Interpreting the party’s anti-corruption campaign

Andrei Lungu | 27 September 2017

A party strategy

“If we fail to handle this issue [corruption] well, it could prove fatal to the party and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state”. Thus spoke the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party at the party’s 18th National Congress, in November 2012. This ominous warning hinted at what was to follow. Unfortunately for him, somebody else was tasked with solving the problem of corruption. Hu Jintao, who issued the stark warning, was stepping down as General Secretary.

This important mission was assigned to the next Party General Secretary, Xi Jinping, who promised to hunt both flies (low-level officials) and tigers (the most powerful politicians in China). Xi was also endowed by the party with a powerful weapon: the new Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), Wang Qishan, was no bland politician.

Most observers were surprised that Wang became the anti-corruption tsar. He was well known for his handling of numerous crises over the years, from bankruptcies to SARS, and was seen as a finance hand. One explanation floated back then (which proved to be wrong) was the Wang didn’t become Vice Premier because Li Keqiang, the future Premier, was afraid Wang might overshadow his role in managing the economy, so Wang was reassigned to a less powerful post: that of CCDI secretary. Wang’s assignment was a surprise even to him. As he would say a few years later at a conference, the video of which was leaked: “Nobody expected it […] when Wang Qishan became the CCDI secretary.”

Five years later though, it should be clear why Wang Qishan was named CCDI chief: he was an outstanding politician who could get the job done. During Hu Jintao’s era, most decisions, especially the ones about the formation of the party’s apex of power, the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), were collective decisions taken not just by the outgoing PSC, but also with the input of party elders and the larger Politburo. Today, Wang is regarded as Xi’s ally, but it is extremely difficult to believe that Xi simply said that he wants Wang to lead the CCDI and nobody else had any word on the matter. Xi might have known Wang since childhood, but Wang had served in Beijing for almost 10 years, working close with many top leaders, including Li Keqiang. Maybe Xi proposed this anti-corruption assignment, but it was signed off by all the outgoing leaders. And all of them were well aware of Wang’s efficiency.

In the context of Hu’s speech highlighting the existential threat of corruption it is impossible to say that Wang’s assignment was simply a coincidence. He was the medication that the party leadership prescribed to fight corruption and its ills. Also, it is doubtful that the former party leadership had no idea of Wang’s close ties to Xi, as if Xi tricked them into giving such an important post to a close ally. Their relation was probably seen as an asset, as the future PSC would work together to save the party from corruption.

In retrospect, the 18th Party Congress pretty much makes it clear that the anti-corruption campaign wasn’t Xi’s signature campaign, but the party’s campaign. Xi might have been the one to first propose it behind closed doors, convincing the other leaders of its importance. This, we will probably never know. But nobody can claim that Xi surprised the party in December 2012 when the first quasi-important name (Deputy Party Secretary of Sichuan, Li Chuncheng) fell. The party leadership gave Xi a mission and it knew what was coming.

The legacy of Bo Xilai

That first target also serves as evidence of something important. Li Chuncheng was an old associate of Zhou Yongkang, the internal security tsar, who would later become the most important target of the anti-corruption campaign. Zhou is in a way the key to understanding the anti-corruption campaign.

The year 2012 was important for Chinese politics not just because of the 18th Party Congress. Something even more important happened that year: the Bo Xilai crisis. Bo Xilai was the Party Secretary of Chongqing and a member of the Politburo, when his right-hand man, Wang Lijun, fled to a US Consulate and was later apprehended and taken to Beijing for questioning. This event brought into the open all of Bo’s sins: from his wife’s murder of an English businessman, to Bo’s penchant for wiretapping the phones of Chinese leaders. It was an earth-shattering event for the Chinese Communist Party, one whose impact is still being felt today. Bo wasn’t just a Politburo member – he was a rising star with a powerful network of allies and an ambition to reach the PSC. The most powerful politician in this network was Zhou Yongkang, a PSC member and the man who controlled China’s vast internal security apparatus.

The seriousness of the crisis is exemplified by the comments that Wen Jiabao, China’s Premier, made during the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress in March 2012. In his last press conference as Premier, Wen warned China that “a historical tragedy like the Cultural Revolution may occur again”, a clear reference to Bo, who had revived Maoism in Chongqing. It was a rare open split in the party’s carefully crafted image of unity. The next day, Bo was removed from his post in Chongqing.

