Written by Andrew Hall Wedeman.

The Communist Party of China has been grappling with corruption almost from its birth. It has waged major anti-corruption campaigns repeatedly and routinely prosecutes substantial numbers of officials. Between 1997 and 2012 the Supreme People’s Procuratorate reported that it indicted 550,000 individuals on either corruption or dereliction of duty charges, including two members of the Politburo (Chen Liangyu in 2006 and Bo Xilai in 2012). These prior efforts notwithstanding, upon assuming the office of General Secretary of the party in November 2012, Xi Jinping announced yet another campaign. At first, the campaign appeared to be a repeat of the same old song and dance that we saw during the tenure of Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao. Many of the steely toned slogans about the necessity to vigorously wage a life and death struggle against corruption and the need to put an end to extravagant spending by officials and cadres had been raised many times before. Announcements of new regulations mandating fewer dishes at official banquets, banning the purchase of luxury sedans and their use for unofficial business, restrictions on official travel, and the construction of lavish government buildings all reiterated orders issued in past years. At first, therefore, it seemed we could expect yet another public relations effort aimed at convincing an increasingly cynical society that the party was serious about fighting corruption.

Sixteen months on, however, it appears that far from a smoke and mirrors attempt to create the impression of action, Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign may well be the most sustained and most intensive drive against corruption since the advent of the reform era in the late 1970s. Measuring the intensity of an anti-corruption campaign is, admittedly, a tricky business given that we cannot even roughly estimate the true extent of corruption. Instead, we can at best guess at the extent by asking experts for their impression of how bad things are or tracking changes in the number of officials who suddenly stop being corrupt because they get caught. Indices such as the popular Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) published each year by Transparency International would have us believe that rather than getting worse as most people assume, corruption in China has actually been on the decline for at least a decade, with its score falling from 7.6 (out of a maximum of 10, where 10 is the most corrupt and 1 the least corrupt) in 1995 to 6.0 in 2013, which would put China just below the 75 percentile and hence not among the worst of the worse.

Data on prosecutions tell a rather different story. The number of criminal indictments was up 9.4 percent in 2013, with the total number of corruption and derelictions cases filed by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate increasing from 34,326 in 2012 to 37,551 in 2013. The number of officials holding position at the county and departmental level indicted rose from 2,390 to 2,618, a 9.5 percent increase. The number of officials the prefectural and bureau level indicted shot up more dramatically, increasing from 179 in 2012 to 253 in 2013, a 41.4 percent jump. Although 9 percent increases in the total number of cases and in the number of county and department officials indicted may seem modest for a highly trumpeted campaign, these increases are nevertheless not insignificant. Up until 2012, the total number of indictments had been falling slowly for close to a decade, while the number of county and departmental official indicated had generally falling. Increases in 2013, moreover, follow on more modest increases in 2012, with the result that the total number of indictments in 2013 was 16.2 percent more than in 2011 and the number of country and department officials indicted was up 12.6 percent compared to 2011. More critically, the 41 percent increase in prefectural and bureau level officials indicted is the largest increase since 2004, and represents a 27.8 percent rise over 2011. Finally, eight officials at the provincial and ministry levels were indicted, compared to five in 2012. The party’s Discipline Inspection Commission (DIC) also reported a 13.3 percent increase in the number of party members who faced disciplinary action, though not all of them were necessarily punished for corruption related infractions.

Changes in the number of indictments handed down by the procuratorate and party members sanctioned by the DIC tell only part of the story. Many of those reported as under investigation in the past year are still undergoing scrutiny by the party and have not yet been remanded to the judiciary for criminal investigation and possible prosecution. Figures based on the calendar year are also imperfect indicators because the current campaign began in late 2012 and has continued on into 2014. Nonetheless, the data do seem to indicate that Xi’s campaign is hitting harder, particularly at the more senior levels.

