Hunting but Not Catching Corruption’s ‘Tigers’ in China
Xi Jinping, the new leader of the Chinese Communist Party, vowed to fight corruption with harsher measures during the Jan 22 meeting of the CCP’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI). The regime’s media, the general public, and foreign observers immediately seized on two statements by Xi: “The Party should crack down on tigers and flies at the same time,” and “Power should be restricted by the cage of regulations.”
Xi was addressing two different issues. Tigers and flies refer to the rank of those targeted by the anti-corruption campaign. The cage refers to an anti-corruption mechanism or system.
The Chinese media and some Chinese people thought that by using the word tiger, Xi meant to target high-ranking officials, even those at the top. That’s not necessarily the case. According to Xi’s own words, by tiger, he just meant officials.
The CCP does not have a history of trying high-ranking officials for corruption. During the CCP’s more than 63-year rule, only two members of the Politburo have been jailed on the charge of corruption. The Politburo is the body made up of two dozen individuals holding top positions in the CCP and from whose ranks are chosen the ruling Standing Committee.
Chen Xitong, the former head of the CCP in Beijing, was sentenced to 16 years in jail in 1998. Chen Liangyu, the former head of the CCP in Shanghai, was sentenced to 18 years in jail in 2008.
Another high-ranking official, Cheng Kejie, was sentenced to death in 2000 for accepting bribes. Even though Cheng Kejie was former vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, he was only a member of the CCP Central Committee—the 350-member Party legislature-like body—not a member of the Politburo. He was not considered as having real power inside the Party.
Former Party heavyweight Bo Xilai was finally formally purged from the Party in November last year, following his removal from Party posts in March. However, his fate is uncertain, as the legal process is still pending.
A Cage Without Bars
When Xi talked about restricting power with a cage of regulations, nobody really knew what kind of cage of regulations could be used for this purpose.
During the Mao era, the most famous anti-corruption case involved the executions in 1952 of two former Party heads of Tianjin City—Liu Qingshan and Zhang Zishan. Since they had both joined the CCP in the early 1930s, they were considered untouchable.
Their executions were approved by Mao Zedong himself and were part of the CCP’s first anti-corruption campaign.
This was a real anti-corruption campaign with no other hidden political agenda: Mao didn’t need to use anti-corruption as a pretext for other charges. In any case, this was a political campaign, not the rule of law. It didn’t establish a mechanism or system for later use.
During Deng Xiaoping’s time, many economic policies were created. Some of the policies, if not all, were designed to benefit those with political power or the families of the CCP leaders.
There was no such thing as an anti-corruption campaign during that time. The main targets of the 1989 student protest were the corrupt officials and the princelings, including Deng Xiaoping’s son. After the crackdown on the student movement, a grassroots demand for ending corruption became a “destabilizing factor” and was no longer allowed.
Jiang Zemin has a different stance on this issue. Without a military background and with no authority over other Party leaders, he allowed and sometimes encouraged corruption. Anti-corruption became his weapon to punish those who defied his authority.
People believe that the only reason for Chen Xitong’s jail sentence was that Jiang considered Chen as his personal enemy. From then on, the charge of corruption became a tool in the Party’s power struggles.
Hu Jintao didn’t create any system opposing corruption either. He followed Jiang’s precedent by putting Chen Liangyu, the Party head of Shanghai, in jail. Chen Liangyu belonged to Jiang’s faction and opposed Hu’s authority.
When Xi Jinping talks about restricting power with a cage of regulations, he is talking about something that has never existed before in the CCP.
Given Xi Jinping’s desire to crack down on tigers, people will naturally focus in the coming months on the fate of Bo Xilai. But taking down Bo will not earn Xi Jinping credit for bagging a tiger.
There has been a rumor that Bo will be tried before the National People’s Congress, which should be held in early March. Bo was a member of the Politburo and can be considered a big tiger.
However, taking down Bo Xilai would still be considered the work of the previous regime. Former CCP head Hu Jintao and former premier Wen Jiabao would get the credit, no matter how important a role Xi Jinping may play.
While Bo is a tiger, he is of the same rank as Chen Xitong and Chen Liangyu. Bo doesn’t qualify as a bigger tiger—someone like former regime head Jiang Zemin or Jiang’s domestic security czar, Zhou Yongkang.
Besides, almost nobody really thinks that corruption is the real reason for Bo Xilai’s fall. Bo’s “singing red songs” campaign challenged the CCP’s ruling legitimacy. Bo’s conspiracy to replace Xi Jinping challenged the legitimacy of the transfer of power within the Party. Bo’s “hit the black” campaign, which was said to target gangsters, destroyed the remaining vestiges of the Party’s fake rule of law.
However, while these are the real reasons for taking Bo down, these reasons will not be mentioned at his trial. If Bo is only charged with corruption and abuse of power, then his case would the same as those from Jiang and Hu’s time—anti-corruption would simply again be a tool for political struggle.
The hope of designing a cage of regulations to restrain power ignores obvious facts about today’s Party. Who are the uncorrupted cadres who will design such a cage? Who will make the impartial rules that will decide all the cases? Those are questions with no ready-made answers.
Almost all the Party and state officials are corrupt. Even if a cage with real rules could be built, once it began operating, it would destroy the Party immediately.
The next day after Xi Jinping gave his speech, Wang Qishan, the new head of the CCDI, also talked about the anti-corruption campaign. Wang took a more practical line. He said that anti-corruption should take both the symptoms and the cause into account. But currently, anti-corruption can only focus on treating the symptoms in order to win some time for treating the cause.
Ironically, Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan made their vows to oppose corruption in a meeting of the Commission of Discipline Inspection, which is a Party organ. This indicates that this particular anti-corruption effort is still more like a political campaign than the rule of law.
If four generations of the CCP leadership, from Mao, Deng, Jiang, to Hu, all failed to establish an anti-corruption system, how can Xi accomplish the mission? He doesn’t have the time before corruption totally destroys the Party.
Editor’s Note: When Chongqing’s former top cop, Wang Lijun, fled for his life to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu on Feb. 6, he set in motion a political storm that has not subsided. The battle behind the scenes turns on what stance officials take toward the persecution of Falun Gong. The faction with bloody hands—the officials former CCP head Jiang Zemin promoted in order to carry out the persecution—is seeking to avoid accountability for their crimes and to continue the campaign. Other officials are refusing to participate in the persecution any longer. Events present a clear choice to the officials and citizens of China, as well as people around the world: either support or oppose the persecution of Falun Gong. History will record the choice each person makes.