But the crisis was far from over: Zhou Yongkang apparently opposed this decision. As it is usual in China, rumors started floating around. But these rumors were quite stark: that Zhou, Bo and their allies were staging a coup against the leadership and against the future president, Xi Jinping. This was highly unlikely, but it shows the level of tension in the air in Beijing during that spring. A few months later, sources told the Financial Times that Zhou Yongkang was relieved of his control over the security apparatus, in a way placing Zhou in retirement, a few months earlier than usual. Zhou wasn’t expelled from the party, but the Bo Xilai crisis wounded him.

The clearest sign of the seriousness of this crisis was the composition of the 18th PSC, announced in November. The internal security chief was no longer on the PSC. Meng Jianzhu, Zhou’s successor, was an ordinary Politburo member. It is assumed that one of the reasons the PSC was reduced from 9 to 7 seats in 2012 was to make it more likely to reach consensus, as Hu Jintao’s 10 years of collective leadership were seen as a period of stagnation without bold reforms. So 2 portfolios had to go. But why have the chief of propaganda, the Vice Premier or the anti-corruption tsar remain on the PSC, while the chief of internal security was let go? Back in 2012, the chief of internal security was seen as far more powerful than the other three positions, something natural in an authoritarian state. The internal security budget was higher than China’s military budget. The fact that this portfolio was removed is clear proof that the party was shaken by the Bo Xilai crisis.

The crisis also showed how self-serving politicians have abused their positions to acquire wealth and power. Everybody knew that corruption was pervasive, but Bo Xilai brought it all into the open. The party needed to improve its image. And even more problematic for the leadership was that numerous politicians who were part of Zhou’s network, some of them high-ranking, were still in power throughout China. Taken together, they formed an important center of power, even if Bo was in jail and Zhou was retired. They needed to be dealt with.

Hunting wounded tigers and avoiding the elephants in the room

For four and a half years, until Sun Zhengcai was put under investigation in July 2017, the anti-corruption displayed two patterns: all important tigers were already wounded before being arrested and no current member of the Politburo was targeted.

The big tigers of the anti-corruption campaign were Zhou Yongkang, Bo Xilai, Ling Jihua, Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong (the last two being army chiefs, a category that should be analyzed separately). Below them, two sitting provincial party chiefs were targeted, one of whom was an ally of Zhou Yongkang (Zhou Benshun, the Party Secretary of Hebei). The other provincial Party Secretary probably would have joined the Politburo at the 19th Congress this October, had he avoided arrest. He’s name was Huang Xingguo and he was a close associate of… Xi Jinping.

The anti-corruption campaign has been seen as the prime evidence of Xi’s unmatched power. The intensity of the campaign and the way it seemed to target his opponents was supposed to be proof of Xi’s power. But this is a misreading of the facts. How many core members of Jiang Zemin’s Shanghai clique have been targeted? How many important members of Hu Jintao’s Youth League faction have been targeted? Ling Jihua, Hu’s ally, wasn’t even a Politburo member. The really big tigers were spared.

Bo Xilai was down before Xi came to power and only needed to be put on trial. Zhou Yongkang was already a wounded tiger after the Bo Xilai crisis. Ling Jihua was also wounded: in the same spring of 2012, his son died in a Ferrari car crash. Before this, Ling was seen as heading for a Politburo promotion. But at the end of summer, when his patron Hu Jintao was still General Secretary, Ling was demoted from Director of the General Office (akin to chief of staff) to Head of the United Front Work Department, a rather powerless position. Such a reassignment should have happened at the Party Congress, but Ling was demoted two month before – a sign of his declining fortunes. Even Sun Zhengcai’s case might have a connection to Bo Xilai. Back in February, the CCDI accused him of not doing enough to remove Bo Xilai’s “pernicious ideological legacy” from Chongqing, a charge that probably made his dismissal easier.

Xi has indeed targeted numerous tigers, but all of them were wounded ones. Those who claim Xi used the anti-corruption campaign as a weapon against his enemies and other factions in the party and that Xi is extremely powerful need to answer a simple question: why has no other current Politburo member, until Sun Zhengcai in July 2017, been targeted by the anti-corruption campaign? Until Sun’s fall, Xi was the only General Secretary in almost 30 years who didn’t take down a Politburo member in his first term. Dozens of Central Committee member have been charged, but the Central Committee is a big body, with 205 members and 171 alternate members. The far more selective Politburo was immune. If Xi was all-powerful and the anti-corruption campaign was his power play, then surely Xi would have targeted other members of the Politburo, the ones who hold the real power, not just retired elders or Central Committee members. Yet, not one of the 25 Politburo members fell for four and a half years.

Maybe they were all clean? The anti-corruption campaign revealed something interesting: out of the 25 members of the 17th Politburo, 4 (Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, Xu Caihou, Guo Boxiong) were corrupt. Are we to believe that almost 20% of the previous Politburo was corrupt, but the current Politburo is all clean? Are people born in the early 1940s more corrupt than those born 5 years later? It doesn’t make much sense.