It is also possible to look at what sort of corruption a campaign is targeting and who is getting caught to get a more nuanced sense of whether Xi’s campaign is a paper tiger or a real tiger hunt. China’s ongoing efforts to curb corruption are often described as a “war” and it is thus convenient to use war as a way to deconstruct the current campaign. The campaign can be decomposed into four distinct fronts. At the grassroots level the regime is fighting a guerrilla war in which whistleblowers and netizens have used social media to expose brazen examples of corruption and degenerate official behavior. Videos of officials laughing at the site of fatal highway accidents, photos of them sporting watches they could never legitimately afford, smoking outrageously priced cigarettes, documents identifying poorly paid low-level bureaucrats as the owners of multiple luxury condominiums and villas, videos of cadres playing sex games with their mistresses, drinking, and womanizing have repeatedly gone viral within China despite the efforts of the army of “ten cent” internet censors, forcing the government and party to move with unheard of speed to sack and indict officials. But the internet front of Xi’s war on corruption is a bush war in which most of the corrupt officials exposed are low-level officials who were so foolish or so greedy that they failed to remember that corruption should kept discrete. Viral videos, nevertheless, show that the regime can no longer carefully orchestra and calibrate its struggle against corruption for maximal public relations impact and minimal negative fallout.

Parallel to the internet guerrilla war, the regime continues to wage a protracted war of attrition against low and mid-level corruption. This part of the push against corruption resembles trench warfare: an ever lengthening list of casualties but scant evidence of real advances. In recent years, prosecutors have indicted about 35,000 individual on economic crime charges each year, the bulk of whom are officials holding posts below the county and departmental leadership levels. The fighting on this front in 2013 seems a bit more intense than in past years. Based on a survey of cases reported in the press and on the Discipline Inspection Commission’s website, it appears that more “tiger cubs” – senior party cadres and officials holding posts just below the county and department levels – have been bagged, along with the usual large numbers of “flies” – junior officials and party cadres. At present, however, it appears that the regime has not made any real breakthroughs on this front and has yet to begin significantly reducing the aggregate number corrupt officials.

The third front in Xi’s attack is a drive against “commercial bribery,” including corruption in the domestic and foreign business sectors. Although official corruption receives the bulk of public attention, corruption often involves both a supply side (officials willing to use their authority for illicit private gain) and a demand side (private parties willing to pay officials to use their authority for illicit private gain). Corporate actors, moreover, can use the authority delegated to them to pursue illicit gains. Procurement managers, for example, can demand kickbacks from potential venders. Financial officers may deposit corporate funds in banks that offer them bribes. Although the data are thin, it appears that inter-firm corruption is widespread in China and that a “culture of corruption” exists in which bribery and corruption are viewed as a normal part of doing business. Chinese prosecutors began cracking down on corruption in the business sector in about 2006. In the spring of 2013, they intensified these attacks and expanded their targets to include foreign businesses. In recent years, prosecutors in both the United States and the United Kingdom have gone after American and British companies for paying bribes to Chinese officials and companies. In the spring of 2013, Chinese prosecutors joined in that fight, going after evidence that foreign pharmaceutical and medical equipment vendors in particular frequently turn a blind eye to the illicit means used by their sales force to book orders and the complex dodges used by “consultants” and other middlemen to secure contracts and close deals. Although it might be tempting to chalk up investigations into corruption by foreign companies to a combination of increasingly strident Chinese nationalism and demands emanating from China’s powerful state-owned companies to weaken their commercial rivals, objectively attacking the demand side for corruption is critically important. To paraphrase Mao’s classic argument in On Guerrilla War, to make serious inroads into official corruption Chinese prosecutors have to curtail a culture of corruption that encourages private parties to look to bribes as a normal fact of doing business. As with the second front, progress in the fight against commercial corruption is not likely to result in swift victories. But the key here is that the regime continues to fight, a fact which seems evidenced by the fact that the number of individuals indicted by the procurators for paying bribes was reportedly up 18.6 percent in 2013, rising from 4,650 to 5,515, while the Procuratorate reported it investigated and sanctioned 4,549 officials for their involvement in commercial bribery.

