Aug 2nd 2014
In carrying out the most significant purge in a generation, Xi Jinping seeks to tighten his grip
Beijing – SINCE President Xi Jinping launched his anti-corruption campaign at the end of 2012, the question has been how high he would aim. On July 29th an emphatic answer came with the news that Zhou Yongkang was under investigation by the Communist Party for “serious violations of discipline”—for which, read corruption.
Mr Zhou was once one of the most powerful men in the land. Until two years ago he was a member of the Politburo’s ruling standing committee: in charge of the state’s vast security apparatus, he controlled a budget bigger than the army’s. It had long been an unwritten rule of China’s power politics that men of Mr Zhou’s stature were untouchable. In flouting the rule, Mr Xi has left no doubt about the authority he believes he now wields. He appears to be the most powerful Chinese leader since the late Deng Xiaoping.
Mr Zhou first appeared to be in trouble in 2012, with the purge of Chongqing’s party secretary, Bo Xilai. It is thought that Mr Bo had been eager to challenge Mr Xi’s ascent to the presidency, and Mr Zhou was a close ally who argued against bringing Mr Bo down. The result was a rare serious split in China’s highest leadership.
Mr Zhou sat atop a network of patronage that ran across the country, in particular through the police state and the oil-and-gas industry (through which he himself had risen). In recent months protégés have been rounded up for graft, including Jiang Jiemin, once head of PetroChina and, last year, of the government body overseeing state-owned assets. And on July 29th reports surfaced of the arrest of Mr Zhou’s businessman son, Zhou Bin, who also has interests in energy. Foreign media have reported that the family’s assets run to hundreds of millions of dollars. But whether Mr Zhou and his clan are much more corrupt than the families of many other senior leaders is moot. His chief sin appears to have been, as with Mr Bo, seeking to amass so much power that he threatened a system of collective leadership that depends on a precarious balance of different factions and interests.
Still, Mr Xi and his able sideman, Wang Qishan, who runs the anti-corruption campaign, appear deadly serious about graft. Since the start of 2013, the party says, over 200,000 officials have been punished. That includes three dozen ministers, provincial leaders or top executives at state-owned companies. Many officials have committed suicide.
Mr Xi and Mr Wang appear to believe that corruption frustrates ambitious economic proposals unveiled late last year, including reforms to make state-owned enterprises—energy companies among them—perform much better. They are out to smash the interests resisting reform.
But the two men also seem to think that graft poses an almost existential threat to the Communist Party’s rule. And they are probably right. Ordinary people are disgusted with party corruption, and going after corrupt “tigers” underpins Mr Xi’s popularity, as far as it can be measured. On July 30th the People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece, said that Mr Xi is serious about purifying the ranks, and that no one is safe from scrutiny.
For the moment, the initiative is with Mr Xi and his allies. Mr Zhou’s downfall has elements of a good old-fashioned purge in which rivals are eliminated and power is consolidated. Optimists hope Mr Xi will use his power to push on with economic and social reforms. This week the party also announced that it would convene a big meeting in October to discuss the rule of law, an area that was once Mr Zhou’s to define and control.
Yet Mr Xi’s strategy also raises questions. One is that his anti-corruption drive—more far-reaching and lasting than any other—has sent such a chill through the governing apparatus that demoralised officials are scared to act on any policy or project without clear direction from above. That could hamper the implementation of the very reforms that Mr Xi and Mr Wang are supposed to be working towards.
The second caveat follows from the first: there are presumably risks in taking down too many tigers. Ordinary Chinese may understand better how truly rotten the system is, while other senior leaders will think they are next. Should that happen, then the party’s famed unity could be in trouble as others challenge Mr Xi’s authority—the opposite of what he intends. At some point, then, he and Mr Wang must find a way to bring the anti-corruption juggernaut to a halt. At the moment it is careering along.