China’s Anti-Corruption Movement
By Julieanna Luo
“Brave Enough to Touch the Tiger’s Butt?” is the name of a game in which users of Wechat—the most popular messaging app in mainland China—are invited to touch the yellow, glowing butt of a black-and-white tiger, which symbolizes Zhou Yongkang, the highest-level government official prosecuted in the midst of China’s anti-corruption campaign last year.
If you tap on the tiger, four virtual playing cards will appear with the names of Zhou’s spheres of influence: the oil industry, since Zhou once led the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation; Sichuan province, where he served as party secretary; internal security; and his family. Players then select a card from the four and gain access to his web of corruption. The game then tests you on this network, where you will find more corrupted officials associated with Zhou—more tigers to hunt until you have weeded out all the flies, the low-level officials who are not directly connected to him. Unfortunately, I have never made it to the status of “a tiger-beating hero”; the real task of sweeping away the corrupted officials initiated by current Chinese president Xi Jinping is far more interesting and difficult.
Since his ascent to power at the 18th Party Congress in March of 2014, Xi Jinping has been determined to crack down on corruption. Few people could foresee at the time that within only two years thousands of senior officials—including the country’s former security chief Zhou Yongkang, former Central Military Commission Vice-Chairman Xu Caihou, and former president Hu Jintao’s chief aide Ling Jihua—would be investigated and, for the most part, taken down by the anti-corruption movement. Of course, as few in China will forget it, it all started with the success in hunting down Bo Xilai, the former Politburo member who almost became the head of the nation.
Looking back on the anti-corruption campaigns from late 1980s to the present day, it is easy to see that most waves occurred around national leadership changes. Nonetheless, the persistence and intensity in Xi’s movement are unprecedented. To kick off the New Year, for example, the Nanjing party secretary and a top diplomat were placed under investigation. Xi has vowed to maintain a “zero tolerance” policy for corruption and said that “the [integrity of the] campaign was a matter of life-or-death for the party and the nation.”
The anti-corruption campaign has brought so much tension to the party members that they have found themselves unable to govern efficiently.
The vast majority of people hail Xi’s achievements. However, we must not forget that everything comes at a cost. Owing to the complex nature of the Communist Party of China (CPC), a campaign such as Xi’s, which is turning comrades into enemies, could undermine the solidarity within the party itself. The anti-corruption campaign has brought so much tension to the party members that they have found themselves unable to govern efficiently.
How many parties are there that rule a country with a population of over 1.3 billion people? The answer, of course, is just one. The CPC does not tolerate internal turmoil well. The smart choice seems to be to promote a seemingly powerful campaign against corruption while simultaneously time maintaining the unity of the ruling elite. It seems, however, that the two may be mutually exclusive. To the disappointment of many, this whole anti-corruption campaign might not be a step towards liberalization, let alone democratization.
“The ruler of men has bristling scales. Only if a speaker can avoid brushing against them can he have any hope of success.” These words, attributed to ancient Chinese philosopher Han Feizi and quoted by Xi last autumn, are worth considering. I agree that under the veil of Confucianism, China is enforcing legalism at its core. Could the legalist doctrine of Han Feizi—referred to as “China’s Machiavelli” and an advocate for the decisive application of the institution of law under the aegis of the figure of the autocrat—provide the guidelines to determine the Communist Party line? This appears to be Xi’s goal, and while it is unclear where his leadership is taking the party, I continue to hope for the best for the Chinese people.