China’s corrupt purge

An overdue assault on venal elites looks ever more like an authoritarian power-grab on the part of President Xi

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President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive rolls on and on. When it began, many saw it as a merely symbolic clean-up which would end once a few relatively unimportant heads had rolled. But now it’s clear that it is more than that: Xi has gone farther than any Chinese Communist leader since the party seized power in 1949.

By authorising the investigation for corruption of Zhou Yongkang, the nation’s former security chief and a long-term fellow member with Xi of the Politburo’s nine-man standing committee – the most powerful body in the land – he has broached new ground. Nobody of Zhou’s stature has been targeted before. Nobody knows what will happen next. Many are beginning to fear for China’s long-term stability.

It can be assumed that Zhou is guilty as charged: rumours of his imminent defenestration have been circling for months, and in March it was reported that assets amounting to at least $14bn had been seized from his relatives and associates. All this comes as no surprise to anyone: China’s stratospheric growth has been accompanied by a total collapse in party morality, and corruption is spreading through the system like cancer. A Chinese correspondent noted earlier this year in The New York Times, “Officials who flee to foreign countries with illicit gains tend to be lower in seniority than ever before: ill-gotten wealth is expanding to all levels of the government.”

That being the case, it could be argued that President Xi’s assault on the venal high and mighty is not only long overdue but absolutely necessary to keep the Chinese show on the road. The problem is that Xi is by no means an impartial judge of high-level state corruption. His own relatives have made fortunes amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars, and it has been acidly pointed out that no officials close to Xi have suffered in the ongoing purge.

Meanwhile, attempts by ordinary Chinese to name the guilty have been stopped dead in their tracks: members of the New Citizen movement have courageously gone public with their protests against corrupt officials, but four of the most prominent have been imprisoned. President Xi has made it clear that he and he alone shall be the final arbiter of who is and who is not corrupt.

The question the Chinese are now asking themselves is how much further the purge can go. If the anti-corruption machine grinds forward, the obvious remaining targets are Xi’s predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. But by lopping off eminent heads, it is not just the immediate relatives who are upset: the vast networks of inter-dependency on which China’s economic success has been built risk being shattered. 

In a hermetic system like China’s, where the judiciary has no independence and the power of the party is eternal, corruption becomes endemic and true justice is a chimera. In the meantime, President Xi gathers ever more power into his own hands, and officials – nearly 70 of whom have committed suicide in the past year and a half – tremble with fear of what tomorrow may bring. Far from purifying the system, Xi risks plunging China back into a nightmare of paranoia and revenge not unlike that which prevailed during the Cultural Revolution.

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