The final aspect of Xi’s war on corruption is a high flying aerial combat in which corruption often becomes a weapon in factional infighting. Any scandal involving a senior official is inherently political. At a minimum, prosecutors have to receive high-level political approval to look into allegations of corruption among top officials. High level scandals also create political opportunities. Xi’s current campaign is no different. Triggered by the exposure of Neil Heywood’s death and allegation that Bo Xilai’s wife either killed him or had him killed, the current drive has spawned a series of investigations into corruption in the oil sector and Sichuan Province that seem to implicate former Politburo Standing Committee Member and former Chairman of the Central Committee’s powerful Politics and Law Committee Zhou Yongkang. According to insiders, in the run up to the November 2012 Eighteenth Party Congress, Zhou had been pushing Chongqing Party Secretary, Politburo Member, and so-called “Red Princeling” Bo Xilai as a leftist counterweight to Hu Jintao’s heir apparent Xi Jinping. Bo’s abrupt fall from power clearly removed a potential political rival, while investigations into corruption involving PetroChina Chairman Jiang Jiemin, PetroChina Deputy Manager Li Hualin, Chengdu Party Secretary Li Chuncheng, Hainan Vice Governor Ji Wenlin, Vice Minister for Public Security Zheng Shaodong, former Sichuan Vice Governor Guo Yongxiang, , and former Chairman of the Hubei Party Committee’s Politics and Law Committee Wu Yongwen, all of whom worked with Zhou at one point or another, enabled Xi – or others – to take out many of the now retired Zhou’s protégés, as well as a large number of individuals linked to them in the business sector.

In recent weeks, several of Zhou’s close relatives have been detained and it now seems only a matter of time before his son Zhou Bin, who believed to be in detention, is formally arrested and charged with taking advantage of his father’s connections and power to build a business empire based on the energy and property development sectors. Rumors have also linked the younger Zhou to Liu Han, a Sichuan business tycoon recently arrested on charges he was actually the leader of an organized crime syndicate and that he had ordered the murder of a series of rival mobsters. Multiple signs in the official and unofficial media now seem to indicate that Xi will drag Zhou out, possible soon after the conclusion of the current National People’s Congress session. If he does, Zhou will be the biggest tiger ever bagged and, perhaps more significantly, the biggest tiger bagged not because of an “accident” such as those that exposed Chen Xitong, Chen Liangyu, and Bo Xilai, but rather by a very systematic, step-by-step hunt that first bagged the tiger’s “cubs” and then snared the king of the tigers himself.

The scale and scope of the high-level, heavily political portion of Xi’s campaign differentiates the current campaign from its predecessors in the post-Mao era. The current campaign is clearly more sustained and apparently more intense. It is now sixteen months old and by all indications more senior officials and cadres, perhaps as many as 31, have been investigated, expelled from the party, sacked, indicted by the Procuratorate, or tried than in any other post 1978 period. How many are ultimately brought down by Xi’s campaign remains to be seen and it may be months before the ultimate scale and intensity of the campaign become clear. Regardless of what the coming weeks and months bring, however, it seems clear that Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is no storm in a tea cup.

Gauging the long-term and broader political impact of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is difficult because the campaign is still apparently in high gear. Anti-corruption campaigns seek to achieve three goals. First, they seek to cull out officials who have turned corrupt. Second, they seek to deter those who are now tempted or who might be tempted in the future. As evidenced by the number of indictment and investigations, it is possible that Xi campaign has cut into the ranks of the corruption, but how far is uncertain. Even more uncertain is whether the bagging of this crop of tigers will scare other potential tigers and flies. Third, anti-corruption campaigns seek to convince the public that a regime is serious about fighting corruption, particularly in the highest places. Bringing down Zhou, or even just his protégées, along with other senior officials, may convince ordinary Chinese that this time the regime is really determined to deal with corruption. Ultimately, however, the real proof will be in the follow through. Should the fight against corruption fall off when all of the sound and fury of the current campaign comes to an end, then it is likely that the public will sink deeper into cynicism and dismiss the campaign as political knife fight in which a lot of flies and tiger cubs were killed to cloak the true reasons for the drive. Should, however, Xi continue to press the attack on corruption, including high level corruption, then he might well succeed in moving China’s war on corruption forward and thereby bolster his regime’s legitimacy.

Andrew Wedeman is Professor in the Department of Political Science at Georgia State University. A version of this post appeared in Chinese in the Financial Times Chinese edition on March 17 available online here.


  1. Recently, I met a Chinese official from the Anti-corruption Bureau in China. I commented that it may be a little too late to clean-up since many had escaped to the West with their bounty. He assured me that noone can escape because the Chinese government has agreement with foreign countries which harbor some of these corrupted officials. If these countries collaborate by indicting and extraditing them, then whatever left of their booty will be shared equally with these countries. Is there any true in this?

  2. I’m intrigued by the opening statement “The Communist Party of China has been grappling with corruption almost from its birth.” The party was founded in 1921. What evidence is there that there was corruption in its early years – say the 1920s? I would like an answer from the author.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *