In late 2012, early 2013, newly selected Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping ordered an intensification of the regime’s ongoing attack on corruption. Party investigators and the Procuratorate would, he declared, not only “swat at flies” (the rank and file), but would also “hunt big tigers” (senior officials), including those in the innermost circles of power. At the 19thParty Congress in October 2017 and then again in January 2019 at the 2ndPlenum of the 19thCentral Discipline Inspection Commission (CDIC), the party’s internal watchdog, Xi claimed that the “crushing blows” dealt by crackdown had won a “sweeping victory” and that the party was now consolidating its success in China’s long war with corruption.1 The victory was not, he warned at the 3rdPlenum of the 19thCentral Discipline Inspection Commission 14 months later in January 2019, complete, and he called for the struggle to continue with unabated vigor.2
Rhetorical claims notwithstanding, key questions remain about Xi’s protracted assault on corruption. What triggered the crackdown? Was the crackdown actually a political witch hunt disguised as an anti-corruption crackdown? What has the crackdown achieved and has it actually reduced corruption?
Origins of the Crackdown
After the adoption of economic reforms in the 1980s and the beginning of the post-Mao economic boom, corruption also took off, with sums of money changing hands steadily expanding and mounting evidence that corruption was not a street/grassroots level problem but one that increasingly infected the middle levels of the party-state bureaucracy. Faced with rising corruption, the party responded with a series of drives against the rank-and-file “flies” in the 1980s and then a drive against corruption at the county and department levels in 1993. Over the next two decades, the party’s “war on corruption” ground on year-in and year-out. In the process, several major scandals, including the arrest of Beijing Party Secretary and Politburo member Chen Xitong in 1995 and Shanghai Party Secretary and Politburo members Chen Liangyu (no relation to Chen Xitong) in 2006, shook the party.
During 2011-2012, a series of new scandals likely revealed to the party leadership that corruption at the top was perhaps not a matter of “a few bad apples.” In March 2011, the CDIC announced that Liu Zhijun, the Minister for Railways, was under investigation. Liu was at the heart of a web of corruption that had been feeding off the massive investments being made in the construction of China’s rapidly expanding high-speed rail system. Liu, according to rumors, had gotten so brazen that he claimed he was going to buy a seat on the Politburo. Later that year, General Liu Yuan, the son of Liu Shaoqi, the former Chairman of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), accused Lieutenant General Gu Junshan, Deputy Director of the People’s Liberation Army’s General Logistics Department, of raking off huge sums from the sale of use rights to military-controlled property and using part of the money to pay off senior military officers.3
More dramatically, in February 2012, Wang Lijun, the former Director of the Chongqing Public Security Bureau, fled to Chengdu, the capital of neighboring Sichuan province, to seek political asylum in the U.S. consulate. According to news reports, Wang had fled Chongqing after he had clashed Bo Xilai, the city’s party secretary. After a falling out, Bo demoted Wang to head the city’s Environment Bureau. Wang countered by telling Bo that he had evidence that Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, had murdered an English businessman named Neil Heywood after the two had a falling out over bribe money that Heywood had been helping Gu launder. Bo struck Wang who then fled the city fearing for his life. After the State Department declined his request for asylum, Wang called friends in Beijing to dispatch agents from the Ministry for State Security to guide Wang past Chongqing police, who had surrounded the consulate, and to escort him onto a flight to Beijing.
In combination, the Liu, Gu, and Bo cases likely suggested to Xi and other senior leaders that three decades of battling corruption at the middle and rank and file levels had not prevented corruption from spreading upward into the core of the party-state leadership. The Bo case must have been particularly disturbing because Bo was a member of China’s red aristocracy. Bo’s father, Bo Yibo, was a first generation revolutionary and one of the eight most senior members of Deng Xiaoping’s reformist coalition. Bo himself had been a high-profile proponent of a Maoist revival that include the “singing of red songs” and a populist social welfare program aimed at China’s lower classes.
It appears, therefore, that as he prepared to take over as paramount leader, Xi Jinping confronted evidence of extensive corruption at the very top of the party-state power hierarchy. Although such corruption posed an obvious threat to the party’s grip on power, it also presented Xi with a Janus-faced opportunity to strengthen his own grasp on the reins of power. On the one hand, a bold assault on corruption writ large gave him the chance to position himself as the new upright leader sweeping out rotten, self-serving, money-grubbing officials who had betrayed the people. At the same time, an attack on corruption also gave Xi a justification for going after powerful officials who might have wished to hem him in and render him a weak leader, one who would be little more than the nominal first among equals within the Politburo Standing Committee. Purging – cleansing – the party as a whole, in other words, served not only the goal of attacking corruption at all levels within the party-state, it also afforded Xi an avenue to consolidate his own political interests. As such, the issue is not whether Xi’s drive against corruption was a political witch hunt or an apolitical anti-corruption cleanup, because it sought to achieve multiple goals concurrently. Rather the key to understanding Xi’s crackdown is how it was targeted.
