GEN. XU CAIHOU, one of the PLA’s most senior officers, is not the first “tiger” to be trapped by President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive. He joins Wang Yongchun, deputy head of state energy giant China National Petroleum Company (CNPC), and Jiang Jiemin, former head of the state asset regulator, in being newly expelled from the Communist Party for corruption and abuse of power — a fate also expected to befall former Politburo Standing Committee-member Zhou Yongkang, who once presided over the state’s security apparatus. Were Zhou to be put on trial for corruption he would be most senior leader to face such charges since the Communists took power in 1949, and a significant escalation from last year’s prosecution of former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai who was merely a Politburo member.
Nor is Xi’s anti-corruption drive the first to be undertaken by a new leader. His appears to have more legs to it it than those of his predecessors. There have by this Bystander’s best count been some 180,000 cases of actions against officials, military officers and state-sector corporate executives big (“tigers”) and small (“flies”).
Not only has Xi to consolidate his power and make his mark in the faction-riddled internecine warfare of China’s internal politics, but he also is determined to clean up the image of the Party and to push ahead with economic reform. He believes the first is necessary if the Party is to retain the fast-evaporating trust of ordinary Chinese, on which the Party’s claim to monopoly rule hinges, and the second is necessary to deliver the continuing rise in living standards that are also an essential part of the bargain that allows no political competition to the Party.
There are lots of powerful people in the three most important and tightly interlocked strands of Chinese political life, the Party and the government, the military and the state-owned enterprises whose wealth is far from clean and who have a vested interest in retaining the economic status quo that has provided the opportunities for them to gather that wealth. Xi is both taking out highly symbolic kingpins as well as their underlings who are fast losing the political patronage that has hitherto protected them.
Xi needs to do this if he is to be serious about regenerating trust in the Party and pushing through economic reform. He has to create large breaches in the old guard through which he can drive the forces of change. But he faces three risks. First, he has broken the taboo against going after the families and wealth of the inner circle of China’s leadership; that may provoke a backlash against him. Second, there is a question of how much damage the Party’s reputation can sustain; how many bad apples can be thrown out before the whole crop is considered rotten? Third, he fails to put in place in the Party, government, the military and the state corporate sector systemic mechanisms to regularly detect and prevent corruption in the first place, backed up by an independent judiciary and a free press.