The Local Response to China's Anti-Corruption Drive

6 MINS READApr 25, 2013 | 10:31 GMT
The Local Response to China's Anti-Corruption Drive
Chinese President Xi Jinping on April 8

Chinese media have reported two cases in as many weeks in which a local Communist Party official died under the Party's official discipline, known as shuang gui. The Party's internal disciplinary system has always operated separately from the state justice system, and disappearances, beatings, torture and forced confessions are widely known to occur. Nevertheless, these cases are different because they are being reported and discussed by official state news agencies and social media networks. They suggest that local officials are responding to President Xi Jinping's new crackdown on Party corruption, which may soon target high-ranking leaders.

In the first case, the People's Procuratorate of Wenzhou announced that Yu Qiyi, a Party representative and chief engineer at Wenzhou Industry Investment Group, a state-owned enterprise, died on April 9 after suffering an "accident" while in the custody of the Wenzhou Communist Party Discipline Inspection Committee. Photographs of Yu's body in the hospital showed him badly beaten and circulated widely on the Internet. State news outlet Xinhua posted the photographs online and said an investigation into the incident would be under way.

In the second case, discussions on Weibo and then several media outlets reported that Jia Jiuxiang, the vice president of the Intermediate People's Court of Sanmenxia City, in Henan Province, died on April 23 while under detention from the local Party disciplinary inspectors. The report cited Jia's family and a local official who said he was aware of the case. One of Jia's relatives said that Jia drew the attention of the inspectors after being named by another official under scrutiny at the Sanmenxia City court, which suggests a broader investigation.

President Xi Jinping's administration, which took over the Party in November and the state bureaucracy in March, has prioritized fighting corruption and, at least in appearance, reducing the disparity in wealth and privilege between the elite and the masses in order to buttress the Party's support. Xi has called for officials to behave legally and appropriately and avoid extravagant spending as well as taking bribes and other criminal activity. While Xi will not be able to stomp out the notorious problem of Party officials abusing power, he might be able to build support for his administration at a time when the party fears public resentment is becoming particularly worrisome. Similarly, on the military front, he has mulled measures to send senior military officials to do short rotations among the enlisted ranks so that they can theoretically experience life as an ordinary soldier and improve morale — part of a broader effort to professionalize the armed forces.

The first step in Xi's anti-corruption drive is the consolidation of power within the Party. Wang Qishan, one of Xi's fellow princelings, is heading up this effort. He sits on the Politburo Standing Committee and is the new secretary for the Central Commission of Discipline and Inspection. Wang's specialty is financial and economic policy — he led the bank bailouts in the late 1990s and helped manage economic policy in the previous administration as Vice Premier on the State Council under former Premier Wen Jiabao. But he also has a general reputation for effectiveness, so his somewhat surprising appointment to the disciplinary post was taken as a sign of the new administration's commitment to bringing the Party into line.

The Communist Party has a long history of anti-corruption and interparty rectification campaigns to refresh the Party's legitimacy and achieve political priorities, especially when a new leader takes over and seeks to consolidate power. In the Yan'an Rectification of the early 1940s, Mao Zedong introduced methods of self-criticism or confession (whether forced or voluntary) and organizational reshuffling into the Party to establish himself as the sole leader of the Communist Party. He intensified this crusade for party "morality" to cleanse the Party of political enemies and alleged capitalists throughout the 1950s. In the Cultural Revolution, he stirred up mass movements to root out elements of the Party deemed corrupt or disloyal.

After Mao's time, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin both waged anti-graft and intraparty campaigns to weed out Party members deemed corrupt or deviant. Jiang in particular managed to reassert party control over the military. But these two leaders were not widely perceived as successful in fighting corruption — mainly because they tolerated the fact that economic opening enabled Party members and well-connected people to get rich, which made corruption worse, or at least more visible. By the 2000s, public grievances and protests over official corruption were impossible to ignore, and former President Hu Jintao's administration tried to intensify anti-graft campaigns, though it failed to make much headway in breaking the informal socio-economic networks of corruption that continued to grow.

Xi's administration has placed anti-corruption as a priority, describing his policy as "attacking the big tiger but not letting small flies escape," which implies that national as well as local figures will suffer punishment. Previous anti-corruption campaigns have suffered criticism for targeting minor figures without catching any of the most powerful and most flagrant offenders of party discipline, and without requiring any substantial reshuffling of major officials, so Xi's going after the big tiger is meant to show his determination to move forward aggressively on intra-party reform.

The recent deaths of two low-level Party officials in Wenzhou and Henan under inspection may point to the developing local level response to Xi's and Wang's national policies. Local discipline inspection committees will seek to show their loyalty to the new administration and hope to prove themselves zealous prosecutors of corruption. But this effort will lead to abuses, especially as local authorities often act outside of the central government's oversight. The recent deaths may also highlight rising attention, in social and other media, to official abuses. Xi himself has called for people to report crimes and misbehavior by officials, so there is an incentive to call out the abuse of power by disciplinary officials themselves.

Ultimately, Xi's goal is to make examples of flagrant offenders or political enemies and thus consolidate power within the ranks of military and civilian officialdom, making sure that party cadres are falling in line and that the right cadres are in place, rather than try to solve unsolvable problems like bribery and elitism. These recent incidents are "small flies." The question is when and how Xi will begin "attacking the big tiger." On the national level, the sacking of former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai and former Railroad Minister Liu Zhijun are two examples, but other prominent figures may be targeted in future.

Needless to say this kind of intra-party rectification campaign must be carefully managed in order to prevent it from spiraling out of control, as has happened before in the Party's struggles, most notoriously during the Cultural Revolution. In shaking up the Party, its new leaders must balance their desire to firm up the ranks and burnish its moral authority with the need to contain public expectations and prevent the public from demanding too much reform. 

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