Is China’s Anticorruption Crackdown Really a Crackdown on Anticorruption Activists?

In my last post I noted that political decentralization, and the inter-jurisdictional competition it fostered, could potentially suppress local corruption and promote economic growth. My enthusiasm was fanned by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) aggressive anticorruption campaign. Since President Xi Jinping took power, there has been a wave of anticorruption purges against powerful military and government officials. The very public purge of Zhou Yongkang, a retired official described as “the most powerful man in China,” seems to be an indication that Xi is fulfilling his promise of zero tolerance against “tigers” and “flies.”

However, my optimism has been tempered by recent news that two more anticorruption activists have gone on trial in China. The fact that the two activists from New Citizens MovementDing Jiaxi and Li Wei—campaigned for officials to disclose their assets, a cause that echoed CCP’s official aspiration (see here and here) only made the arrests more perplexing.

This seems like a glaring contradiction.  Why does the Chinese leadership continue to trumpet on about anticorruption and simultaneously arrest anticorruption activists?

One theory is that the communist party doesn’t actually want to end corruption, and Xi’s anticorruption campaign is nothing more than a charade. A piece in the Atlantic for instance quotes Minxin Pei, a professor of Political Science at Claremont McKenna University, that: “The Communist Party is a patronage machine and patronage by definition is corruption. Fighting corruption would require Chinese government officials to live like monks, and nobody joins the Chinese government in order to live like a monk.” But that version of the story doesn’t seem to square with the reality unfolding on the ground in China. The current anticorruption campaign seems much more vigorous than what had come before, and there’s some evidence that it’s having a significant effect on conspicuous consumption by CCP officials, and may even be responsible for a spate of suicides.

The complexities are still unfolding within the country, but here are a few preliminary observations:

First, the seemingly contradictory government action may be an accurate reflection of the CCP’s attitude towards corruption. Specifically, as Matthew suggested in a previous post, the CCP leadership may view corruption unacceptable if it threatens the Party’s legitimacy, but not otherwise–and, indeed, exposing corruption is also undesirable if it threatens the standing of the party. This echoes the oft-quoted words of Chen Yun, a former Party elder: “Fight corruption too little and destroy the country; fight it too much and destroy the Party.” At the end of the day the Party still comes first. New Citizens Movement’s protests were squelched because they embarrassed the CCP. The arrests serve as a reminder that CCP does not tolerate civil society activists even when they act in support of government’s campaign. The flip-side of the strong central party praised by Olivier Blanchard and Andrei Shleifer is the near-absolute restriction of democratic dialogue. The government’s anticorruption message has to be tightly controlled and seemingly voluntary, and never the result of third-party pressure (regardless whether that pressure comes from Chinese citizens or the international community).

Second, the new leadership seems to be using the aggressive anticorruption campaign to weaken its political opposition within the CCP. There are reports that Zhou Yongkang’s purge is related to his support for the equally high profile downfall of another ex-senior official and Xi’s old-time rival, Bo Xilai. Previous posts have debated the merits and demerits of politically-motivated enforcement at length, so I will not venture into that space. A positive note is that even if the Xi’s corruption purge is politically motivated, it still sends out a chilling message to government officials that seniority no longer means immunity. Since the very ambitious officials in the CCP are in it for the long run (the average age of Politburo members is in the 60s), Xi’s aggressive purging of senior officials signals a new age in Chinese politics. I can thus stand by at least one of the conclusion of my last post, namely that message to bright young officials is clear—if they want a future within the party they must limit the amount of corruption.

Finally, the recent actions of the government undoubtedly weakened the Party’s anticorruption message. The rosy picture that China is on the road to less corruption is premised on Xi’s aggressive anticorruption stance. Yet the contradiction in government’s actions intentionally or unintentionally weakens any anticorruption message.

At the end of the day I don’t think the crackdown on anticorruption activists means that the anticorruption campaign is a mere charade. However, the Xi presidency seems to be sending out a strong message that the Party, rather than the people, is ultimately in control of the future of China. The CCP will in time deal with corruption, but only in a way that ensures the long run prosperity of the Party.

1 thought on “Is China’s Anticorruption Crackdown Really a Crackdown on Anticorruption Activists?

  1. The move against corruption is stated by government to be for the survival of the party. But it is in the nature of the party to do it their way and not allow others to get involved. This, if allowed, would mean the others, now arrested, would get a voice and appear more anti-corrupt than the party and potentially win the hearts and minds of the people and so become rivals to the party. Of course, the arrests are deplorable, but the action show the party is all and no opposition or rivals to its policies can be allowed, even in its move against corruption..
    Above gives some account of latest position and some stats on officials arrested.

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