Xi's Anti-Corruption Drive Echoes Imperial China

8 MINS READAug 15, 2014 | 21:23 GMT
Xi's Anti-Corruption Drive Echoes Imperial China
Chinese President Xi Jinping stands by national flags at the Schloss Bellevue presidential residency in Berlin on March 28.

Editor's note: Stratfor Senior East Asia analyst Zhixing Zhang penned this essay about the ways in which Chinese history animates today's events. 

Not even two years after Chinese President Xi Jinping took power, China has been shaken by its largest anti-corruption drive since the post-Mao period. Xi's government has investigated nearly 200,000 officials across numerous government bureaucracies, regions, state-owned enterprises and security apparatuses, including the military and police force. The campaign reached a new peak in late 2013 after a formal announcement that Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, was under investigation for corruption. Zhou is the most senior Chinese official to be investigated for corruption since Communist rule began in 1949.

Many see Xi's ongoing campaign as an effort to rein in the excesses of official greed and influence peddling that are the inevitable result of China's tumultuous two-decade transition into an export powerhouse — an endeavor that is now slowing. This is a valid view. Corruption is among the largest challenges of dealing with China cited by the West — the international diplomats, ratings agencies or potential investors for whom China is synonymous with both corruption and a recent surge of economic, military and political might. However, the corruption campaign also reflects Xi's efforts to consolidate power and reconstitute the Party amid a multitude of challenges. Corruption, reform and the decline of dynasties leading to systemic change have been an enduring cycle throughout Chinese history. Xi's campaign matches historical trends that come into focus only with a look back at earlier eras of deep transition, particularly the Qing dynasty, and the transformation of the relationships of the centers of imperial power.

Corruption is not unique to China's contemporary political system. It is essentially a byproduct of thousands of years of China's imperial court, which was characterized largely by authoritarian rule and the concept of the "rule of man" (emphasizing the emperor's moral leadership and the hierarchy of relationships) embedded in the country's Confucian culture. Yet China's historical tradition of patronage and nepotism, which outsiders are quick to identify as corruption, also helped to embed important features, such as institutional continuity and security of the imperial court, before the establishment of the institutions of the Communist Party.

Dynastic cycles can take various forms in a country as large and geographically diverse as China, but the interconnection between bureaucratic corruption and the historical cycle is remarkably similar. Too often, the dynastic cycle began with the central power's vigorous gains over the vast country's far-flung regions under the Mandate of Heaven (the belief in an emperor's divine right to rule), which led to decades or centuries of unity and prosperity. Then, bureaucratic corruption began eroding the imperial court, manifesting in the slow and steady accumulation of power in the regions. Local landlords thus gained more power as the center's control and supervision declined. Widespread embezzlement left fewer resources for the public well-being, and in turn inequality grew along with public resentment. Exacerbating this was the deteriorating morale of the imperial military, which became incapable of resisting threats from the nomad-populated buffer areas and rebellions in the Han core. An unwillingness or inability to reform, the massiveness and uncontrollability of the country and various other factors — both internal and external — led to dynastic decline.

This cycle is most prominent in the Qing dynasty, a period that has had great influence on the Party's mindset and rule. Modern literature has always emphasized the inaction, isolation and conservatism of the late Qing dynasty (generally thought of as the period between 1890 and 1911) as the primary causes of its eventual demise. Only in retrospect does it become clear that this dynastic cycle began as early as the late 18th century, when the country was still at the peak of the so-called Kang-Qian age, a Chinese Renaissance period from 1684 to 1799 under three successive emperors: Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong. This was still half a century from the First Opium War in 1840, which began China's painful colonial period. It was 60 years before the Qing court's self-strengthening movement and more than 100 years from the dynasty's eventual collapse.

An Analogue to Xi's Campaign

In fact, after 150 years of rule, expansion and assimilation by the ethnic Manchu elites, the 18th century's Qing dynasty reached a zenith characterized by its nearly unprecedented territory, economic prosperity and flourishing culture. It was also in this period, however, that the old empire underwent some of the most profound social and economic transformations — which emanated up through the political system — in imperial Chinese history, and subsequently required transformative responses to the many internal and external changes.

Years of political stability, increased agricultural productivity and a greater amount of arable land brought about a population surge across the country that nearly tripled the population from a century before (it reached some 300 million by 1794). However, this put enormous pressure on food production and agricultural labor. The expanded agricultural production was not enough to overcome the consumption spike, unruly migrants and an exhausted state treasury. Meanwhile, the rapid emergence of industrialization, from textile to mining, and the accompanying creation of urban clusters along the eastern coast had not yet been able to steer the country's traditionally agricultural economy into modernity. Externally, China's economic prosperity, manufacturing growth and trade potential began drawing greater interest from European traders and missionaries despite the country's inherent tendency for isolation.

