Issue: 2014: Vol. 13, No. 2

Xi Jinping’s Tiger Hunt and the Politics of Corruption

Article Author(s)

Andrew Wedeman

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Andrew Wedeman received his doctorate in Political Science from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1994 and is a Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University. Professor Wedeman is now beginning a new book project examining social unrest in China. 
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The Communist Party of China has been grappling with corruption almost from its birth. Corruption was one of the major issues during the 1989 anti-government demonstrations. The leadership, in fact, responded to public anger over corruption and what was then known as “official profiteering” by launching a major campaign, in the course of which the number of individuals charged with corruption jumped from 33,000 in 1988 to 77,000 in 1989, and 72,000 in 1990. Since the 1989 campaign, the leadership has waged an ongoing “war” against corruption and routinely prosecutes substantial numbers of officials. Between 1997 and 2012 the Supreme People’s Procuratorate reported that it indicted 550,000 individuals on either corruption or dereliction of duty charges, including three members of the powerful Politburo (Chen Xitong in 1997, Chen Liangyu in 2006, and Bo Xilai in 2012).

These prior efforts notwithstanding, upon assuming the office of General Secretary of the party in November 2012, Xi Jinping announced yet another campaign, which was formally approved by the Third Plenum of the Eighteen Party Congress in early November 2013. At first, the campaign appeared to be a repeat of the same old song and dance. Many of the steely toned slogans about the necessity to fight a life-and-death struggle against corruption and the need to put an end to extravagant spending by officials and cadres had been raised many times before. Announcements of new regulations mandating fewer dishes at official banquets, banning the purchase of luxury sedans and their use for unofficial business, and the construction of lavish government buildings all reiterated orders issued in past years. Eighteen months on, however, it appears that far from a smoke and mirrors attempt to create the impression of action, Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign may well be the most sustained and intensive drive against corruption since the start of the reform era.

By the Numbers

Measuring the intensity of an anti-corruption campaign is, admittedly, a tricky business given that we cannot even roughly estimate the true extent of corruption. Instead, we can at best guess at the extent by asking experts for their impressions of how bad things are or tracking changes in the number of officials who suddenly stop being corrupt because they get caught. Indices such as the popular Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) published by Transparency International would have us believe that rather than getting worse, corruption in China has actually been on the decline for at least a decade, with its score falling from 7.6 (out of a maximum of 10, where 10 is the most corrupt and 1 the least corrupt) in 1995 to 6.0 in 2013, which would put China just below the 75th percentile and hence not among the worst of the worse.1

Data on prosecutions tell a different story. The number of criminal indictments was up 9.4 percent in 2013, with the total number of corruption and dereliction cases increasing from 34,326 in 2012 to 37,551 in 2013 (see Figure 1). The number of officials holding position at the county and departmental levels who were indicted rose from 2,390 to 2,618, a 9.5 percent increase. The number of officials the prefectural and bureau levels who were indicted shot up more dramatically, from 179 in 2012 to 253 in 2013, a 41.4 percent jump. Although nine percent increases in the total number of cases and in the number of county and department officials indicted may seem modest for a highly trumpeted campaign, these increases followed a decade in which the total number of indictments had been slowly decreasing. Increases in 2013, moreover, follow more modest increases in 2012. As a result, the total number of indictments in 2013 was 16.2 percent more than in 2011, and the number of country and department officials indicted was up 12.6 percent compared to 2011. More critically, the 41 percent increase in prefectural and bureau level officials indicted is the largest such increase since 2004, and represents a 27.8 percent rise over 2011. Finally, eight officials at the provincial and ministry levels were indicted, compared to five in 2012. The party’s Discipline Inspection Commission (DIC) also reported a 13.3 percent increase in the number of party members who faced disciplinary action.


Sources: Zhongguo Jiancha Nianjian [Procuratorial Yearbook of China], (Beijing: Zhongguo Jiancha Chubanshi, various years) and Zuigao Renmin Jiancha Yuan Gongzuo Baogao [Work report of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate], 3/18/2014, available at, accessed 6/12/2014.

