Issue: 2021: Vol. 20, No. 1

Flies into Tigers: The Dynamics of Corruption in China

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. 
2021: Vol. 20, No. 1
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In February 2012, it was revealed that Gu Kailai, the wife of Bo Xilai — a Politburo member and Party Secretary of Chongqing, a provincial-level city in southwest China — had been arrested and charged with murdering an English businessman. It appeared to be a money laundering relationship gone bad. The following month, Bo was expelled from the Politburo and was accused of corruption. That same month, news leaked out that Ling Gu, the son of Ling Jihua, Director of the General Office of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and widely believed to CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao’s right-hand man, had been killed in an early morning car accident that left two female passengers critically injured. Rumors quickly spread that protégés of Zhou Yongkang, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee and Secretary of the Central Committee’s Politics and Law Committee, had tried to cover-up Ling Gu’s death. Zhou, who oversaw China’s sprawling internal apparatus and who had previously served as Minister for Public Security, Party Secretary of Sichuan Province, Minister for State Land and Resources, and Party Secretary and General Manager of the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), soon came under suspicion and dropped out of sight. Talk about attempts to assassinate Hu Jintao’s successor, Xi Jinping, and coup plots involving Zhou, Ling, Bo, and more than two dozen senior party leaders began making the rounds. In early January, newly elected General Secretary of the CCP Xi Jinping ordered a new all-out attack on corruption and vowed that he would to not only “swat flies” (low-ranking officials) but also “hunt big tigers” (senior officials). Over the next eight years, almost 300 senior state officials, party cadres, and military officers were implicated.

The ferocity of Xi’s attack on high-level corruption immediately evoked questions about who was being targeted and why. While these were obviously important questions, the more critical questions were actually “what” and “where?” That is, what was the nature of the corruption that Xi confronted when he became party leader in 2012 and where did it come from?

Answers to these questions can be found in the backgrounds of the corrupt senior officials whom Xi “pulled from their horses.” These data reveal that the high-level corruption Xi began attacking in 2012-2013 had its roots in mid-level corruption during the Hu Jintao (2002-2012) and Jiang Zemin (1989-2002) periods. Many of the so-called “tigers” entered public service as junior officials at the county-department level. Others began their careers as rank-and-file public functionaries or technicians. Over a span of years, these low-level officials (i.e., “flies”) climbed up through the layers of the party-state apparatus and morphed into “rats” and “wolves” (mid-level officials) before ultimately becoming “tigers” (senior officials) when they were promoted to ranks at or above provincial vice-governor, deputy provincial party secretary, or vice minister.

These background data also suggest that prior anti-corruption drives failed to prevent corruption among low- and mid-ranked officials from forestalling promotion into the senior ranks in the years before the 18th Party Congress. Xi’s attack was hardly the opening round of the party’s “war on corruption.” On the contrary, the CCP has been battling corruption since its early days. During the 1950s and 1960s, the party launched repeated drives aimed at rooting out corrupt officials and party cadres. Since the advent of economic reforms in the late 1970s, the party leadership has ordered three major crackdowns down on rank-and-file corruption (1982, 1986, and 1989) and significantly escalated the attack on mid-level corruption in the mid-1990s. The apparent proliferation of high-level corruption that necessitated Xi’s tiger hunt thus came in the wake of a decades-long struggle to cull the corrupt flies, rats, and wolves who then morphed into tigers. Xi thus has not been fighting some “new corruption,” but rather corruption that was spawned under his predecessors and then metastasized upward into the leadership.

Tigers Everywhere

Xi’s attack on corruption fell most heavily on the upper-ranks. Whereas an average of four tigers were “bagged” (i.e., detained) annually between 2000 and 2012, in 2018 – six years after the crackdown began – 29 senior officials were charged, over sevenfold more than the four charged in 2012. In 2019, another 29 were charged with corruption, as were 20 more in 2020.1 At the same time, the number of low- and mid-level officials charged dropped back to pre-crackdown levels. Thus, the answer to the “what” is clear: Xi was responding to an apparent surge in high-level corruption. That being the case, the next big question is “where did this high-level corruption come from?”

