The Many Uses of Xi Jinping’s Anticorruption Campaign

Since Chinese President Xi Jinping launched his anticorruption campaign in 2012, much of the foreign commentary has debated the extent to which the campaign is a genuine effort to root out corruption or a means for purging or undermining President Xi’s political opponents. This simple framing, however, obscures the other uses and objectives of the anticorruption campaign. Better understanding these motivations is important to understanding the dynamics of the campaign and the role that anticorruption plays in modern Chinese politics. Three political and policy objectives are particularly notable:

  • First, the anticorruption campaign may function as an instrument that the central government can use to ensure that its policies are followed by regional governments. A particularly striking case in this category is that of Zhao Zhengyong, the former party chief of Shaanxi province. Zhao was given a suspended death sentence for receiving bribes of 717 million yuan (US$102 million). While these bribes were apparently for a wide range of abuses of authority, he seems to have been targeted in part because his government repeatedly ignored instructions from Beijing to tear down illegally constructed villas in a national nature reserve. The central government’s anticorruption drive in Shaanxi, which punished not only Zhao but several other senior officials, was likely motivated in part to drive home the consequences to local officials who disregard the central government. More generally, China’s anticorruption drive serves as mechanism for the center to ensure that regional governments comply with central government directives and policies, lest those regional party officials find themselves in the crosshairs of the Central Committee on Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI).
  • Second, President Xi and others in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership see corruption as a fundamental threat to the party’s legitimacy, and thus to its authority. As Wang Jiangyu, director of the Centre for Chinese and Comparative Law at City University of Hong Kong, noted in the context of commenting on China’s harsh punishment of an allegedly corrupt judge, “A corrupt and abusive law enforcement system poses an existential threat to the legitimacy of the Communist Party.” Rooting out bad elements and instilling discipline among party members is therefore a way for the CCP to signal its virtue to the Chinese public. The use of highly moralistic language by anticorruption enforcement bodies and state media is revealing in this regard. Just recently, for example, Chen Yixin, the Secretary General of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, announced a new campaign to “scrape the poison off the bones” in order to purge “corrupt elements” from its ranks. Similarly, back in 2017, when China disciplined former cybersecurity czar Lu Wei for corruption, the disciplinary commission denounced him using language like “tyrannical,” “shameless,” and “disloyal.” The party is clearly trying to signal that those punished in the anticorruption drive have not only violated laws of the country but are seen as morally defective and ineligible members of the CCP, thus bolstering the CCP’s claim to moral and political legitimacy. 
  • Third, the anticorruption campaign plays a major role in signaling President Xi’s policy priorities. The campaign tends to emphasize those policy areas that President Xi views as most important to his reform agenda. Take, for example, the financial sector, where anticorruption penalties have been especially harsh. Lai Xiaomin, former chairman of China Huarong Asset Management, was executed in January for accepting 1.8 billion yuan (US$277 million) worth of bribes. This was striking because, while China famously makes grand corruption a capital crime, actual imposition of a death sentence in a corruption case is unusual. The coverage of Lai’s case in state media suggested that his harsh punishment was justified because his conduct “endangered national financial security and financial stability.” Lai’s execution, then, is perhaps a signal of just how seriously the leadership takes the financial sector. And the signaling effect of aggressive anticorruption enforcement in particular sectors extends beyond the punishment of (allegedly) corrupt actors per se. It can be a signal of the leadership’s policy priorities and spur action. And it is likely that China’s anticorruption campaigns will continue to focus on those substantive areas that are most closely associated with the leadership’s broader policy priorities.

12 thoughts on “The Many Uses of Xi Jinping’s Anticorruption Campaign

  1. Great post, Steven. I’d be curious to learn the extent to which any of these objectives — particularly the first one — have been observed in other countries’ anti-corruption efforts. Is anti-corruption often used as a route to centralizing power or otherwise aggrandizing power to the entity leading the effort? If so, one could imagine it giving corruption campaigns a bad name.

    • I was curious about this as well and came across this post which presents an interesting argument for anticorruption being a fairly common facade for extending authoritarianism.

      A part of me can’t help but wonder if that pattern is somehow just a different manifestation of the trend of populist leaders using anti-corruption rhetoric to get elected before engaging in corrupt practices themselves.

      • Great find, Zach!

