Dec 8, 2015 | 02:07 GMT

5 mins read

China: Anti-Corruption and the Paradox of Political Power

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Luo Liping, a senior official in the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), China's highest anti-graft body, announced Sunday that the central government had drawn up plans for a new spate of anti-corruption investigations for the coming year. Luo said the CCDI's goal is the inspection of all of the 280 or so organizations responsible to the central government by the end of 2017. This colossal target set includes provincial governments, central government ministries, state-owned enterprises, financial institutions and regulators, and other government-sponsored institutions. Luo noted that since 2012, the CCDI has performed inspections on 149 of these organizations — little more than half of the total. 

To meet its objective, the CCDI is bracing to conduct more than 100 rounds of inspections. This is a major expansion of the campaign — the equivalent of conducting nearly 70 percent of total inspections to date, only within a single year. Luo directly addressed the difficulties of such a rigorous campaign, noting the complexity of the task and the limits of the existing inspections teams. He did confirm, however, that the commission is developing innovative methods to make sure all the inspections are complete before the 19th Party Congress.

The methods by which the CCDI plans to achieve its objective aren't yet clear, but it is interesting to note that this intensification of anti-corruption investigations is directly connected to the upcoming 19th Party Congress, set to convene in October 2017. Although President Xi Jinping's campaign to root out corruption has always been framed as an attempt to promote honest and effective governance, the timing highlights the fact that such measures are first and foremost used for political purposes.

The 19th Party Congress (2017-2022) will mark the midpoint of Xi's tenure as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. As the Congress proceeds, age-induced retirements will create openings at the highest levels, introducing vacancies in the Politburo and Central Committee — including five of the seven seats on the Politburo Standing Committee, China's top leadership body. These vacancies must be filled by younger cadres in a process that will cascade down to provincial and local governments. This inevitably leads to large-scale reshufflings across the Party, changes that will determine the composition of the Party's leadership for the next five years as well as Xi's likely successor as Party general secretary.

Although Party congresses are heavily choreographed events, they are major drivers for behind-the-scenes struggles in the Chinese Communist Party. Behind the pomp and circumstance of unveiling new leaders, there is a process of bargaining (which is sometimes coercive). Xi will make every effort to staff the Party leadership with his handpicked allies, while various political interests will attempt to place their own candidates in high positions — sometimes in direct opposition to those preferred by the paramount leader. There is evidence that this process has already begun: In August, Party propaganda organs close to Xi warned retired officials — who traditionally have exercised much power behind the scenes — away from getting involved in politics.

As 2017 draws closer, those harboring ambitions of advancement in the Chinese Communist Party can no longer afford to remain quiet.

The paradox of power in the Communist system is that to advance, a person must be an effective political organizer, able to curry favor with powerful patrons and build effective political coalitions. However, these same factors could also single a person out as a potential threat. The consequences are dire, especially in the context of Xi's intense anti-corruption campaign; to organize is to invite scrutiny, and scrutiny could lead to elimination.

For this reason, factions have lain dormant. Savvy cadres minimize their political activities to avoid attracting unwanted attention. Yet, as 2017 draws closer, those harboring ambitions of advancement can no longer afford to remain quiet. To lay low would be to forfeit their chances. For this reason, they must by necessity begin courting allies from among their peers and from higher-level patrons, coalescing into tangible factions.

In 2016, these coalitions will jockey for power, targeting one another — and potentially Xi's preferred candidates. Anti-corruption is a powerful tool with which Xi can attempt to secure the transition. The announcement of intensified anti-corruption efforts is a pre-emptive warning to deter would-be challengers from forming cliques, a declaration that no part of the government will be safe from scrutiny. The campaign will be used to target emerging factions. For Xi, the ideal outcome would be a situation in which his preferred candidates go unchallenged, the Politburo and its Standing Committee are filled with his allies, and power is further concentrated in his hands.

The show will not really begin until 2016. But whatever the outcome of the inspections, the coming year will be ripe for political struggle in Beijing. Xi's anti-corruption campaign kicked off in 2012 with the destruction of his political adversary Bo Xilai months before Xi was appointed Party general secretary at the 18th Party Congress. The days before a new Party congress can be tumultuous, particularly as China's old model of consensus politics continues to break down. 

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