Data on the tigers make clear that high-level corruption had not surged immediately before Xi became General Secretary. Of the 250 tigers I classified as “Xi Tigers,”2 data were available on when they first became corrupt for just more than 170. These data show that a third were corrupt by 2000 and two-thirds by 2003 (see Figure 1). Only 15 percent, or 10 percent of the total, became corrupt after 2007 and none turned corrupt after 2013.3 Sixty percent of the tigers bagged during Xi’s crackdown had been corrupted during the Jiang Zemin period and the other 40 percent turned corrupt during the Hu Jintao period. More critically, the data suggest that the number of tigers exploded in the decade-and-a-half preceding the 18th Party Congress in 2012, not only as senior officials succumbed to corruption, but also because corrupt lower-ranking officials (wolves) were promoted and hence were transformed into tigers. (See Figure 2.)

Wedeman Figure 1

Source: Publicly available reports in English and Chinese compiled by the author.

Wedeman Figure 2

Source: Author’s database.

Absent hard data on the actual extent of high-level corruption, it is impossible to rule out the possibility that high-level corruption was just as extensive in the 1980s and 1990s. High-level corruption would have been largely invisible if Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, and Jiang Zemin turned a blind eye to evidence of widespread malfeasance by senior officials. The apparent drop in the number of “free tigers” after 2012 is also likely misleading because data on those tigers, who had been detained but not formally indicted, are missing and hence these tigers are not included in the estimated number of “wild tigers.” Other tigers, finally, are obviously still at large, including some who may never get caught. Even with these caveats in mind, the data nevertheless suggest that the tigers Xi have bagged since 2012 were involved in corruption long before 2012.

Given that on average Xi’s tigers had been corrupt for 14 years, with only eight being corrupt for five years and more than a quarter corrupt for over 17 years, it is also reasonable to assume that most were not senior officials when they became corrupt, but were likely mid-level or perhaps even junior officials. An analysis of four “biggest” civilian tigers, in fact, shows that all were in fact climbing their career ladders, and that it took most over a decade to reach ranks that would qualify them as a tiger.

Climbing the Ladder

The four civilian members of the Politburo taken down during Xi’s crackdown all spent extended periods as mid-level officials or even low-level functionaries. Zhou Yongkang, for example, came from a poor village outside Wuxi in Jiangsu, earned admission to the university, and started as a technician working in the Daqing oilfield in the late 1960s. Thereafter he rose steadily and was named deputy party secretary of the Liaohe Oil Exploration Bureau in 1983. That year, Zhou became a mayor and in 1989 was named party secretary of the Tarim Oilfield Exploration Bureau. In 1992, Zhou was elected an alternate member of the 14th Central Committee and was then elected a full member of the 15thCentral Committee in 1997. He was named general manager of the China National Petroleum Commission in 1996, a post that likely bestowed him tiger rank and if not, Zhou definitely achieve that status in 1998 when he was appointed Minister for State Land and Resources. Zhou thus reached tiger status roughly three decades after he started out as a fly. After 1998, Zhou rose fast. He was elected a member of the 16th Politburo in 2002 and named a deputy secretary of the Central Committee’s Politics and Law Committee. Concurrently, Zhou moved to Sichuan as provincial party secretary in 1999 and then back to Beijing as Minister for Public Security in 2002. Five years later, Zhou became a member of the 17thPolitburo Standing Committee and named Secretary of the Politics and Law Committee, making him one of the most powerful members of the party leadership.

Like, Zhou, Ling Jihua started out as a fly. The son a local cadre in Shaanxi, Ling was “sent down” to the grassroots during the Cultural Revolution where he worked in a factory before serving as a county and prefecture level cadre in Shanxi province during the 1970s. In 1985, he joined the staff of the Communist Youth League Central Committee where he became a protégé of league leader Hu Jintao. In 1997, Ling moved over to the staff of the Central Committee. In 1999, Ling was named a deputy director of its General Office and a deputy director of the Central Committee Organizational Department in 2000, positions that gave him considerable status and arguably made him a tiger 15 years after he started climbing through the ranks. In 2002, Ling was elected an alternate member of the 16th Central Committee and became a full member of the 17th Central Committee in 2007. That same year, he cemented his status as a “big tiger” when he was appointed director of the General Office and hence CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao’s private secretary. It was widely assumed that Ling would be elected to the Politburo at the 17th Party Congress in the fall of 2012. The death of his son in March 2012, however, apparently blocked his rise to the innermost political circle, and he was instead shunted aside to head the Central Committee’s United Front Department to serve as a vice chair of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Bo Xilai, on the other hand, was the son of a first-generation revolutionary, Bo Yibo, who headed the powerful state planning apparatus in the 1950s and came back from being purged in the Cultural Revolution to become one of the “Eight Immortals” who formed the core of Deng Xiaoping’s reform coalition in the 1980s. Bo Xilai also rebounded from being sent down to the grassroots as a teenager during the Cultural Revolution, and started his official career as a staff researcher attached to the offices of the Politburo. He was appointed to the staff of the Central Committee’s General Office in 1982. Four years later, Bo was promoted to director of the Liaoning Provincial Transportation Bureau and then deputy mayor of Dalian City in 1989. Bo was promoted to mayor in 1993 and party secretary of Dalian in 1999. The following year, 18 years after he started his official career, Bo entered the senior ranks and became a tiger when he was named a deputy party secretary of the Liaoning. He was elected a full member of the 16th Central Committee in 2002 and then to the 17th Politburo in 2007.