The Tiger Hunt
The 1982, 1986, and 1989 crackdowns had primarily targeted the so-called flies – the rank and file. In 1993, the leadership shifted the focus to the middle levels of the party-state hierarchy, focusing on leading officials and cadres at the county, departmental, prefectural, and bureau levels. The crackdown launched in 2012-2013, resulted in dramatic increases in the number of investigations by conjoined party Discipline Inspection Commission and the state Ministry for Supervision, with the number of disciplinary cases investigated rising from 155,000 in 2011 and 172,000 in 2012 to 226,000 in 2014 and 330,000 in 2015. In 2017, the number of cases increased to 527,000. In 2018, the Supervisory Commission conducted 638,000 investigations, a four-fold increase compared to 2011. The total number of criminal indictments filed by the Procuratorate increased much more modestly, rising from 44,000 in 2011 to a peak of 55,000 in 2014, a 25 percent increase. Thereafter, the number of individuals indicted on corruption-related charges fell, dropping to 46,000 in 2017, 1,000 fewer than in 2012. The number of corruption-related cases tried by the courts more than doubled from 27,000 in 2011 to 56,000 in 2017.
The modest overall increases in the number of criminal indictments and trials, almost all of which would result in convictions, masked dramatic increases in the attack on high-level corruption. Whereas the number of indictments for rank and file officials increased from 44,453 in 2012 to a peak of 50,444 in 2014, the number of indictments for senior officials at the county-department levels rose from 2,396 in 2012 to a peak of 4,568 in 2015, an 80 percent increase. The number of senior officials at the prefectural-bureau level increased more than four-fold from 179 in 2012 to a peak of 769 in 2015. The number of senior officials at the provincial-ministerial levels increased over eight-fold from just five in 2012 to 41 in 2015. As a result, whereas the crackdown may have led to a surge in disciplinary investigations but not criminal indictments of ordinary officials, it resulted in a surge in criminal prosecutions of senior officials.
The attack on high-level corruption was, in fact, what sets Xi’s crackdown apart from previous anti-corruption drives. Whereas press reports document a total of 30 cases involving officials at or above the vice-ministerial and vice-gubernatorial levels between 2000 and 2011, between 2012 and March 2019, 204 senior officials – which the Chinese press calls “tigers” – were charged with corruption-related offenses.4 During those same time periods, whereas one military officer (Admiral Wang Shouye) was convicted of corruption prior to 2012, since then 78 officers holding ranks of major general and above have either been charged with corruption or were reportedly sidelined after allegations of corruption were leveled against them. Although the number of civilian tigers “bagged” peaked at 41 in 2014, thereafter the number of senior civilian officials charged with corruption has remained considerably higher than compared to the period prior to the current crackdown. The announcement that nine senior officials have been charged with corruption during the first month of 2019 suggests that the tiger hunt is not over. The attack on corruption in the senior ranks of the military, by contrast, appears to have been limited to the period 2012-2015.
In sum, the available data suggest that the crackdown on violations of disciplinary regulations and official extravagance begun when Xi Jinping assumed power in the fall of 2012 continues unabated as of early 2019. Criminal prosecutions of state officials and party cadres, however, peaked in 2015 and as of the end of 2017, the last year for which data on indictments by the Procuratorate and trials by the People’s Courts were available. At the time of this writing, it appeared that the overall intensity of the crackdown was beginning to wind down, with the exception of the attack on corruption within the most senior ranks of the party-state apparatus, where investigators and prosecutors continue to “bag” new “tigers.”
Over the past several years, Xi’s investigators have in fact taken down a considerable number of big tigers. Between January 2018 and June 2019, 38 senior officials including 13 holding the rank of vice-governor, 10 vice chairs of either a provincial people’s congress or provincial people’s political consultative conference, five vice ministers, five managers of major state-owned companies, two mayor of major cities, one provincial party secretary, the former chair of the Xinjiang regional government, and one deputy provincial party secretary have been charged with corruption. Most notable among those charged were Zhao Zhengyong, Party Secretary of Shaanxi; Lai Xiaomin, Chair of China Huarong Asset Management; Meng Hongwei, a former Vice Minister for Public Security and the President of Interpol. Zhao was at the center of a new “Shaanxi Earthquake” that cut a wide swath through the Shaanxi provincial apparatus. Lai is suspected of having improperly loaned major sums to many of the high-flying tycoons who have been cut down during the crackdown. Meng, finally, was recalled from his post as the first Chinese to head Interpol and charged with accepting Y14,000,000 in bribes. Meng pleaded guilty. The tiger hunt thus shows few signs of coming to an end.
