Taking down a big tiger won’t end China’s ingrained corruption

The tiger, felled: Zhou Yongkang. EPA/Anindito Mukherjee

Chinese premier Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption purge has really started to hit its stride – and by announcing an investigation into Zhou Yongkang, one of the most influential figures in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), it has claimed its most prized scalp yet.

In a terse 69-Chinese-character statement, state-controlled Xinhua News Agency announced that Zhou, a former Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) member of the CCP who was in charge of domestic security from 2007 to 2012, was under investigation for “serious disciplinary violation”.

Zhou is the highest-ranking CCP member to be ensnared by the anti-corruption campaign launched by the current president, Xi Jinping. Identifying corruption as a major threat to the party’s very survival, Xi has vowed that there will be “no exceptions” – no leniency will be offered, no matter who is involved, and both high-ranking “tigers” and low-ranking “flies” will be targeted.

All the way to the top

While the campaign has been rumbling along since November 2012, 2014 has seen it take down its most powerful quarries yet. In June alone, Su Rong, vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, and Xu Caihou, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, were both expelled from the CCP for bribery.

Before Zhou’s arrest, five of his secretaries were put under investigation one by one from June 2013 to July 2014; their services to him could be traced through almost his whole career to as far back as 1988, when he was only the vice-chief executive of China National Petroleum Corporation. This task has been described as “pulling the tiger’s teeth before stabbing its heart”.

Zhou’s last public appearance was in October 2013. Over the last nine months, rumours and counter-rumours had been flying over when he would be exposed, or whether he would be exposed at all.

Until very recently, the Chinese public was sceptical that he would ever be formally investigated. His links with other senior party members run deep, and because his exposure could be expected to bring down other CCP luminaries, he was thought to be effectively insulated from a serious inquiry.

He was reportedly especially close to the former president Jiang Zemin (in office from 1989 to 2002), and was at the core of the nine-member cabinet of Hu Jintao from 2002 to 2012. Both men’s influences are still keenly felt in China today.

The great gap

During my two-week stay in Shanghai in July 2014, media coverage of the anti-corruption campaign was inescapable; my discussions with everyone I met inevitably led back to it.

Corruption is one of the most serious issues in contemporary China, and everyone seems to agree with the necessity of Xi’s campaign. This is not least because of rampant wealth inequality; Beijing University revealed in a recent study that the top 1% of Chinese households own one-third of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 25% own just one hundredth.

But what most Chinese people feel uneasy about is the way the top 1% have gone about accumulating it, whether they be property tycoons exploiting national policies or government officials steeped in cronyism.

China’s 1%: delegates leaving the Great Hall of the People. EPA/Diego Azubel

Such is the extent of public anger at the wealth gap that the authorities are worried it will lead to social instability. Even public transport has suffered; according to Shanghai Daily, security has been upgraded on China’s buses because of a number of fires and explosions aboard buses in recent years.

However, despite the high rank of the officers put under investigation, the effectiveness of the campaign is still open to debate – with China’s tiresome bureaucratic system, how can the campaign penetrate through every layer of the hierarchy?

There is no more potent symbol of this than the decadent banquet, state-funded or private-sponsored, held in honour of party officials, one of the many forms of corruption that Xi has banned.

But in a third-tier city in Jiangsu Province, a woman in her early 40s told me that her husband, who operates a private law firm, is still organising daily banquets to fortify his relationships with party officers. He is unable ever to join his family for the evening meal.

A private construction manager with 50 employees in Shanghai confirmed to me that the banquets are still there, only moving to seedy locations such as the borders of two administrative areas. As he talked to me, he rubbed his thumb and index finger together, saying “these people still like this”. He usually repays 15% of the construction contract back to the officers who commission his work.

Xi’s dilemma

By targeting Zhou, Xi has been widely hailed by Chinese media for breaking an unwritten party rule that protects Politburo Standing Committee members, the party’s most inner circle of leaders. But this unwritten rule, if it ever existed, has been broken before. In Mao’s era, Liu Shaoqi, who sat the second position, was purged in 1966; under Deng, CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang were sacked in 1987 and 1989 respectively.

Xi Jinping, the all-powerful tiger. EPA/Antonio Araujo

And even as Zhou’s arrest is undeniably a spectacular development, Xi’s campaign is still going to struggle to really take on China’s corruption problem.

That Zhou is merely a retired PSC member – an effectively toothless tiger – could undermine Xi’s campaign. His behaviour was not corrected during his time in formal high office, and the damage has already been done.

As one of China’s “red princelings” himself, Xi also faces the public outcry towards this privileged group and their enormous wealth.

Meanwhile, some of the new anti-corruption measures could be a bridge too far. For example, Miyun, a suburban Beijing county, has set up a team to supervise ordinary officials’ behaviour after work. Their whereabouts outside the office will be reported back, as will their performance at work. This could infringe upon an individual’s privacy, as officials are private individuals in their own time.

Measures such as these will remind Chinese people of the early years of the Cultural Revolution, where neighbours were spying each other – throwing society into chaos.

Hard graft

Going on the basis of the Bo Xilai case, it usually takes about a year and a half to investigate and sentence officers as high ranking as Party Committee members. For a PSC member, albeit a retired one, it may be longer. Therefore, we might not hear about the case of Zhou Yongkang again until late 2015 or early 2016.

Between now and then, Xi faces a big dilemma over whether to charge Zhou with only allegations of monetary corruption or to include political ones as well – such as rumoured attempts at a coup. Political charges risk severely damaging the party’s image; they would be a public admission of internal struggles and divisions.

As a highly acclaimed academic in Shanghai (who asked to remain anonymous) pointed out to me, it’s hard to see the end goal of Xi’s campaign. It’s unclear whether it is merely intended to clean out the political class or has the interests of China’s ordinary citizens in mind too.

But at the same time, the boost the campaign has given to Xi’s reputation cannot be underestimated. Ultimately, Zhou and his corrupt ilk are false tigers, captured by an all-powerful one; for all that his precise ends remain uncertain, after a year and half in office, Xi Jinping has showed the world and the Chinese political scene who the real tiger is.

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