Born into a farm family in Shandong, Sun Zhengcai began his official career in 1997 as a deputy party secretary and magistrate of Shunyi County outside of Beijing. He earned a doctorate in agronomy and held a series of posts at the China Agricultural University from 1993 to 1996. In 2002, he was promoted to party secretary of the recently restructured Shunyi District. In short order, Sun was named secretary-general of the Beijing government, a post which pushed him closer to the lower rungs of senior officialdom. Sun achieved tiger status in 2006 when he was appointed Minister for Agriculture, nine years after he started his career. In 2007, Sun was elected a member of the 17th Central Committee and the following year he was appointed party secretary of Jilin. In 2012, he replaced Bo Xilai as party secretary of Chongqing and was elected a member of the 18th Politburo.

In many ways, Xi Jinping’s own career trajectory paralleled these four corrupt tigers. The son of Xi Zhongxun, a first generation revolutionary, Xi found himself under a political cloud when his father fell out with Chairman Mao Zedong in 1963. Sent down to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution where he served as a grassroots party cadre, Xi began his official career in 1979 as a staff secretary for Minister of Defense and Politburo member Geng Biao. In 1982, after Geng fell out with Deng Xiaoping, Xi returned to the countryside as a deputy party secretary of Zhengding County in Hebei. In 1988, Xi moved to Fujian where he served as party secretary of Ningde Prefecture and then Fuzhou City. Seven years later in 1995, Xi reached the level of a tiger when he was named a deputy party secretary of Fujian, 16 years after he started as a fly. Thereafter, Xi rose rapidly, getting elected an alternative member of the15th Central Committee in 1997, named governor of Fujian in 1999, governor and party secretary of Zhejiang in 2002. That same year, he was elected a member of the 16th Central Committee. In March 2007, Xi was transferred to Shanghai to replaced Chen Liangyu as party secretary after Chen, who was also a member of the Politburo, fell in a corruption scandal that ended in his arrest. That fall, Xi became a member of 17th Politburo.

Not only were Zhou, Bo, Ling, and Sun climbing the career ladder during the decades of the 18th Party Congress, they were all climbing while corrupt. According to prosecutors, Ling and Sun started taking bribes in 2001. Bo was officially accused of turning corrupt in 1999. There is evidence to suggest that he began taking bribes in the early 1990s. Prosecutors never specified when Zhou started taking. It seems likely, however, that he also had turned corrupt sometime in the early 1990s. The four big tigers thus managed to evade detection for extended periods, even though the party leadership had ordered repeated crackdowns, including a drive against mid-level corruption that saw the number of rats charged increase more than threefold from 652 in 1992 to 2,313 in 1995. The number of wolves charged more than doubled from 64 in 1993 to 143 in 1995. It is, of course, possible that Zhou, Bo, Ling, and Sun were able to get away with corruption because they had powerful patrons. But not all the senior officials charged with corruption after 2012 were born with “red spoons” in their mouths, or were said to be linked to the high and mighty. The spread of corruption upward into the senior ranks was likely a function of structural parameters that gave mid-level officials incentives to engage in corruption and allowed them to evade detection for the extended periods required to climb up out of the mid-levels of officialdom and into the senior ranks.