Note: To provide a long-term perspective, I have transformed the raw data on cases filed into an index anchored on the years 1997-8. I do this because the 1997 revision of the criminal code decriminalized a large number of low-level offenses. The dramatic drop in cases filed thus creates the misleading impression that either corruption fell dramatically, which it did not, or that enforcement suddenly slacked off, which it did not either.


It is also possible to look at the type of corruption a campaign is targeting and who is getting caught to get a more nuanced sense of whether Xi’s roar is that of a paper or a real tiger. China’s ongoing efforts to curb corruption are often described as a “war” and it is thus convenient to use war as a way to deconstruct the current campaign. The campaign can be decomposed into four distinct fronts. At the grassroots level the regime is fighting a guerrilla war in which whistleblowers and netizens have used social media to expose brazen examples of corruption and degenerate official behavior. Videos of officials laughing at the site of fatal highway accidents, photos of them sporting luxury watches, smoking outrageously priced cigarettes, documents identifying poorly paid low-level bureaucrats as the owners multiple of luxury condominiums and villas, videos of cadres playing sex games with their mistresses, drinking, and cavorting with Thai transvestites have gone viral within China despite the efforts of the army of “ten cent” Internet, forcing the party to move with unheard of speed to sack and indict officials. But the internet front of Xi’s war on corruption is a bush war in which most of the corrupt officials exposed are low-level officials who were so foolish, so arrogant, or so greedy that they failed to remember that corruption should kept discrete.

Parallel to the internet guerrilla war, the regime continues to wage a protracted war of attribution against low- and mid-level corruption. This part of the push against corruption resembles trench warfare: an ever-lengthening list of casualties but scant evidence of real advances. In recent years, prosecutors have indicted about 35,000 individual on economic crime charges each year, the bulk of whom are officials holding posts below the county and departmental leadership levels. The fighting on this front in 2013 seems a bit more intense than in past years. Based on a survey of cases reported in the press and on the Discipline Inspection Commission’s website, it appears that more “tiger cubs” – senior party cadres and officials holding posts just below the county and department levels – have been bagged. At present, however, there is no reason to believe the number of corrupt officials has been reduced by much.

The third front in Xi’s attack is a drive against “commercial bribery” in the domestic and foreign business sectors. Although official corruption receives the bulk of public attention, corruption often involves both a supply side (officials willing to use their authority for illicit private gain) and a demand side (private parties willing to pay officials to use their authority for illicit private gain). Corporate actors, moreover, can use the authority delegated to them to pursue illicit gains. Procurement managers, for example, can demand kickbacks from potential venders. Although the data are thin, it appears that inter-firm corruption is widespread in China and that a corporate “culture of corruption” exists in which bribery and corruption are viewed as a normal part of doing business. Chinese prosecutors began cracking down on corruption in the business sector in about 2006. In the spring of 2013, they intensified these attacks and expanded their targets to include foreign businesses. Chinese prosecutors are not alone. In recent years, prosecutors in both the United States and the United Kingdom also have gone after American and British companies for paying bribes to Chinese officials and companies. Chinese prosecutors have gone after evidence that foreign pharmaceutical and medical equipment vendors frequently turn a blind eye to the illicit means used by their sales forces to book orders and the complex dodges used by “consultants” and other middlemen to secure contracts and close deals. Charges were leveled against GlaxoSmithKline, Abbott Labs, Astra Zeneca, Sanoli, Norartus, Eli Lilly, and others. Prosecutors detained almost two dozen GlaxoSmithKline employees and consultants, including Peter Humphrey, a Shanghai-based British risk consultant, and his wife. JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Citibank, and Deutsche Bank have been accused of hiring the sons and daughters of senior Chinese officials with some expectation that such hires might benefit them financially.

