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Xi’s not chasing your average Zhou

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In Brief

On 11 June 2015, Zhou Yongkang was found guilty of corruption, among other things, and sentenced to life imprisonment. He appeared before a national broadcast to listen to his guilty verdict, express his responsibility in doing harm to the country and relinquish his right to appeal.


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Zhou was once a member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Politburo Standing Committee, secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, party secretary of Sichuan province and general manager of China National Petroleum Corporation. The case against him was seen as an example of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s commitment to fight corruption and, for some, a power struggle among China’s central leaders.

There is probably truth in both positions. When Xi was elected general secretary of the CCP in November 2012, he pledged to fight corruption among ‘tigers and flies’, or both high- and low-ranking party officials. China’s past anti-corruption campaigns had been criticised for targeting mainly low-level officials. In the two years after he took office, 270,000 officials, including high-ranking ones such as General Xu Caihou (vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission), Bo Xilai (party secretary of Chongqing) and Jiang Jiemin (CEO of China National Petroleum Corporation) were punished.

Targeting corruption among these powerful officials sent a message to others that such behaviour could no longer continue with impunity. But critics have also pointed to ties between Zhou and those targeted to suggest that Xi’s anti-corruption campaign was really aimed at undermining the power base of Zhou, his top political rival.

Intent is always hard to document, especially when political maneuvers usually occur behind closed doors. Even if Xi’s sole intent was to go after Zhou’s violations and abuse of power, he would still have had to weaken Zhou’s power base before getting to him. After all, Zhou had connections in the nation’s courts, procuratorates, police, militia and the oil sector. It’s difficult to say if fighting corruption or political power was the priority.

So what does this anti-corruption campaign bode for China’s future?

If Xi’s motivation is political, he has successfully removed his major rival. And dissenters are unlikely to come into the open because fighting corruption is something that no one can oppose. Corruption has elicited numerous popular outbursts across the country. Targeting corruption especially among high-level officials can only earn Xi popular support and bolster his power to realise his vision of a ‘harmonious society’.

On the economic front, the foreign business sector has reported a decrease in conspicuous consumption among bureaucrats; and economists have pointed to a decline in the consumption and sale of luxury goods costing the economy US$100 billion in 2014. But this is less than 1 per cent of GDP. In any case, the market for conspicuous consumption and luxury goods is not the basis of a healthy economy. Instead, rooting out corruption, regulating procedures and removing the hidden costs in conducting business should encourage sound economic growth.

The Fourth Plenum of the 18th CCP Central Committee in October 2014 has reaffirmed the direction of the socialist economy and with a strong focus on reining in party members’ excesses and institutionaling the rule of law. Will Xi be successful in curbing corruption? It is too soon to tell. Xi’s measures are only baby steps in that direction. Corruption is widespread in every sector and every level of Chinese society. Sustained, organised efforts are required if he is to make any permanent dent in these endemic practices.

Julia Chak-sin Kwong is an emeritus professor at the University of Manitoba, Canada.

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