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.