The final aspect of Xi’s war on corruption is a highflying aerial combat in which corruption often becomes a weapon in factional infighting. Any scandal involving a senior official is inherently political. At a minimum, prosecutors have to receive high-level political approval to look into allegations of corruption among top officials. The inner leadership itself must presumably clear investigations of very senior officials. To go hunting a big tiger, therefore, investigators must first get a license. It is widely assumed, therefore, that factional politics play a major role in decided who gets investigated and who gets swept quietly under the rug.

Factional Politics

High-level scandals also create political opportunities. Xi’s current campaign is no different. Triggered by the exposure of Neil Heywood’s death and allegation that Bo Xilai’s wife either killed him or had him killed, the current drive has spawned a series of investigations into corruption in the oil sector and Sichuan that seem to implicate former Politburo Standing Committee Member and former Chairman of the Central Committee’s powerful Politics and Law Committee Zhou Yongkang. According to insiders, in the run up to the November 2012 Eighteenth Party Congress, Zhou had been pushing Chongqing Party Secretary, Politburo Member, and so-called “Red Princeling” Bo Xilai as a leftist counterweight to Hu Jintao’s heir apparent Xi Jinping.2 Bo’s abrupt fall from power clearly removed a potential political rival, while investigations into corruption involving PetroChina Chairman Jiang Jiemin, Chengdu Party Secretary Li Chuncheng, Hainan Vice Governor Li Hualin, Vice Minister for Public Security Zheng Shaodong, former Sichuan Vice Governor Guo Yongxiang, and former Chairman of the Hubei Party Committee’s Politics and Law Committee Wu Yongwen – all of whom worked with Zhou at one point or another – enabled Xi or others to take out many of the now retired Zhou protégés.

In late July 2014, the official media announced that the Central Committee had approved a formal investigation of Zhou Yongkang. Zhou and his involvement in corruption had been the subject of rumors almost since the Bo Xilai case became public. For months, rumors circulated that Zhou and Bo had been plotting a coup, that Zhou had ordered three failed attempts on Xi Jinping’s life, that Zhou had his first wife killed after they divorced; Zhou’s son Zhou Bin had been detained; that his son had ties to Liu Han, a Sichuanese business tycoon who was sentenced to death in May after being convicted of leading an organized crime syndicate; that Zhou had had affairs with 400 women. For months there was also talk that Xi was afraid to put Zhou on trial because he feared that Zhou would speak out and expose the secrets he had learned during his days in charge of the internal security apparatus. Other rumors said that Xi had been unable to get permission to go after Zhou from former General Secretary and still party strongman Jiang Zemin. Despite talk that Xi might not be brave enough or strong enough, he ultimately did move against Zhou, but only after a series of Zhou’s former secretaries, protégées, and cronies had been detained and charged with corruption. Authorities also arrested Zhou Bin and a half dozen other members of Zhou’s extended family. Zhou has yet to be formally indicted and it is not entirely clear exactly what he will be charged with when the Procuratorate issues a formal indictment. The announcement that Zhou would face a formal investigation may signal the beginning of some sort of end game. Although the campaign has afforded Xi the opportunity to take down a series of rival political leaders, assert himself as party leader, and show the public that he is willing and able to do something about China’s corruption problem, the politics of the campaign also have a downside. Zhou is not the only rotten apple and he alone did not cause the rot to spread to other apples in the barrel. Moreover, Zhou has long been seen as a member of the “Shanghai Gang,” the cadre of officials linked to former General Secretary Jiang Zemin. Even before Zhou was formally taken down, the rumor mill was full of speculation about who the “real target” of Xi’s tiger hunt was and who would be the next retired leader to find himself detained by investigators from the Central Discipline Inspection Commission. There was also talk of a building backlash against Xi, who many senior leaders felt was going “too far” and was becoming dangerously like former Chairman Mao Zedong. Xi thus has incentives to use the indictment of Zhou as an opportunity to declare “victory” and begin scaling back the campaign or at least easing off on his attack on high-level corruption.

Scaling back also had a downside. One of the core objectives of an anti-corruption campaign is to demonstrate to the public that the leadership is determined to fight corruption. Bagging big tigers helps show such determination. But bagging too many big tigers can backfire if the public becomes convinced – if it is not already – that the party’s jungle is full of big tigers, senior leadership is full of corrupt tigers, and that the only big tigers being hunted are Xi’s political enemies and the politically unlucky and unloved whom Xi had sacrificed.