A Crushing Tide?
As a drive against corruption, it seems likely that Xi’s crackdown has yielded positive results. At a minimum, it has culled large numbers of corrupt officials and has likely cowed other corrupt officials, leading them to stop accepting bribes and stealing public monies, at least so long as the “heat is on” and they fear getting caught and punished. If these officials begin to sense that the crackdown has run its course and the things are “getting back to normal,” they may begin to once again discount the risk of getting caught and revert to their corrupt ways. By the same token, amid the sound and fury of the crackdown other officials who have not resorted to corruption may be scared off and keep their hands clean. But they too could turn corrupt if they sense they can get away with taking bribes and stealing public monies because “everybody else is doing the same thing.” Thus, if the crackdown has in fact reduced corruption, it is hard to determine whether the reduction will prove permanent or whether future upsurges in corruption will necessitate future crackdowns.
If the focus of Xi’s crackdown was high-level corruption, was the primary purpose of the campaign actually a political purge of his rivals, as has been frequently asserted? Absent hard evidence of Xi’s intent, the only way to determine whether the real goal was to curb corruption or gain political advantage would be to focus on whom the crackdown targeted.
Network analysis of the tigers and those linked to them reveals two central figures: former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang and former Director of the Central Committee’s General Office Ling Jihua. Zhou had served in a variety of senior posts, including Vice Minister for Petroleum, General Manager of the China National Petroleum Corporation, Secretary of the Sichuan Provincial Party Committee, Minister for State Land and Resources, Minister for Public Security, and Secretary of the Central Committee’s Politics and Law Commission. Ling was widely considered former General Secretary Hu Jintao’s right-hand man. Zhou was due to retire from his official posts at the 17thParty Congress. Ling, on the other hand, was expected to be elected to the Politburo at the congress and become Hu’s eyes and ears after Hu retired.
In theory, Zhou and Ling might have been the leaders of factions opposed to Xi Jinping. Ling had the backing, it was argued, of the powerful “Youth League” faction which had risen to prominence under Hu, who had been secretary of the league in the 1980s. Zhou was said to be a protégé of former General Secretary Jiang Zemin. Zhou was also said to have backed Bo Xilai in his bid for a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee. The assumption that Hu and Jiang opposed Xi seems questionable, however, because Xi must have received their endorsements when he was selected to become general secretary.
If Zhou and Ling were potential rivals, by the time of the 17thParty Congress both had been weakened. The arrest of Bo robbed Zhou of his entrée into the inner circle of power. Ling, on the other hand was politically crippled when his son Ling Gu plowed a $700,000 Ferrari into a Beijing bridge abutment during the early hours of March 8, 2012, killing himself and serious injuring two women passengers. An attempt to cover up the accident failed and reports about the crash and Ling Gu’s death spread rapidly on the internet. Ling was quietly moved aside. At the 17thParty Congress he was not elected to the Politburo and was named to Director of the Central Committee’s United Front Department.
Zhou was removed from his post as Secretary of the Politics and Law Committee in May 2012 and was put under investigation in July 2013 after extensive discussions among the current leadership in consultation with former general secretaries Jiang and Hu. While Zhou remained in limbo, party investigators began rounding up his former subordinates and colleagues. Ling was put under investigation in December 2014, after his brother Ling Zhengce, a senior official in Shanxi province, had been arrested and charged with corruption in June 2014. Zhou, his wife Jia Xiaoye, and his son Zhou Bin were convicted of accepting bribes. Zhou received a life sentence. Other members of Zhou’s family were also charged with corruption. Ling and his wife Gu Liping were convicted of accepting bribes. Ling received a 12-year prison sentence.
Whether Zhou and Ling were political threats to Xi is not clear. For the most part, Zhou’s “faction” consisted of his former secretaries and subordinates. Ling, on the other hand, was charged with accepting bribes from a variety of provincial leaders in return for arranging their promotions. It is thus not clear if either Zhou or Ling headed political factions or were simply tied into networks of self-serving officials bound together in pursuit of illicit plunder. Regardless of whether Zhou or Ling were true political enemies, their arrests certainly afforded Xi the opportunity to take down a wide range of central and provincial leaders and replace them with his allies and loyalists.