Odds are that at least some of the current Politburo members have some skeletons in the closet. It’s impossible to believe that they don’t have at least something in their entire career that Xi and Wang could have used against them, if they wanted to. It could have been something as simple as accepting a bottle of wine from a thankful citizen, sometime back in the ’90s. If Xi was all-powerful and bent on doing away with enemies from other factions, he would have hit the Politburo. In fact, he would have hit the PSC as well.

So why didn’t Xi do it? Because this would have completely destroyed the system. Xi wasn’t on a one-man crusade, but he was implementing a policy of the party. The chaos and infighting of the Cultural Revolution has left a strong mark on China. The leaders of the party have struggled, in the decades since, to maintain a semblance of unity and to avoid chaos. Taking down 4-5 members of the Politburo would start an open war. The Chinese political system would be thrown into chaos and the anti-corruption campaign would truly become a power play. As much as there were rumors of current Chinese leaders being afraid they might become targets of the anti-corruption campaign, pretty much everybody has been safe. Even retired elders have been spared.

A lot has been made of Zhou Yongkang’s investigation and arrest. The last leader to purge a PSC member (sitting, instead of retired) was Deng Xiaoping. Zhou’s arrest is one piece of evidence of Xi’s power. But there is another important piece of evidence: there was no other important retired elder who was jailed (except for the two army chiefs). Out of dozens of such former PSC or Politburo members, none were targeted. For years there were rumors that Zeng Qinghong, Jiang Zemin’s right-hand man, would be next. Yet nothing happened. Zeng is still free. If Xi was so powerful and the anti-corruption campaign was a political strategy, why didn’t he target any other former PSC member?

The answer is probably simple: because Xi isn’t acting alone, but carrying out the party’s mandate. All the information we have points to the fact that Xi consulted the retired elders before targeting Zhou and received their approval. Xi didn’t do things on his own, but as part of a party strategy. This is the reason no other elder and only one current Politburo member was targeted.

A fallen ally

Another myth of the anti-corruption campaign is that it has targeted politicians from opposing factions, spearing Xi’s allies. But what about Huang Xingguo? Huang was an old associate of Xi, having served as Vice Governor of Zhejiang, while Xi was Governor. Huang was probably a key player for Xi: he became Party Secretary of Tianjin in December 2014. His promotion was made possible by the investigation against Ling Jihua, who was replaced in his position by the previous Party Secretary of Tianjin. Anybody else could have been chosen to lead the United Front Work Department, which wasn’t normally led by a Politburo member. But Sun Chunlan, the Party Secretary of Tianjin, was the one chosen. It might seem a weird choice, until we understand that this opened up the Tianjin Party Secretary position, which was filled by Huang Xingguo, Xi’s ally.

And here comes another interesting coincidence: six months after Huang became Tianjin party chief, Zhou Yongkang’s trial took place. Where, you might ask? In Tianjin. The only trial of a PSC member in three decades took place in Tianjin, whose party chief had just been changed six months before, with a Xi ally taking charge. Interesting, isn’t it? A year later, Ling Jihua went on trial. In Tianjin, as well. If you believe in coincidences, you can easily dismiss all this as happenstance. If, on the other hand, you believe the party leadership likes to be in control of things, all the more so in the case of highly important trials, you understand the role Huang Xingguo was handed.

So why was he sacrificed a few months later? Huang was in charge, both as Mayor and party chief, when the 2015 Tianjin explosions killed over 170 people. Huang had been Mayor of Tianjin since 2008. What’s really surprising is that Huang survived for one more year after the explosion. Apparently, after the Tianjin explosion, Xi started distancing himself from Huang, claiming that he isn’t part of his close network. If Xi really was as powerful as Mao or Deng Xiaoping, as some have declared over the years, would he have had to sacrifice a loyal ally to placate the rest of the party? Doubtful.

Anyway, one month after Huang’s fall, Xi was officially declared the “core” of the party leadership, which was widely read as confirmation of Xi’s unmatched power. Want to take a guess as to who started the trend of naming Xi as the “core” back in January 2016? Yes, it was Huang Xingguo, later a victim of the anti-corruption campaign.

A change in the anti-corruption campaign?

Immune for more than four years, the Politburo finally became a target in July 2017, when Sun Zhengcai, who was assumed to be a candidate for President or Premier after 2022, was put under investigation. Until this episode, Xi Jinping was the only Chinese leader who didn’t purge a Politburo member. Even Hu Jintao, widely regarded as a weak leader, had done that, only four years after taking office (purging Chen Liangyu, a Jiang Zemin ally, in 2006).

