In December 2012, the Communist Party of China’s political bureau, or politburo, the highest political body in the country, adopted a document that spelt out eight regulations for the functioning of its own members. Among these were that members should reject extravagance, reduce inefficient meetings, avoid unnecessary travel abroad and remain in close contact with the grassroots. Xi Jinping had taken over the previous month as the party’s general secretary, and the eight regulations were seen as his way of initiating a campaign against corruption in the party.
Beginning this 18 October, when the party, also called the CPC, meets at the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing, for the party congress meeting—which convenes every five years and will be held for the nineteenth time—much of the party’s leadership will be reconfigured. New leaders will be chosen in an “election” that usually involves party rank and file falling in line with the diktats of top-rung leaders. Several party bodies will be reconstituted: specifically, the politburo standing committee, which has seven members; the central committee, which has 205 “full” members and 171 “alternate” members; the politburo, which has 25 members; and the central military commission, which has 11 members. The new members will all be less than 68 years old, in keeping with strictures that the party adopted in 2002. Xi, who is 64, will retain the three central posts he currently holds: general secretary of the party, chairman of the central military commission, and president of the People’s Republic of China. This will ensure his continuance as “paramount leader,” as many of China’s most powerful politicians have been known. Prominent on the minds of those watching developments at the party congress will be the question of how successful Xi has been in his goal of rooting out corruption in the party and the economy at large.
Despite facing a slowdown, the Chinese economy, which is growing at 6.9 percent, is one of the fastest growing in the world. But it is an accepted fact in the country that corruption is widespread. In the corruption watchdog Transparency International’s 2016 rankings, China was placed seventy-ninth out of 176 countries—sharing that rank with India. Corruption in the country includes senior party leaders and their relatives partaking in rent-seeking—manipulating policies to increase profits for those they favour. Party membership is seen as the first step for the political entrepreneur who entertains aspirations to public office, either within the party or in the state administration. Leaders who have entrepreneurial interests outside their political careers regularly use the organisation to boost their incomes. It is also known that senior officials of the party build support networks by dispensing favours to followers through quasi-legal means, using holding companies and front companies to mask questionable deals. This has severely damaged the CPC’s self-projected image as a party of the people, especially among peasants, urban workers and the elderly—groups that have been overlooked since China entered a period of economic reform in 1978, two years after Mao Zedong’s death.
The CPC is many things to China: a group with a revolutionary heritage, a mass organisation representing all segments of society, and a structure of eminent individuals who span a wide social spectrum. The party’s dominance over Chinese society has been key to its becoming an effective patronage machine. This occurred even as the party’s apparent outlook evolved: from once focussing on class struggle, to emphasising economic modernisation and a policy of economic openness.
The CPC’s cadre too has evolved, from once primarily comprising workers and farmers who adhered to communist doctrine, to now including professionals from various fields and of varying persuasions. Among them are engineers, doctors, entrepreneurs, managers, civil servants and traders, as well as workers and farmers. The upper echelons, in particular, are dominated by highly educated professionals. The party’s character, too, has shifted towards greater organisational openness, as seen in the creation of new institutions, including chambers of commerce, professional bodies, and sports and hobby clubs. Through these, the state has sought to co-opt new elites into its field, and to thus absorb dissent and limit potential political alternatives from emerging. Along the way, the state has displayed an ability to galvanise people over social and cultural nationalism—for example, in the issue of Japanese politicians visiting the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, which many Chinese people view as a symbol of the historic Japanese oppression of their country. Such issues have helped the Chinese state forge a common identity for its people, and emphasise goals such as social cohesion and stability.
These changes over the past three decades have been accompanied by massive economic growth in China, and also an increase in corruption. Since the CPC is the only political actor in the system, this kind of rot could set in without any challenges by or explanations to society. The inflow of funds—especially international capital seeking to tap into a growing economy—without institutional checks and balances, only served to encourage corruption.
The proliferation of corruption has meant that the benefits of economic growth have flowed largely in the direction of those overseeing that growth: that is, the cadre and leadership of the CPC. Ordinary people have over the decades felt that they lacked a voice in the economic changes, and that they were being denied the fruits of these reforms. As I observed through several long stays in China during the 2000s, this was often condemned by many sections of society, on blogs as well as in public meetings—though such gatherings were prone to disruption by government authorities. These criticisms marred the carefully cultivated image of the CPC as a party dedicated to serving the common people. Liu Xiaobo, a recently deceased dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate from China, described the tension between a rapidly growing economy and rapidly growing corruption as one of the contradictions that afflicts China today. (The others were the contradictions between the market economy and the monopoly that the state wields over business and industry, between encouraging privatisation and ensuring social justice, and between a pluralistic society and a monolithic political regime.)
The challenges posed by corruption could hypothetically unravel gains accrued by decades of policies of economic openness. It was to address this, and to strive for a social contract of trust with the people, that the CPC, under Xi, has been pursuing an economic goal of attaining a xiaokang society—roughly, a moderately well-off society—by 2021, to mark the centenary of the party.
Xi’s offensive against corruption did have concrete effect. By August 2015, 13 members of the central committee of the CPC faced charges of corruption and violation of party discipline. Most prominently, the corruption cases against Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the politburo’s standing committee, who was sentenced to life imprisonment, were an indication that Xi was serious about targeting corruption at the highest levels and initiating similar crackdowns down the party’s ranks.
The biggest shortcoming the CPC faces in its efforts to root out corruption is that China does not have a uniform overarching law to combat graft. What exists are many different laws, administrative regulations and legal interpretations from a judiciary that is not known for its independence.
Xi, however, did improve the functioning of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, or the CCDI, the CPC’s most powerful anti-corruption organ, which has a presence across the party, from the central to local levels. Led by Wang Qishan, a politburo standing-committee member, the CCDI has established itself as an institution, along with local discipline inspection commissions at various administrative levels and party committees investigating violations of party discipline and personal aggrandisement.
A major challenge facing Xi is that of making the war he has unleashed against graft a rational legal process and not one driven by the will of one individual. The levels of corruption in the party require an intervention with clear legal norms and principles—but to ensure accountability, these must ideally emerge from the CPC system itself, and not the whims of its leader. Whether the CPC under Xi is up to the challenge will begin to become clear at the party congress in October.