Finally, in recent months evidence of corruption among the senior military command has surfaced. General Gu Junshan, Deputy Commander of the PLA General Logistics Department, who was in charge of barracks construction, was indicted in March 2014 on bribery charges. According to various sources, Gu had received huge bribes and kickbacks from developers seeking rights to land controlled by the PLA and had used part of his illegal income to bribe senior officers, including possibly two Vice Chairmen of the Central Military Commission. One of them, General Xu Caihou was allegedly arrested in a hospital bed where he lay dying of bladder cancer. Corruption among the military has long been suspected, but before now, military corruption has remained largely hidden from view. Evidence of more extensive corruption among senior military officers could thus prove a major political liability for the party and could generate resentment among the officer corps.

Regardless of whether Xi opts for a slow winding down or an abrupt claim to have won, it seems unlikely that he will convince the Chinese public that the campaign had achieved its goals of significantly reducing corruption and ending official extravagance. Neither goal is, in fact, achievable in the short-term. Making real inroads into corruption will take time, sustained effort, and a combination of political and administrative reforms.


The scale and scope of the high-level, heavily political portion of Xi’s campaign differentiates the current campaign from its predecessors. The current campaign is clearly more sustained and intense. It is now 18 months old and by all indications more senior officials and cadres, perhaps as many as 31, have been investigated, expelled from the party, sacked, indicted by the Procuratorate, or tried than in any other post-1978 period. How many are ultimately brought down by Xi’s campaign remains to be seen and it may be months before the ultimate scale and intensity of the campaign become clear. It is also likely that many of those detained on corruption charges over the past year-and-a-half will not go to trial for some time. Regardless of what the coming weeks and months bring, however, it seems clear that Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is no tempest in a teapot.

Gauging the long-term and broader political impact of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is difficult. Anti-corruption campaigns seek to achieve three goals. First, they seek to cull out corrupt officials. Second, they seek to deter those who are now tempted. As evidenced by the number of indictment and investigations, it is possible that Xi campaign has cut into the ranks of the corrupt, but how far is uncertain. Even more uncertain is whether the bagging of this crop of tigers will scare off other potential tigers and flies. Third, anti-corruption campaigns seek to convince the public that a regime is serious about fighting corruption, particularly in the highest places. Bringing down Zhou, or even his protégées, along with other senior officials, may convince ordinary Chinese that this time the regime is really determined to deal with corruption. Ultimately, however, the real proof will be in the follow-through. Should the fight against corruption fall off when all of the sound and fury of the current campaign comes to an end, then it is likely that the public will sink deeper into cynicism and dismiss the campaign as political knife fight in which a lot of flies and tiger cubs were killed to cloak the true factional reasons for the drive.

Suggested Reading

Roderic Broadhurst and Wang Peng, “After the Bo Xilai Trial: Does Corruption Threaten China Future?” Survival (June 2014): 53:3.

Jerome Doyan, “A new impetus for the fight against corruption,” China Perspectives (June 2013), 2; 74-5

Kilkon Ko and Cuifen Wen, “Structural Changes in Chinese Corruption,” China Quarterly (September 2012) No. 211: 718*740.

Peter Kwong, “Why China’s Corruption Won’t Stop,” The Nation (4/22/2013); 17-21.

Alice L. Miller, “The Road to the Third Plenum,” The China Leadership Monitor Fall 2013, (42):

  1. TI scales its index from 1 (least honest) to 10 (most honest). Because I find it counterintuitive to have an increase in a country score correspond to a decrease in corruption, I have chosen to invert the TI index.
  2. The rumor mill went much further, suggesting – without substantiating evidence – the Zhou and Bo had plotted a coup in hopes of seizing power before Xi could take over from Hu Jintao as General Secretary or that Zhou had been behind repeated assassination attempts against Xi and other members of the leadership.