Another important change seems to have happened in the military, which has a different status than the party. As every Chinese leader has repeated over the years, the party owns the military. And Xi treated it as such, the anti-corruption campaign being even more brutal in the armed forces. Both former Vice Chairmen of the Central Military Commission, leaders of the armed forces for almost 10 years, were investigated. But, even in the military, not one of the 10 members of the current Central Military Commission (Xi being the eleventh member of the CMC) was targeted.

One of the reasons the former Vice Chairmen, Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong, were investigated was because they sold promotions. As they were the apex of the military order, it’s possible that some of the current members of the CMC have profited from their corrupt behavior. Yet, none has been targeted until now. Again, Xi was careful to avoid chaos. Targeting the retired and, in this case literally wounded tigers (Xu died of cancer before being sentenced), transmitted a powerful message: corruption in the military is no longer allowed. Xi didn’t start a full purge of the army leadership, even if the odds are that such a purge might have been necessary to truly rid it of people who engaged in corruption in the past. He targeted the retired big bosses, sending a message to the current CMC leaders: get clean, or you’ll spend your retirement in jail.

This might have changed in August, when the Chief of the Joint Staff, Fang Fenghui, an ally of former President Hu Jintao and a member of the CMC, was removed from his position. Some sources indicated that he is being investigated, but no announcement has been made. Changing the Chief of Staff two months ahead of congress, without an official announcement, isn’t unprecedented – it happened in 2007, Liang Guanglie, then Chief of the General Staff Department, going on to serve as Defense Minister. The same sources also claim that Zhang Yang, another member of the CMC, is being investigated.

The move happened right after the Beidaihe meeting of current and retired leaders and some observers also noted the coincidence regarding the Doklam dispute with India, which ended in the same week as Fang was removed. If there is a connection between Doklam and Fang and Zhang, then this is probably a case of the party putting the gun in order. But this is unlikely, because all organs of state power, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the official press, were actively involved in the Doklam standoff. It doesn’t really look like a case of two generals going rough and sabotaging Xi Jinping.

The other explanation might be even more consequential. Fang was an ally of Hu Jintao and he had a good chance of becoming a Vice Chairman of the CMC at the 19th Party Congress. If Xi took him down to prevent this from happening, then this is a clear case of using the anti-corruption campaign to modify the current balance of power in the party, instead of just taking down quasi-tigers or wounded tigers.

This is what has happened in the case of Sun Zhengcai, who was also destined for higher office. He was replaced not by any other politician, but by Chen Min’er, Xi’s most important ally born in the 1960s, who is eligible to become General Secretary and leader of the sixth-generation of Chinese politicians, after 2022. This is exactly the way one would expect Xi to use his power if the anti-corruption was no longer a party policy, but a personal strategy.

The quick succession of Sun Zhengcai and Fang Fenghui (if the latter will be confirmed to be under investigation) might indicate a pivotal change in the anti-corruption campaign. For more than four years, it was a party strategy aimed at fighting corruption, annihilating Zhou Yongkang’s network and improving the party’s image, all the while avoiding chaos and infighting, by maintaining the current balance of power on the Politburo and the CMC. It is still too early to say whether Sun and Fang were one-off cases before the Congress or they prefigure the things to come.

For five years, the anti-corruption campaign has been mistaken as a power play and a sign of Xi Jinping’s unparalleled power. While the anti-corruption campaign was in fact something else – a party strategy – Xi might finally start using it in a different way. If this is the case, then we might end up seeing both current Politburo members and important elders being investigated. This would truly be an unprecedented development and would represent the ultimate solidification of Xi’s power. But this might never happen, as the anti-corruption campaign could continue avoiding the really powerful leaders. This is why it is important that we carefully read the signs, without blindly overstating the intensity of the campaign or Xi’s power, as has been the case for five years.

Photo credits (in order of appearance): Wang Qishan and Barack Obama (Flickr/U.S. Embassy, Jakarta), Zhou Yongkang mural (Flickr/thierry ehrmann), Ling Jihua and Wang Qishan at a meeting between Hu Jintao and Barack Obama (Flickr/Obama White House), Huang Xingguo (Flickr/World Economic Forum), Sun Zhengcai meeting Romanian Prime-minister Victor Ponta (Flickr/Partidul Social Democrat), Xi Jinping and Fang Fenghui (Flickr/Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), Hu Jintao’s speech at the 18th Party Congress (Flickr/Remko Tanis).

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Andrei Lungu​

Andrei Lungu is president of RISAP. His research interests include China’s foreign policy and its domestic politics, Sino-American relations and the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific.

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