China’s supreme leader, Xi Jinping, is vigorously carrying out a campaign against corruption. The targets have been high-ranking party and military officials, past and present; province and other local officials; and a few tycoons. On the surface, Xi’s campaign would seem to be a commendable effort to cleanse the system of one of its worst vices. But there is more to the story than appears—not only regarding corruption but crime and punishment in general.
I have long argued that China’s foreign-policy behavior is mainly conditioned and constrained by priority concerns at home, above all the maintenance of rapid, state-led economic development. Although Beijing has displayed considerable assertiveness on some external issues—notably, maritime territorial disputes with Japan and Southeast Asian countries—the PRC leadership’s focus is what it has always been, on maintaining domestic social and political stability so that development can proceed unhindered by popular forces. This priority, which has strong historical roots, prompts any Chinese leader to ensure by whatever means necessary that order and economic development go hand in hand, that the communist party’s authority and legitimacy never be questioned, and that the military remains firmly under party control. If the leadership upholds those priorities, it believes, China will achieve great-power status and will ensure the country’s security from external threat.
This understanding of Chinese priorities is as relevant today under Xi Jinping as it was in earlier times, notwithstanding differences in the economic and social policies of Chinese administrations. When it comes to internal security, Xi is more Maoist and Leninist than Marxist—committed, that is, to the maintenance of the one-party state and ideological purity far more than to social equity and reduction of class distinctions. Yes, Xi is an economic reformer, furthering the ambitions of Deng Xiaoping to make China a major international player. But Xi insists, just as Deng and Mao did, that “democratic dictatorship” must prevail amidst economic changes—first, because those changes may cause social disruption; and second, because the Chinese Communist Party officials may succumb to the lure of the market and enrich themselves, thus undermining the party’s claim to exclusive right to rule.
Those concerns have some validity. The rapid pace of China’s market socialism has aroused criticism of official policy from many different sources—intellectuals, think-tank experts, NGOs, even former senior party and government officials, not to mention ordinary people who experience the widening gap between rich and poor. Many people hurt by new economic priorities have become upset to the point of hostility toward authorities: workers laid off from state-owned industrial enterprises, farmers whose lands have been seized without fair compensation, citizens whose law suits and petitions have been ignored or even led to their being jailed, and people forced from their homes by government and private construction projects (such as dams, urban renewal, and golf courses).
To divert attention from these problems and demonstrate attentiveness to popular resentment, Xi launched the anti-corruption campaign soon after taking office in 2012. Together with the income gap, official corruption is a major source of people’s disenchantment with the one-party state. Among the so-called “tigers” who have been punished are Zhou Yongkang, head of internal security; General Xu Caihou, former vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission; Liu Zhijun, onetime minister of railways; and Bo Xilai, the party leader in Chongqing who was on his way to joining the apex of communist party power, the politburo’s standing committee. Thousands of local-level officials and senior military officers just below the top level have also been punished for corruption, which usually takes the form of bribery, graft, or sale of patronage.
On the other hand, Xi’s own family has amassed a fortune in the reform era, as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists reported last year (http://sinosphere.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/22/report-details-overseas-accounts-of-chinese-elite/?hp). Cronies of the first family have likewise profited without fear. Numerous Chinese billionaires have been coopted (and protected) by being brought into the communist party’s legislative organs (www.nytimes.com/2015/03/03/world/asia/in-chinas-legislature-the-rich-are-more-than-represented.html). Thus, whereas being a tiger can be risky, and watching them being caged may be popular with the Chinese masses, being a “princeling” as part of a prominent family or being part of the president’s inner circle can be richly rewarding. It affords exceptional opportunities for lucrative investments, senior corporate and banking appointments, access to offshore tax havens, and education abroad. Politically attuned Chinese easily identify this privileged elite. They see that those officials who are toppled typically do not include Xi’s closest associates, and thus how often cronyism triumphs over justice.
One prominent Chinese writer has rightly called Xi’s approach “selective punishment” (www.nytimes.com/2015/01/17/opinion/murong-xuecun-xis-selective-punishment.html). With a few exceptions, the crackdown targets political rivals and people outside the official “family.” It is “more of a Stalinist purge than a genuine attempt to clean up the government,” often relying on extra-judicial means.
Xi regards corruption as one of the most important threats to China’s security. Western-style democracy is another. Here he has followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, Hu Jintao, who warned that “international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China.” To combat this supposed threat, but at the same time to exploit it, Xi Jinping has engaged in what Elizabeth C. Economy terms a “power grab.” Political reform to him means “consolidating personal power by creating new institutions, silencing political opposition, and legitimizing his leadership and the Communist Party’s power in the eyes of the Chinese people” (“China’s Imperial President: Xi Jinping Tightens His Grip,” Foreign Affairs, November-December 2014).
From Economy’s article and other sources, here are the specific ways in which the Chinese leadership’s anti-Westernism has manifested:
- Strengthening regulation of the Internet, not only by censorship and shutdowns of web sites but also by arresting and humiliating popular bloggers;
- Cracking down on NGOs that hold the promise of becoming an organized opposition;
- Restricting academic research and teaching that reflects Western ideas, such as civil society, judicial independence, and press freedom;
- Prosecuting newspaper editors and writers, lawyers, artists, professors, women’s rights activists, and others who are too outspoken in behalf of individual or group rights, and/or challenge the party-state’s authority too vigorously;
- Responding forcibly to indications of ethnic or local independence, such as Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations, Tibet’s quest for autonomy, and separatist tendencies in ethnic minority areas.
The bottom line: reform and repression are not contradictory trends in China. Rather, they are mutually reinforcing. Selective punishment ensures that reforms do not lead to domestic chaos. Reforms, by meeting many people’s material needs, sustain people’s faith in communist party leadership and thus reduce the need for large-scale, violent repression such as happened in Mao’s time. These companion actions are supposed to be the key to restoring China’s greatness internationally—the “China dream,” in Xi Jinping’s slogan—while preventing the undermining of the communist party’s authority. But as many observers have suggested, it’s a delicate, perhaps unsustainable balancing act.