Payoffs, Probabilities, and Penalties

Although corruption is largely an individualized crime involving a small circle of parties, the aggregate extent and severity of corruption is presumably governed by a combination of payoffs, probabilities, and penalties. Payoffs — the gains from accepting bribes, embezzling monies, or misappropriating public funds — create the incentives for corruption. Probabilities determine the risk of getting caught. Penalties — in the form of prison terms, fines, and confiscations — set the negative disincentives for corruption. In combination, payoffs, probabilities, etc., determine the “expected value” of corruption. That is, the size and likelihood of corrupt gains if the individual “gets away with it,” or the likelihood and severity of punishment if they get caught. In theory, individuals weigh the expected gains against the potential costs. Where payoffs are minimal, the probability of punishment is high, and the penalties are high, the objective incentives for corruption will be low. Conversely, where payoffs are large, the probability of punishment low, and the penalties are minimal, the incentives for individuals to parley their delegated authority into personal gains will be high.

To an extent, payoffs and penalties are knowable parameters because we can use data from individual cases to measure how much individuals would have gained if they had not been caught and the losses, mostly in terms of prison time, they incurred because they got caught. The probability or risk of getting caught is, however, almost impossible to estimate because while we may know how many of those engaged in corruption have been caught, there is really no way other than simply guessing how many of those engaged in corruption did not get caught. It is possible, however, to use longevity as a proxy for risk. We might think of corruption as an iterated game of chance in which an individual who has engaged in corruption must repeatedly “roll the dice,” with a chance of getting caught each time. The lower the risk of getting caught, the more times the “dice” will come up with a “winner” that allows the individual to keep “playing the game.” Conversely, the higher the risk of getting caught, the most likely the individual will roll a “loser” and have to abruptly exit the game.

Because risk affects duration, it also shapes careers. Corrupt Chinese officials face two sets of risk. First, they face an ambient, background risk in the form of the “random” chance their misdeeds will get exposed. Second, supervisory- and management-level officials face more intense periodic risk because when such officials are promoted or transferred, they undergo audits specifically designed to detect malfeasance. Either way, exposure can result in punishments ranging from administrative warnings, demotions, and termination to criminal referrals.

Thus, if the probability of detection is high, those who resort to corruption will presumably not last long and hence will have short “careers.” If we assume most officials enter officialdom at the rank-and-file or lower supervisory levels, it then follows that if risk is high, corrupt officials are apt to be weeded out before they can rise up through the ranks. If the probability of detection is low, on the other hand, individuals who turn corrupt while junior officials are more likely to enjoy longer careers and thus rise upward from the rank-and-file into the senior ranks. Low risk, in other words, should increase extent of high-level corruption.

Payoffs, probabilities, and penalties may be uniform or may vary by level. Low-ranking officials, for instance, might enjoy a certain “safety in numbers” because anti-corruption monitoring resources may be insufficient to allow for more than episodic oversight. If they get caught, however, low-ranking officials might face a significant chance of punishment because they lack powerful patrons who can act as “protective umbrellas” for their protégés. By a similar logic, although their fewer numbers might make it easier to monitor senior officials, senior officials may be powerful enough to deflect unwanted scrutiny and block sanctions if malfeasance is uncovered. Senior officials may also have “friends in high places” who can protect them if they run into trouble.

Quantifying payoffs, probabilities, and penalties is complex, and I offer only preliminary data on payoffs and probabilities herein. Even these relative crude measures suffice, I believe, to explain why mid-level officials would opt to engage in corruption and why they had a good chance of evading punishment long enough to rise into the senior ranks and hence become tigers.

Wide variations in the amount of corrupt monies and the length of time individuals engaged in corruption make simple averages unreliable measures. I have, therefore, first normalized corrupt monies by dividing by the length of time an individual was corrupt and then estimating the median amount of corrupt monies for official working at the:

Village, township, and neighborhood level (aka fly);

County and district levels (aka rat);

Prefecture and city levels (aka wolf); and

The provincial and central levels (aka tiger).

This division imperfectly parallels the fly-rat-wolf-tiger hierarchy, which is based on an individual’s rank not their location in the bureaucracy pyramid. For simplicity, I have nonetheless retained the flies, rats, wolves, tiger labels. In addition, I calculated the lower and upper quartile bounds and thereby estimated the maximum size of “small corruption” and the minimum size of “big corruption.” The data reveal that even the small amounts of monies taken by corrupt officials at the grassroots level was almost double the per-capita income of the poorest fifth of rural residents, while the minimum size of big corrupt monies at the upper levels was a staggering 55-plus times the per capita disposal income of the richest fifth of urban residents (see Table 1).

