A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this episode, I interview Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times correspondent David Barboza, best known (at least in anticorruption circles) for his investigative reporting on the vast wealth accumulated by the Chinese elite, especially his 2012 expose on the wealth held secretly by members of the family of then-Premier Wen Jiabao (see here and here). Our interview begins with a discussion of how Mr. Barboza and his colleagues were able to uncover the information they needed to substantiate this blockbuster story, and the various ways that the Chinese government attempted to block its publication. We then turn to a discussion of the broader implications of this and similar investigations, as Mr. Barboza explains why the wealth held by the families of the political elite is such a sensitive topic in China, how norms relating to the business activities of these families has changed since the end of the 1980s, and the role that Western companies played in facilitating the corrupt accumulation of hidden wealth by these elite Chinese families. At the conclusion of the interview, Mr. Barboza discusses the current anticorruption drive headed by President Xi Jinping, and whether this crackdown represents a serious effort to get at the sorts of problems that Mr. Barboza’s reporting helped to reveal, or whether the current crackdown is more of a politically motivated effort to weaken rival factions without fundamentally changing the system.
You can find this episode, along with links to previous podcast episodes, at the following locations:
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Something remarkable is happening in China. It’s not just that tens of thousands of officials have been caught in President Xi Jinping’s corruption dragnet, or that the crackdown continues unabated even though contributors to this blog and former Chinese Presidents alike have long wondered, “surely this can’t go on much longer?” Instead, I’m talking about how President Xi is using his anticorruption program to slowly and methodically take down Zhou Yongkang, the “most powerful man in China.”
The targeting of Mr. Zhou is at once both extraordinary and routine. On the one hand, his downfall is more about politics than corruption, retribution for backing the wrong man in the transition that catapulted Mr. Xi to power in 2012. On the other, the purging of rivals is seemingly a rite of passage for Chinese leaders; Mao did it aplenty in the 1950s and Presidents Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin “each engineered a high-profile sacking of a political rival (Shanghai boss Chen Liang and Beijing boss Chen Xitong, respectively).” But even then, there’s something different about Zhou’s fall from power — he’s not a provincial party chief, he’s a former member of the almighty Politburo Standing Committee, the former head of China’s feared domestic security services, and the biggest “tiger” yet targeted by President Xi.
And it’s that realization — that Zhou’s fall is momentous — that raises the most interesting question in this dramatic collision of corruption and politics: How did a President, who came to power without a solid independent base within the factionalized Communist Party, manage in just three years to take down the “most powerful man in China”? The answer lies in an intuitive but methodically executed four-step plan developed by President Xi and his Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. In the hope of shedding some light on how other nations might similarly take down the simultaneously corrupt and dangerously powerful without undermining political stability, let’s examine how President Xi has slowly choked off Mr. Zhou’s power.