        Fuller’s point about the rapidity with which authoritarian regimes can remove government officials they accuse of corruption really hammers home how important institutionalized good government practices like civil service protections are.

      • Thanks Sam and Zach for your comments. I think what I’m trying to argue here is in ways to challenge the mere power consolidation thesis. After all, President Xi is less concerned about elections in that system (so does not quite fit with your hunch Zach). Now, of course it does help with bolstering his and the party’s legitimacy, as I mention in observation #2. But I don’t think point #1 is just about centralizing power at the top but rather that there are real governance challenges of implementing policies even in a system that does not have the federalist setup such as the U.S. And anticorruption may serve the function (separately from power consolidation) of signaling and enforcing policies of importance to the central government, as observation #3 notes, such as in financial reform. So in response to Sam, I’m not sure if this is about giving anticorruption a bad name or not, but rather than it has many different policy and governance functions, beyond the typical power consolidation narrative (even in such political contexts).

        • Sure I understand your point, but arguably any country can use your points to justify their anticorruption campaign. These are not mutually exclusive objectives and I am curious to what extent Xi is genuine in pursuing these objectives versus attempting to consolidate power and rooting out his political enemies and these objectives are merely a side effect of that campaign.

          • I agree that they are not mutually exclusive goals, which is why this approach is effective because it covers so many bases: political aspects, popular opinion, etc. Motives are always mixed. However, I don’t think the policy/governance effects are a mere side effect, they are an important part of the story that is missing in the commentary. What some fail to see, I think, is that implementation of certain policies from the center is actually quite difficult and anticorruption is a useful tool to ensure lower down level officials follow the line (whether you agree with those policies are not are a separate question). One way to test this hypothesis is to see how long the anticorruption lasts. Based on my hypothesis, this campaign will last for a long time — and not stop when there are no more political opponents to take out (which your potential thesis would suggest). The reason is because it will likely continue to remain an important policy tool for the leadership far beyond the political consolidation process (at some point there will be a dearth of meaningful opposition to root out, as we are even seeing).

  2. Great post explaining in further detail double edged nature of anti-corruption drive – one to defend the regime and other to offend the opponents or even discipline one’s own supporters. In future, can someone blog China’s top down Vs. India’s bottom-up approach to anti-corruption?

    • Thanks, it’s an interesting idea you mention in comparing the approaches of China and India. Certainly can consider for a future post.

  3. I wonder to what extent China selectively enforces anticorruption laws. Your second point discusses how the CCP views corruption as a sign of disloyalty and a threat to political legitimacy, but I wonder if the opposite is ever true. For instance, given the heavy (and potentially life-threatening) penalties corruption charges carry, I would think a corrupt politician would have every incentive to fall in line with the party to avoid such charges from being brought. And corruption found within the highest levels of the CCP or too many corruption cases brought too closely together may actually weaken the public’s trust in government. Selectively enforced anticorruption laws could actually serve primarily as a tool for maintaining party loyalty and strengthening political legitimacy, while uprooting corruption remains only an ancillary benefit designed to control and appease.

    • I completely agree with Jenny’s point here – it seems like anti-corruption laws can function effectively as a carrot or a stick for the CCP. It seems important for officials to walk the line between being able to manage the number of corruption prosecutions so that there are enough to build public goodwill without veering too far into overprosecution. The mere threat of prosecution could act as a sufficient deterrent to bring politicians in line with the party, while allowing covert corruption to continue unpursued.

    • This is a great point — but I wonder how much the state-controlled press would limit the effects of this. I’m sure the press is happy to parade examples of anti-corruption efforts by the government, but will the press comment on examples of corruption that haven’t been prosecuted? I think because Xi is increasing his grip over the media and the free internet, it is unlikely that negative stories will appear and thus give the public reason to think that there’s selective enforcement here.

    • Similarly, I was also curious about this point. Particularly the first objective where you state that Zhao was targeted because his government repeatedly ignored instructions from Beijing. This leads me to question whether anticorruption efforts are only enforced when the wrongdoer opposes the central government. For example, if Beijing knew that Zhoa was taking bribes, why did they not investigate and prosecute him before hand? It is quite possible that they didn’t know and were tipped off by the bribes after they requested for him to tear down illegal villas but it does raise an important question of whether we want anticorruption efforts to be used for authoritative purposes.

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