Table 1:

Payoffs from Corruption


Corrupt Monies (RMB)
Quartile boundary Village-Neighborhood: Flies County-District:


Prefecture-City: Wolves Province-Ministry: Tigers Flies vs Rural Rats vs Rural-Urban Wolves vs Urban Tigers vs Urban
25 6,000 16,400 22,000 64,224 0.90 1.22 1.09 3.17
50 18,000 50,000 89,646 300,000 2.70 3.72 4.43 14.82
75 54,890 186,176 380,125 1,125,564 8.23 13.83 18.78 55.60
n 3,309 3,411 36,08 1,148

Source: Author’s database.

Data on the lag between when an official first became corrupt and when they were detained also suggest that the risk of getting caught within a year was fairly substantial (40 percent) for those at the bottom. The risk for those at higher levels were substantially lower and the most senior officials tended to evade capture for extended periods (see Figure 3).

Wedeman Figure 3

Source: Author’s database.

Note: Based on data for 3,444 cases at the “fly level,” 4,106 at the “rat level,” 5,248 at the “wolf level,” and 25,81 at the “tiger level.”

These “risks,” of course, apply only to those corrupt officials who got caught. Given that we must assume some not insubstantial percentage of corrupt officials never get caught, the actual probability of getting caught would be, of course lower, perhaps even substantially lower. Such a lower possibility, however, reinforces the evidence that corrupt officials, particularly senior officials, had a good chance of “getting away with it.”

For those corrupt officials who got caught, penalties were substantial. Six percent of the 14,740 officials for whom I had sentencing data were sentenced to life in prison or given a “suspended death sentence.”4 A third of those given fixed-term sentences were given more than 10 years while another third was sentenced between four and nine years. Ultimately, corruption is a gamble and the available data on payoffs, probabilities, and penalties strongly suggest that systemic conditions in the years before Xi launched his attack on corruption in 2012 were conducive to extensive corruption and, more critically, to the rise of corruption mid-level officials into the senior ranks.


The data presented herein suggest that high-level corruption exploded in the two decades before Xi launched his so-called tiger hunt in 2012-2013. Despite three burst-like attacks on rank-and-file corruption during the 1980s and a sustained drive against mid-level corruption in the mid-1990s, the payoffs from corruption, the risks of getting caught, and the penalties that those caught using their authority for private gain faced did not deter officials at all levels from engaging in corruption. Over time, the failure of the anti-corruption effort during the Jiang and Hu periods allowed corrupt low-level officials to climb the career ladder and enter the senior ranks. Flies thus became rats; rats grew into wolves; and wolves morphed into tigers. As a result, corruption apparently spread upward. Consequently, corruption was likely considerably worse when Xi assumed leadership than it had been in the boom years of the 1990s when China’s transition from the plan to the market putatively created a pool of rents that ought to have fueled a wave of corruption as officials cashed in on the windfall gains created by the commodification of theretofore undervalued state assets and positioned officials to profitably leverage their control over access to profit-making ventures.5 The rapid worsening of corruption in post-Mao China appears to have thus been not only a function of the transition from the plan to the market but also the failure of the party to sustain efforts to confront and control corruption.

  1. As of this writing, five tigers had been “bagged” in the first two months 2021.
  2. I have included a number of tigers taken down during 2011 and 2012 as “Xi tigers” even though these cases, which include the case of Bo Xilai who was taken down in early 2012, were initiated under Hu Jintao, they appear to be triggers for Xi’s crackdown.
  3. Because data on when individuals turn corrupt is not generally reported until an individual is indicted, start data were not available for 76, including 40 who were still under investigation and had not been indicted at the time of this writing. Dates for another 36 could not be determined.
  4.  A person given a suspended death sentence could have their sentenced commuted to life in prison after two years if they cooperated with investigator and served good time. In corruption cases, suspended death sentences were almost invariably commuted to life in prison. My database includes 123 death sentences. All but of a few were handed down before 2012.
  5. See Andrew Wedeman, Double Paradox Rapid Growth and Rising Corruption in China (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012).