate footing of governance.

Of course there is a positive precedent for Xi to follow—former Taiwan premier Chiang Ching-kuo slowly opened up an authoritarian state in the late 1980s, leading to a liberalization of Taiwan.

Chen said: “If he is farsighted, Xi will side with the people, where he has popular support, and be remembered by posterity.”