Ruling over this China was an increasingly independent and hierarchical imperial system, with entrenched corruption and nepotism found in every area from the palace to the grassroots level. Bureaucratic inefficiencies and a rapid moral deterioration within the political system made it harder for the central power to adapt to various internal and external shifts. In other words, during a period in which it flourished, China was approaching a peak of its traditional bureaucratic rule, which was both a product and a symptom of the breakdown of the traditional dynastic and imperial model of social, political and economic organization. This breakdown occurred amid structural shifts: China's forced entrance into the expanding global trade system and the population boom triggered by technological improvements  (and ironically exacerbated by the stability and prosperity of the Kang-Qian period). These were spectacular changes, and the dynastic model was simply stretched too thin. In the 18th century, the Qing dynasty was already coping with many problems that evolved slowly into a critical turning point a decade later.

Anti-Corruption as a Solution

It is hard to know the Qing rulers' perception of the situation at that point, beyond acute awareness of the need to preserve the dynasty's political legitimacy and its claim to the Mandate of Heaven. This started with Emperor Jiaqing, who began his reign in 1799 with an unexpected package of reforms. Most notably, he announced that he would prosecute Heshen, hitherto the country's most powerful councilor under the patronage of Emperor Qianlong and a model of official corruption whose wealth was rumored to have reached as much as 15 times annual state revenue. This was a prelude to a series of cautious fiscal and military reforms as well as a broad anti-corruption drive designed in explicit response to Heshen's administration.

But as much as the new emperor understood the need to rectify the Qing dynasty's bureaucratic system, he soon found himself facing a more extensive corruption network among the civil servants, who resisted the state. The cost of institutionalized and wide-scale corruption was passed on to poor taxpayers. This culminated in rural discontent and emboldened the White Lotus religious and political movement, ethnic uprisings and pirate rebellions in the countryside as the Manchu military grew even more corrupt.

Moreover, the emperor's cautious reforms appeared to be designed largely to address Heshen's legacy specifically and preserve stability but not to establish a more radical and effective vision of imperial rule or to advance international diplomacy. As a result, Jiaqing's 22-year rule saw the country become only more sealed off from the outside world. The space for the nascent merchant and industrial economy to grow was tightened, and state revenue depleted sharply because of the rejection of reforms of fiscal structure. Jiaqing's rule soon became a turning point for the Qing dynasty, and the kingdom began declining.

Trying to Break the Cycle

History provides a useful lens through which to view China's current political position; the country's political leaders are also keen students of history. Indeed, the governance that characterizes the Communist Party today in many ways resembles that which characterized China's early dynasties. The Party is well aware of the various dynastic cycles, if only to be able to prevent the cycle from repeating and to preserve its political legitimacy. Yet it faces no fewer challenges than many of its dynastic predecessors.

China is in the middle of an economic transformation, and the country's leaders are finding that the pillars of Party legitimacy that Deng Xiaoping outlined during his premiership in the 1980s have begun eroding. Slowing economic growth for years to come, expanding energy and resource demands, a higher foreign-policy profile, rising social and regional inequalities and pollution, among other issues, have undermined the concept designed by Communist leaders to create economic success and the promise of economic well-being for ordinary citizens. At the same time, rampant corruption and officials' abuse of power have further undermined the Party leadership's image. Maintaining control in these circumstances will require the Party to be more open, in image and in practice, and to pursue many political, social and economic reforms.

However, the pressures stemming from China's economy, society and politics will give the Party just a small window to make these changes. At the same time, Xi and his administration are facing multiple monopolist interest chains on top of ineffective state-owned enterprises, vast family-based wealth accumulation and bureaucracy. This factional base and the patron-client system directly affect how the political system works as far as appointments and promotions, and this arrangement helped create the system of checks and balances that has sustained the Party's political continuity. However, it is also the largest obstacle to getting many reform initiatives passed.

In this context, Xi's wide-scale anti-corruption campaign serves many functions — rectifying the Party, consolidating power and improving bureaucratic inefficiencies — that will show the Party's willingness to change and ease many of the obstacles to reform. Nonetheless, Xi clearly understands that anti-corruption cannot be a solution and cannot be confined to reforming the Party; rather, it is a necessary tool to herald a more institutionalized, more adaptive but potentially much less stable model from within the old order.

China still needs a more effective system for the rule of law that can expose and punish the crimes of even top Party leaders, eliminate many bureaucratic patronages and pre-empt corruption before it starts. It needs a more profound shift from transforming the Chinese economy into one characterized by greater consumption and profitability to more accountable local entities and a professionalized military. However, this is where a paradox arises: Reform can easily precipitate, rather than counteract, dynastic cycles and political change. Yet if the Party is unable to proceed with many of the fundamental changes, it could end up in a quandary that is hard to escape. 

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