Written by Zhuang Chen.

Chinese leaders at various junctures have advocated fighting against corruption; mainly with feeble results. A cynical common view is that anti-corruption campaigns are nothing more than “loud thunder with small raindrops”. However, it seems that Xi Jinping has made anti-corruption a key plank of his presidency, thus elevating it to new heights. In the two years since Xi came to power, more than 50 ministerial level officials have been investigated on corruption charges. In the first half of last year, over 84,000 low ranking officials were “disciplined” within the party. The arrest and corruption charges against China’s former security chief Zhou Yongkang have a “shock and awe” effect – so claimed a Chinese newspaper — and “proves the party is capable of self-purification”.

The campaign does not stop at China’s borders. By launching a second round of the “Fox Hunt” campaign earlier this year, the party stepped up its efforts to bring back suspected economic-crime fugitives. In April, China issued a want list of its top 100 officials and others who are believed to have fled abroad. A deeper look at the most-wanted list reveals there are no high-ranking officials, prompting some to doubt the seriousness of the campaign. Indeed, many on the list are minnows compared to the big fish, Zhou Yongkang. Yet, by pursuing these low ranking officials hard it may send a message to millions of their peers. The Chinese saying “kill the chicken to scare the monkey” might be the thinking behind the list.

Shock as it is, any therapy comes with side effects. One very low ranking official from Chengdu told me the other day that morale among the party’s rank and file has touched rock-bottom. With perks slashed and scrutiny enhanced, many civil servants are under huge pressure. “We don’t want to take the initiative to do things, fearing it might go wrong and then catch someone’s attention,” she says. The once coveted promotion turns into a dilemma for many grass root officials as well, she adds. “Many of us don’t want to be promoted because you are to be examined in great detail.”

Indeed, officials are barred from promotion if their family members have migrated abroad. The so called “naked officials” with spouses or children abroad are under the microscope following cases of swollen bank accounts through graft and bribes. In Shanghai, China’s financial centre, the authorities took one step further in May by barring spouses and children of top officials from entering private businesses in Shanghai. Although the new rules apply only in Shanghai at the moment, but it is likely to spread to other cities as officials try to be seen at the vanguard of an ever more intensified anti-corruption campaign.

When President Xi came to power, he pointed out that fighting corruption was a matter of life-or-death for the Party and the nation. He cites Singapore’s corruption free image with strong government control over society. But just as China cannot copy the Singapore model to drive its economic reform and opening up, nor can the country follow Singapore’s suit in fighting corruption. Simply put, China is too large and too complex.

For years, the slogan for China has been “building socialism with Chinese characteristics”. Whatever the meaning is, China’s anti-graft crackdown may also need to bear the logo of “Chinese characteristics”. Analysts have questioned how far the party can go in stamping out corruption, given that checks on power remain patchy. A recent report in Hong Kong media is revealing. Quoting China’s top graft buster, Wang Qishan, the report says, “There is huge pressure for the long term ruling party to supervise and purify itself.”

The dilemma for Mr Wang is, whilst he admits “it’s difficult for a doctor to operate on himself”, he also realises the idea of judicial independence is off limits. Indeed, Xi has reinforced the ideology that law enforcement must be under the party’s leadership. It seems the only option left with is for the party to act like a doctor to operate on himself, hoping to reduce chances of falling ill in the first place. No wonder Xi re-emphasizes the courage to “rid out bones of poison” and “make sure government officials dare not, cannot and do not want to be corrupt.”

Whether the party can achieve its goal is unknown. No matter what, the road is bound to be long and bumpy. Authorities in Shanghai might well enact strict rules banning relatives of top officials entering private businesses; they may still find the leeway to move around businesses to other cities. Slashing perks for civil servants might well reduce temptation to be corrupt; it also dents their motivation to perform. 

In the party’s tumultuous history, China has undergone a string of campaigns, many with force and power. Some analysts view Xi Jinping as the strongest leader since Deng Xiaoping, pushing through tough policies in a decisive manner. Wary of the short lived campaigns in the party’s history, Xi reiterates his anti-graft drive won’t be like “a gust of wind”. The question is constant yet precarious wind could be just as unhelpful. The earnest test has just started.

Zhuang Chen is the Digital Editor, BBC East Asia Hub. Image Credit: CC by Remko Tanis 

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