“Drain the swamp” was a slogan American President-elect Donald J. Trump adopted to rally his supporters during his presidential campaign. If he is seriously intent upon ending political corruption in Washington, the New York real estate magnate might want to learn valuable lessons from Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has been doing his “swamp-draining” for the last four years.
Judging by several measures, Xi appears to have made considerable progress in draining China’s gigantic swamp of official corruption. The number of officials arrested and jailed for corruption since December 2012, when Xi’s anti-corruption drive began, has now reached tens of thousands, including nearly 200 individuals holding ranks of vice ministers (or deputy-provincial governors) and major generals and above. Xi has also imposed strict rules on entertainment, official meetings, business travel and acceptance of gifts. Although reliable data are unavailable, media reports and anecdotal evidence suggest that corruption among Communist Party and government officials has subsided, at least for now.
Xi has achieved such progress mostly thanks to two factors. One is the appointment of a competent loyalist, Wang Qishan, to head the Party’s powerful anti-corruption agency, the Central Discipline Inspection Commission (CDIC). Wang has enormous authority in collecting evidence against senior officials suspected of corruption even though a formal investigation must be authorized by the Politburo Standing Committee. Because whistleblowers can send incriminating materials to the CDIC, Wang can build a strong case against senior officials even before he presents the case to the Politburo Standing Committee. If the evidence of wrongdoing is sufficiently strong, obtaining approval from the committee is relatively easy.
Wang has also instituted several reforms to prevent local officials from protecting each other. One such reform is to “parachute” heads of provincial anti-corruption agencies from other provinces. As a result, in the majority of the provincial discipline and inspection committees, the directors are from another province and have no ties with local leaders. Another potent weapon Wang has deployed is to dispatch central inspection teams to visit provinces and large state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Typically these teams are headed by a retired minister or vice minister picked by Wang’s commission. They have the power to interview local officials individually in private, thus making it easier to obtain incriminating leads on corruption by local leaders.
The second factor that enabled Xi to sustain his anti-corruption drive is his political strategy. Prior to Xi’s rise to the top in late 2012, the Chinese system had two defining – and interconnected – features: collective leadership and sharing of political spoils among elites. Under this system, political authority is evenly distributed among competing factions. Practically, this means that these factions could build their respective patronage networks through which their loyalists were given lucrative positions in the Chinese party-state. Additionally, rival factions might differ on policy or personnel appointment, but they nevertheless respected each other’s turf. Politically, collective leadership plus sharing spoils contributed to peace among the ruling elites.
However, the inevitable cost of this system was rising corruption. Prior to the rise of Xi, such corruption at the highest level of the government was more or less tolerated mainly because it was seen as the glue that held together the patronage networks of the top leaders. Even at the lower levels of the party-state, corruption was a vital incentive to motivate officials to promote economic growth, the key to the CCP’s legitimacy. The flipside of this situation was that the post-Tiananmen system could be very vulnerable to a strongman who wanted to destroy his rivals and concentrate power in his own hands through an anti-corruption campaign. Since the majority of the officials were probably tainted in this system, they would be easy targets. A strongman who vowed to cleanse the government would almost certainly gain strong popular support as well.
In retrospect, Xi’s anti-corruption drive dovetailed with his political agenda of replacing the post-Tiananmen political order with a new form of autocracy featuring strongman rule and centralized authority. It is thus no surprise that Xi would first annihilate his most lethal rivals, such as Zhou Yongkang (former internal security chief), Ling Jihua (former director of the powerful General Office of the Central Committee), Guo Boqiong and Xu Caihou (the two top generals who controlled the Chinese military). The destruction of these powerful rivals, once thought untouchable because of their power and patrons, taught a lesson to those at the top of the CCP who might have wanted to challenge Xi’s authority: resistance is futile.
While Xi has enormous success in deploying the anti-corruption tool in consolidating power at the top, his campaign has also incurred huge political and economic costs to the CCP regime. Politically, the fragile unity among elites underwritten by systemic corruption has evaporated. The vast bureaucracy of the party-state has been thoroughly alienated by Xi’s disciplinarian approach, which is viewed as unreasonable and excessively harsh. Xi’s success of consolidating power so far is restricted to the top level of the CCP leadership. In all probability, his effective control extends to no more than the 300-plus members of the Central Committee. Due to the decentralized nature of the Chinese party-state, the vast majority of the CCP’s officials in provinces and cities is safely beyond the reach of the CDIC directly controlled by Xi’s right-hand man, Wang Qishan. One telling evidence of the inability of the CDIC to police local elites is the constant revelation of misconduct of local officials even during Xi’s ferocious anti-corruption campaign.
Winning a power struggle at the top may be a lot easier than subduing millions of lower-level officials in the Chinese system. Even Mao Zedong, who had considerably greater personal authority than Xi, could not defeat the “system” and eventually had to resort to a cataclysmic mass movement – the Cultural Revolution – in an ultimately failed effort to make the CCP more ideologically pure and revolutionary.
Signs that the “system” is pushing back against Xi abound. Local officials these days are engaged in widespread work stoppage and other forms of passive resistance to show their unhappiness with Xi’s policies. From their perspective, the worse the economy performs, the greater pressure there would be on Xi to end the anti-corruption drive.
It is too early to predict who will ultimately win in this battle of wills inside the Chinese party-state. At the moment, Xi, whose anti-corruption campaign continues to enjoy considerable public support, appears not too concerned about the resistance from the “system.” To be sure, he must know he is unpopular with the bureaucracy, but he also knows the bureaucracy itself poses little direct political threat. Only those at the top of the CCP regime have the power to remove him (technically, the Central Committee can dismiss him with a vote). But in the last four years he has fully established his authority over these elites – or at least deterred them from even thinking about challenging his power. His immediate priority is to win a crowning victory at the 19th Party Congress, now scheduled for late 2017. If he could pack the Politburo Standing Committee, the Politburo, and the Central Committee with his loyalists and delay the appointment of a successor, he will be totally invulnerable at the top. Once this is accomplished, Xi can turn his attention to dealing with the “system.”
It is impossible to know what instruments Xi will deploy to drain the deeper reaches of China’s swamp of corruption after the conclusion of the 19th Party Congress. One possibility is that once he realizes that it will be a largely thankless and hopeless task to tame China’s vast bureaucracy, he will declare victory and call off the anti-corruption drive. The “system” will then pledge its collective loyalty to Xi’s new political order. But pervasive corruption will return. The other possibility is that Xi is both determined and confident that he can drain the swamp no matter the costs because he genuinely believes that systemic corruption inside the CCP will make its demise all but inevitable. With his insuperable political advantage, he may greatly expand the size of the party’s anti-corruption agency to coerce the “system” into compliance with his will while relying on his bedrock of public support to purge the “system” of its corrupt incumbents. Whatever Xi decides, we should assume that Chinese politics in 2018 and beyond will unlikely resemble what it is today.
Minxin Pei is a professor of government and fellow and director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies at Claremont McKenna College. Previously, he was a senior associate and the director of the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was on the faculty at Princeton University from 1992 to 1998. He is the author of From Reform to Revolution: The Demise of Communism in China and the Soviet Union (1994) and China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy (2006). His new book is China’s Crony Capitalism (2016).