The attack on corruption in the military was equally ambiguous. It appears that the arrest of Lieutenant General Gu Junshan exposed General Guo Boxiong and General Xu Caihou, both of whom were vice chairs of the Central Military Commission, the party-cum-state body that controls China military. Guo and Xu had been collecting large bribes from officers seeking promotions and transfers. Both retired in November 2012. Xu was terminally ill at the time of his arrest and died before his court martial. Guo was sentenced to life in prison. Although Guo had held field commands in the past, he had been a headquarters staff officer since 1999. Xu had spent most of his career as a political commissar and as part of the General Political Department staff. It thus is not clear that Guo and Xu were part of an anti-Xi bloc in the army or even possibly part of a coup plot.
The fall of Politburo member and Party Secretary of Chongqing Sun Zhengcai also does not appear to have stemmed from fears that Sun had become a political threat to Xi. Sun has been described as a protégé of former Premier Wen Jiabao and had been a subordinate of former Politburo member Jia Qingling. His membership in the Politburo was not necessarily evidence of that he was a “force” with the party. Sun likely got a seat on the Politburo because he was party secretary of Chongqing, a provincial-level city that appears to command a seat on the Politburo because of economic importance. Some had suggested that Sun might get elected to the Politburo Standing Committee at the 19thParty Congress and that because of his age (54 in 2017) he might be a potential successor to Xi at the 20thParty Congress in 2022. But aside from his age, there seems to have been little evidence that Sun was a major political player.5
Ultimately, the main purpose of Xi’s crackdown seems to have been to attack serious corruption among the party, state, and military leadership. As argued earlier, by the time Xi assumed the office of general secretary, there was strong evidence of serious high-level corruption. Moreover, there was public pressure for action against corruption. Public opinion polls conducted by Pew Research between, for example, showed that whereas 78 percent of those surveyed said corrupt officials were a moderately big or very big problem in 2008, fully 90 percent of those surveyed in 2014 held those views.
As of mid-2019, it is not clear that Xi’s attack on corruption has produced a “crushing tide” or a “sweeping victory.” The crackdown certainly produced a surge in the number of party members and state officials investigated by the Discipline Inspection Commission and later the Supervisory Commission. In total between 2013 and 2018, the Supervisory Commission investigated 2.3 million party members, about three percent of the total membership. Upward of 300,000 individuals have been indicted for corruption-related offenses.6 Most of those indicted were convicted and sentenced to prison. Almost 280 individuals holding ranks at or above the level of vice-minister and general had been investigated for corruption.
Despite these numbers, it is unclear whether Xi’s crackdown will make a difference in the long-term. In the immediate term the crackdown has likely taken out enough corrupt officials to make a difference. It is also likely that the crackdown has scared off some and driven others to stop taking bribes. But the crackdown has also reportedly led to a degree of bureaucratic paralysis because officials fear being accused of corruption. The popularity of the crackdown is also difficult to gauge. In its early days, the crackdown was clearly very popular. Citizens who sought to expose official corruption using social media, however, quickly found out themselves facing restrictions and penalties. The party thus made clear that the crackdown was a party affair and the public’s role would be strictly limited to that of a passive audience. Many ordinary citizens have also grown cynical about corruption. They see officialdom has inherently corrupt and believe that those who get caught and punished as merely the “unlucky” and “unloved,” the poor saps who lacked the friends in high enough places to protect them.
The lack of decisive victory is perhaps not surprising. The party has been fighting corruption for decades and its war on corruption is by necessity a protracted war. Corruption, moreover, is ultimately not controlled by crackdowns and arrests. Real victory comes from changing official ethics and codes of conduct. Anti-corruption crackdowns are thus actually a response to the prior failure of a regime’s anti-corruption program. Although further analysis is needed, the evidence produced by Xi’s 2012-2019 anti-corruption crackdown suggests that corruption worsened significantly in the years before he was named general secretary. Xi, in other words, has been fighting against the failure of his predecessors to take effective action to control corruption.
- Xi Jinping, “Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” October 18, 2017, available at http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/19thcpcnationalcongress/2017-11/04/content_34115212.htmand “Xi calls for fundamental improvement of CPC political ecosystem,”Xinhua, 1/11/2018, available at http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-01/11/c_136888965.htm. ↩
- “CCDI adopts communique at plenary session,”China Daily, 1/13/2019, available at http://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201901/13/WS5c3b1b31a3106c65c34e41c3.html. ↩
- Liu Shaoqi died in 1969 after suffering repeated beatings by Red Guards. ↩
- Counts of the number of tigers bagged and the number of provincial/ministerial officials indicted different because some of the tigers remain under investigation by the Supervisory Commission and have not been remanded to the Procuratorate for a criminal investigation. ↩
- Prior to his posting to Chongqing, Sun had served as Party Secretary of Jilin province and Minister for Agriculture, neither of which is a particularly powerful position. ↩
- Herein I am assuming that the number of indictment will be approximately the same in 2018 as they were in 2017. ↩