According to Chinese news agency Xinhua, Shanxi province in northern China punished 15,450 officials, including seven top leaders, in 2014. The report said that there are currently 300 vacancies, including three city party chiefs and 16 county chiefs, in the provincial government. The Party is working to replace disciplined officials. These would be the first replacements since the new provincial party leadership was installed last September.
It is well known that there is a massive anti-corruption campaign occurring in China, but these figures give us a sense of just how vast this crackdown is and how deep it goes within the party administrative structure. Even in China, 15,450 is a large number of officials to discipline in a single province, even if they are not all replaced. And the fact that the Party has left so many senior positions open for so long is striking.
We have to remember that provincial officials, corrupt or not, actually perform important functions in managing government services. In China, where the state's authority and responsibility is much vaster than in other countries, the effect of dismissals, the failure to replace officials and the consequent effect on the morale — and fear — of the managers left in place has to have led to a degradation of services.
As some have said, corruption has been a way of life for Chinese officials, as for officials in other countries. The motivation to serve in state positions is frequently driven by the extra opportunities for money making that having power over other people's needs and interests provides. In many countries, that additional income is the only reason to become a government official. That said, government officials do often have the expertise needed to keep the system moving. It is that expertise that makes them officials and that expertise that they sell to citizens who want to get something done. When the corrupt are removed, their expertise is removed with them. They need to be replaced, and though their replacements might be honest, they frequently are not ready to do their jobs.
China has accepted corruption for a long time. The decision to incur the inevitable inefficiencies entailed in fighting corruption in the Chinese system at this time is interesting. China is undergoing a slowdown in growth and has not yet found bottom. Eliminating corruption decreases the cost of doing business but likely increases the inefficiency.
The most important question, of course, is whether this is really a campaign against corruption or whether the campaign is merely one element in a broader political purge. China has had purges before. Deng Xiaoping removed large numbers of supporters of the Gang of Four, who came to power during the Cultural Revolution and fell from grace in 1976. Mao Zedong purged millions during the Proletarian Cultural Revolution and Anti-Rightist Campaign. Under the communists, changes of direction have coincided with purges as the leader tried to reshape the Party and country.
It would seem to us that President Xi Jinping is now in a position where he has to shift direction. The period of rapid, assured economic growth is over. China's economy has matured, as Japan's did before it, and that means a different economic tempo. But China, unlike Japan, has a vast hinterland of extreme poverty, and an economic slowdown means that hopes for breaking out of poverty are being dashed for a lot of people.
Xi must balance between the needs of the interior and the needs of the coastal region. The interior must have its poverty mitigated. The coast must have its desire to hold on to its gains respected. That is easier said than done. Particularly during a period when local Party and government branches have benefited from the old model and when the central authority has allowed this to happen, managing China has become difficult.
The elimination of corruption among party officials indicates that the party is over, so to speak. The fear of being charged maintains control of those who oppose the new policies. The arrests make others feel that the state is interested in justice.
The problem is that a purge, to be effective, must be vast. It took a decade for China to recover from Mao's last purges. Moreover, a purge eliminates competent if corrupt administrators and technicians. It takes a long time to train their replacements.
There is another problem. If the purge frightens, it also can create a sense of hopelessness. Where there is hopelessness, people have nothing to lose. The possibility of resistance to the purge breaking out both within the Party and among business leaders facing the downturn in the coastal economy and possible corruption charges is not trivial. Xi has to purge the Party, corruption or not. But if he encounters resistance, we need to remember the number of people disciplined in Shanxi. Officials in other provinces are evaluating their own chances of being purged based on these figures. The chances are not insignificant.