In November 2012, Xi Jinping became the leader of the Chinese Communist Party and soon began a drive against corruption by officials that continues two years later. The campaign has left a deep imprint on political life and the economy.

In comments published on Monday, Wang Qishan, the official in charge of the party’s anticorruption agency, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, said the government “could not afford to lose in the struggle against corruption.” Last week, the party announced that a retired military commander, former Gen. Xu Caihou, had confessed to taking enormous bribes for granting promotions and other favors, and was headed for trial. In an interview, Andrew Wedeman, a professor of political science at Georgia State University whose research is on corruption in China, explained the background and implications of the country’s anticorruption drive:

Q.

This anticorruption drive has been going on almost as long as Xi Jinping has been the Communist Party leader. Does it feel different this time?

A.

It does. The scale, scope and duration set it off. This campaign has been going on for nearly two years, and in a sense it actually predates Xi Jinping. You can trace it back to the Bo Xilai case of March 2012 [in which Mr. Bo, a former party secretary of Chongqing, was sentenced to life in prison for corruption]. To understand its significance, you have to take this thing apart. One part, the major part, is a continuation of the longstanding anticorruption drive and focuses on low- and mid-level officials. Last year, the total number of rank-and-filers indicted by the procuratorate was up about 9 percent. I would expect it will be up again this year. Those increases reverse a downward trend that dates from the late ’90s to about late 2011. So the current drive marks an intensification of that ongoing campaign. And this part will continue as long as there are not fundamental reforms and corruption remains a problem.

What really sets this campaign off, though, is the high-level drive. If you look at the attack on Zhou Yongkang [the former domestic security chief and member of the Politburo Standing Committee who is under investigation over corruption], and start fitting together who was he connected to, who they were connected to — you end up with this sprawling web of people who have been pulled down or are rumored to be facing investigation. If you go back to Bo Xilai, he was kind of a small-scale case that got him and a couple of his henchmen and some of his subordinates. The same with Chen Liangyu [the former mayor and party chief of Shanghai who was imprisoned on corruption charges], although I think in his case it was about 60 people. But it was very localized. It concentrated really on that person.

The Zhou Yongkang network is much larger, spans multiple sectors and reaches across China. That suggests to me that corruption has gotten worse at the top, in the sense that people are conspiring with each other, or at least tacitly tolerating the corruption of their peers. The fact that Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan have relentlessly gone after Zhou and his network, that sets it apart for me.

Q.

So the nature of the corruption appears to have mutated?

 

A.

In some of my earlier writing, I argued that corruption hit a high-level equilibrium back in the 1990s, and its scale and nature hadn’t changed. But looking at this campaign has changed my view. I now think it’s gotten significantly worse, particularly at the top.

Q.

There’s the constant question of whether these high-level investigations are driven in part by political power plays, or whether there’s some sort of broader agenda to really clean up.

A.

I think it’s both. I think Xi Jinping, coming in in the wake of the Bo Xilai scandal, was under pressure to do something. Taking out Zhou Yongkang has tremendous political benefits for Xi. It has allowed him to consolidate his grip on power. At the same time, that’s only one piece of the puzzle. I think Xi understands that the party really is in a kind of corner. It has to demonstrate its ability and its will to go after high-level corruption. The relentless pursuit of people who are connected with Zhou Yongkang — I think that’s his way of demonstrating that “I’m willing to go after the big tigers regardless of where they’re lurking.”

But whether the tiger hunting will continue is unclear. Obviously, we know who he is going after. Obviously, too, there are probably people he’s not going after. And there are probably people he knows it’s best not to go after. If you believe the rumor mill, half the Politburo is being targeted. But it would be suicide for Xi to go after a very broad swath of the leadership. He’s got Zhou Yongkang, he’s got Gen. Xu Caihou, he’s got a couple of very big pelts, and the question is whether he’s going to stop there.

My sense is that we’re beginning a shift from the investigative phase of this campaign to the indictment and prosecution phase. The latter part is when you can begin to ramp it down. You stop going after new targets and basically concentrate on settling the cases of those you’ve indicted. But I’ve repeatedly thought he was going to tie it up, only to have something like the Shanxi scandals [in which a string of senior officials in the coal-rich Shanxi Province was implicated in graft] come out and for the drive to keep going. Part of that may be that when you start pulling the thread of a Zhou Yongkang, a lot begins to unravel, and you begin to get more and more cases. It may be, therefore, a little hard to neatly turn this thing down. My guess is that we are going to see a drop-off in the high-level cases, but a continuation of the attack on mid- and low-level officials.

Q.

It seems that if you’re taking down even a few of those topmost tigers, it creates an atmosphere of uncertainty among current and retired leaders about who might be next. That in itself might help Xi Jinping further his political ends.

A.

Capturing a big tiger can scare other tigers, but it can also blow back at you. If the hidden tigers begin to feel too vulnerable, they might try to close ranks and really clip Xi’s wings. The question is: At this point, has he managed to consolidate so much power that they’re not much of a threat to him? I think it would be politically wise for him to think about not going after the retired leadership. If you start going down that road, how far do you go before you lead people to the conclusion that the entire regime is rotten?

Q.

You’ve talked about how this anticorruption campaign is different in its scale and intensity. What about the manner in which it is being carried out? Are the tools different? Is there a different role for the public and the media?

A.

I think there are some differences. The basic tools are the same: the preliminary use of party investigations, followed by transfer to the procuratorate and finally the court. I have a sense, however, that investigations are being sped up and that the party is moving cases to the judiciary more quickly.

I think the role of the media is also different. An immense amount of information is flowing out of China. We’re getting incredible coverage, and much of the raw information has to be coming from the inside, which suggests that people on the inside want this stuff out. It’s not just the bare-bones details that so-and-so is “under investigation for disciplinary violations.” Instead we’re getting lots of details about what these people have been doing, how they’re interconnected, and so forth. That is new.

Moreover, news comes out quickly and in surprisingly coherent form. I think we have a much richer narrative about this campaign than we had during any of the earlier campaigns. The paradox here is that the regime has been clamping down on expression. They’ve been clamping down on the Internet and dissidents, and yet at the same time, in the anticorruption campaign, they’re broadcasting almost at full volume what’s going on and clearly want people to know what they’re doing.

The role of the public, however, is much the same. Early on, we had all of these Internet exposures of “Brother House,” “Sister House,” posting of sex videos, etc., and some argued that the Internet and social media had empowered the public and it was going to become an active force to be reckoned with. That’s now gone. As a result, the public has stuck to its old role as mere spectators of the officially conducted fight.

Q.

What about the potential for abuses in this system?

A.

The party investigatory system has the potential for immense abuse. They can hold you indefinitely. There’s no presumption of innocence. So it is up to the accused to convince investigators they are innocent. If you can’t convince them, they can just keep you. In fact, I’ve been told that people sometimes confess to the party in hopes of getting their case kicked to the judiciary, where there is a presumption of innocence. But when they get to court and try to disavow their confession to the party, the court refuses to allow that and “what you say can and will be used against you.”

That said, it’s important to recognize that half the cases that get accepted by the procuratorate don’t end up in court. My guess is that what happens is that the procuratorate decides on an administrative punishment, or perhaps some kind of probation.

Q.

What about the argument that unless there is significant institutional change in China, corruption will come back?

A.

I think there’s a lot you can do in terms of tightening up on the regulatory side and, combined with the chilling effect of swift and harsh punishment, I would speculate that officials will be a lot more wary in the near future. I’ve been told by a number of sources that people are petrified at this point. People aren’t really willing to make decisions, they don’t want to sign contracts, because they’re afraid they’ll get into trouble. But fear tends to have only a short-term effect, and corrupt officials who manage to dodge the campaign eventually fall back into their old ways when they think the heat is off. So the question becomes: How long can Xi keep the heat going and how long does the fear last?

Xi has tightened the rules and implemented new regulations designed to eliminate some of the most flagrant forms of official extravagance. But he has mostly been tinkering at the margins. To really reduce corruption, you’ve got to have structural change. In particular, Xi needs to move the state sector closer to a real market-based structure.

When you look at the Zhou Yongkang and other high-level cases, what they revolve around, basically, is the big state conglomerates. Companies like China National Petroleum have near-monopolistic power, and they deal in huge blocs of value in ways that create opportunities for the politically connected to scrape off rich profits by corrupt means. Until you change something of the structure, new Zhou Bins [the son of Zhou Yongkang who was detained over alleged illegal dealings in the Sichuan oil industry] are inevitable.

We keep hearing that economic reforms are in the offing. But at this juncture, it is not clear that Xi is prepared to dramatically rewrite the rules. Nor do I see him as being prepared to significantly alter the existing political structures.

By CHRIS BUCKLEY November 6, 2014 The New York Times