In early June 2016, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the Chinese Communist Party’s corruption watchdog, attacked the government’s own propaganda department, stating that it “lacks depth in its research into developing contemporary China’s Marxism” and that “there are also weak spots in implementing the principle of ‘the party controls the media.’”
The CCDI’s message with regards to where the country is heading was quite clear: strengthening socialist views in modern China as well as securing regime power through tighter Party control. What is mind-boggling about this attack is that it came from the CCDI, a commission put together, supposedly, to clamp down corruption.
That the anti-corruption body would emphasize developing Marxism and a Party-controlled media indicates that perhaps China’s anti-corruption drive is not quite what the public thinks it is.
In November 2012, the 18th National Congress pledged to carry out an “anti-corruption campaign,” to commit to the rule of law and to improve governance throughout all government organs. Since then, nearly 300,000 officials including close to 100 top-level officials have been punished for corruption, according to the CCDI, 82,000 of these officials received “heavy punishment” including jail time and even the death penalty.
Many China observers suggested that the campaign was a tactic by Xi Jinping to consolidate his power and eliminate threats to the regime’s survival. China expert Andrew Nathan pointed out that once he acceded to China’s top office, Xi “reinstated many of the most dangerous features of Mao’s rule: personal dictatorship, enforced ideological conformity, and arbitrary persecution.”
Nathan also argues that Xi has carefully crafted his approach to promoting a cult of personality in order to shrink the gap between the top leader and the citizens, consolidating power and authority previously held by the Party bureaucracy.
Understanding what constitutes a “true” anti-corruption drive is vital to further deciphering Xi’s motivation, in addition to CCDI’s underlying goal mentioned above. A legitimate, comprehensive effort to reduce corruption would be unambiguously positive for China, promoting not only its economic growth but also the development of civil society. It would involve policy reforms to reduce the discretionary power of government officials, allowing greater checks and balances be implemented. It would involve procurement reforms that increase competition and transparency, helping to prevent favoritism and bribery and ensuring the government can deliver vital services and infrastructure. It would also involve the liberation and enhancement of anti-corruption civil society groups, fostering greater public participationin public governance.
Events on the ground in China, however, paint a drastically picture. From purging high profile officials who are seen as rivals to cracking down on civil society advocates, Xi has manipulated the legal and prosecutorial institutions to remake the party and government bureaucracy while suppressing civil society groups for political purposes. This is “rule by law”, not “rule of law.”
Chinese citizens are increasingly being repressed and jailed for demanding government accountability, transparency, and the rule of law – even when they work within the system. Lawyers cannot protect business owners and their rightful properties because they themselves are jailed. The same approach is being used to crack down on groups working to develop the rule of law. For instance, Xia Lin, the lawyer who defended Transition Institute’s former leader Guo Yushan, was himself detained, forcing Guo’s wife, a lawyer herself,
to represent her own husband at trial. Xia was also denied access to his own defense lawyer.
Furthermore, there have been no clear indications that the illicit fortunes of the disciplined officials are being effectively recovered and used in ways that improve Chinese citizens’ everyday lives. China still lacks proper mechanisms to ensure that business and government officials won’t seek other channels to continue their corrupt dealings, and the list goes on. It is evident that Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has no interest in promoting transparency, arguably the most crucial element in any effective anti-corruption effort.
If Xi only targeted corrupt officials and allowed civil society advocates to play a role in government accountability, the public and private sectors may have gained a more holistic confidence in their leader and their future, thereby keeping their businesses and work inside China. Instead, Xi’s fear-based approach has induced negative effects from top to bottom, creating even more uncertainty for China’s future.
Michelle Chen is a Program Officer in the Asia Region with the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE).