Playing with Fire: China’s Balancing Act between Discipline and Control

Zhou Yongkang, former member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee. Photographer: Nelson Ching/Bloomberg
Zhou Yongkang, former member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee. Photographer: Nelson Ching/Bloomberg

“Catching Tigers and Swatting Flies” is a popular nickname for the anti-corruption program instituted by current president of China and head of the Communist Party Xi Jinping. Corruption has long accompanied Chinese Communist Party (CCP) politics, but became especially pervasive after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Tiananmen Square protests. In the early 1990s, the CCP, looking to boost ideological support, began rewarding loyalists with lucrative positions, which soon developed a culture of entitlement and hedonism where officials at all levels traded favors to resolve their differences over personnel, policy, or the distribution of economic spoils. Combined with the rise of infrastructure spending and privatization, rampant cronyism, bribery and patronage, nepotism, and embezzlement began in the CCP and permeated to civic officials, business executives, and other individuals outside the party, while the Politburo (the highest CCP policy-making authority) directed anti-corruption programs to remove political opponents and consolidate power, instead of cracking down on corrupt practices.

That all changed when Xi Jinping replaced Hu Jintao as president of China and General Secretary of the Communist Party in 2012. In his first speech after assuming leadership in November 2012, Xi warned Communist Party members that “corruption, taking bribes, being out of touch with the people, undue emphasis on formalities and bureaucracy must be addressed with great efforts.” The president laid out his anti-corruption campaign’s plan of action, using the aforementioned phrase, “catching tigers and swatting flies” – eradicating corruption completely and indiscriminately, weeding out corrupt CCP officials, regardless of rank, and if necessary, using “flies,” low-ranking officials, to detain the “tigers,” senior officials including former Sichuan Province deputy party secretary Li Chuncheng, and most notably, Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee. For Xi, fighting endemic corruption is one of his three pillars of domestic strategy, alongside economic reform and extinguishing pro-democratic ideology. He considers corruption not only amoral and a catalyst for bureaucratic inefficiency, but also a serious threat to the Communist regime’s long-term survival.

In the three years since the program’s inception, those accused of corruption have been investigated, prosecuted, arrested, and on rare occasion, executed; targets have included current and retired CCP officials, military officials, businessmen, lawyers, judges, and local elites. Recently, the CCP wrote that in 2015 alone, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the CCP’s government transparency watchdog, ordered minor disciplinary action for over 200,000 party officials, and handed out severe disciplinary punishments, including demotions, prison, and death sentences to over 80,000 officials. A 2014 report by Quartz found that the CCDI had already investigated or disciplined at least one official of vice-ministerial rank or higher in all 31 provincial units in mainland China. The statistics are simply staggering, and throughout this program, Xi and the Chinese state-controlled media have resolutely maintained that these arrests are necessary to retain the rule of law in China. While Chinese citizens enthusiastically praise Xi’s program and its unprecedented results, outsiders have become just as wary as other members of the Politburo Standing Committee, intuiting something amiss with the program’s dominant message of preserving rule of law.

Rule of law is a principle as difficult to define as it is valuable to preserving order: an overly simplified definition of rule of law is the influence and authority of laws put in place, the notion that law governs a state, where all people and institutions, including the government, are equally accountable to the law and constrained by its enumerated powers. What spurs debate for political and legal theorists alike is the underlying concept that in numerous aspects, law cannot completely separate itself from government; we have witnessed this in America (see Bush v. Gore), but this is especially true in China, where political ideology plays a central role in the current legal system. There is now mounting evidence and consequent rise in speculation that this anti-corruption campaign’s goal is not as much about preserving the rule of law as much as preserving the power of the CCP through the law. In 2014, when the 18th National Congress held its fourth plenum (assembly of the CCP Central Committee), the topic was the rule of law, and one of the major reforms discussed by the delegates was weakening local government jurisdiction over the local courts, and making them increasingly accountable to the CCP and Party leadership. While provincial corruption has become more corrosive to the state’s institutional integrity since the 1990s, not all local courts are corrupt, and with Xi now targeting officials within his own party, he shrewdly portrays the CCP as legally undiscriminating while covertly providing more opportunities for the Party to discipline “unruly members,” whether it is corrupt officials, human rights lawyers, authors, journalists, or political dissidents who speak out against the Party. Through making corruption an existential threat, Xi effectively ensured that while no one member of the CCP should be above the law, the central government as a whole, should be the primary, if not complete determinant of order, and thus an entity above the law.

While Xi and the CCDI have convicted individuals inside and outside the party who indeed committed corruption beyond a reasonable doubt, if the central government wishes to remain honest with its people, it should refrain from proclaiming that the program preserves the rule of law. I will note that the definition of rule of law also cannot be the same for different political systems, simply because countries like the United States and China place an innately unequal amount of government influence on jurisprudence – it would be unfair to view Chinese rule of law through the Western rule of law standard. However, the notion that an anti-corruption campaign provides more political power to the central government, instead of more oversight, seems contradictory, and some worry about a deepening disconnect between the central government and local governments if power continues to transfer from the provinces to Beijing. Instead of just transforming local governments into entities that represent the interests of the Politburo, a better solution would be reforming these local governments from the top down, perhaps with the assistance of anti-corruption non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Transparency International.

New information has revealed that targets of the sweeping anti-graft campaign have long been stripped of their rights, actions that are ostensibly protected by the Chinese constitution. Officials accused of corruption can be detained by the “disciplinary and inspection commission,” the main enforcement branch of the CCDI, and held for months or even years, forcibly subjected to repeated interrogation without any right to counsel or any right to avoid self-incrimination, all while withholding the legal power to contest their detention. Xi and the CCP provided themselves with the opportunity to utilize the anti-corruption campaign as a separate means to increase censorship and target political opposition, and the CCP readily took advantage of the opportunity: in early 2015, the Central Propaganda Department restricted any access to virtual private networks and prohibited the use of US sites, like Google and Facebook. According to a report from Amnesty International, between July and August of last year, the police questioned or arrested 232 human rights lawyers and activists, as Chinese websites, university curricula, and literature are still subject to repressive government scrutiny and ideological control. Furthermore, CCP members have expressed worries that Xi, fixated with purging the government of corruption, is now placing the economy under increasing strain. Analysts from French bank BNP Paribas discern that Xi’s anticorruption crackdown contributes to China’s slowest economic growth in 25 years, claiming that the anti-corruption campaign has decreased the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) by between one and 1.5 percent annually over the past two years. If these findings are accurate, they provide more evidence that Xi’s anticorruption program prioritizes political and ideological power over China’s more pressing problems, effectively harming the welfare of China and its citizens. The most stunning indictment of Xi’s campaign is Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, the leading measure of every country’s degree of public and private corruption relative to other nations. The anti-corruption NGO utilizes all available information to calculate a composite score between one and one hundred to determine how corrupt a particular nation is, with zero being extremely corrupt and one hundred being very clean – China’s 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 scores were 39, 40, 36, and 37 respectively, showing minimal improvement and evidently flawed execution of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign objectives.

In conclusion, Xi’s extensive anti-corruption program, especially compared to his predecessors, has had an unprecedented effect on Chinese politics and society, and according to Xi and CDDI Secretary Wang Qishan, there is little incentive to discontinue it. As Atlantic Monthly writers Macabe Keliher and Hsinchao Wu explain however,

[Xi] has embarked on an apparent effort, unprecedented in the modern world, to transform the people who make up the state, rather than the structure of the state itself. He appears to be betting that transforming the moral character of officials will enable him to leave intact the institutional structure of the one-party state.

There is serious doubt that such a goal can come to fruition in the modern world, and in my eyes, Xi’s determination to eradicate corruption with the ulterior motives of consolidating political power and strengthening ideological control will ultimately backfire, as business and government operating inefficiently in constant fear of prosecution, and provincial governments serving as puppets of the central government are simply unsustainable means of political rule. I sympathize the most with the Chinese people, who have now endured the two polar ends of corruption in China – rampant corruption and corruption replaced by disguised authoritarianism. In both scenarios, the citizens tend to suffer the worst of the sociopolitical, legal, and economic repercussions.


Ryan Niksa

Author: Ryan Niksa

Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ryan Niksa is a freshman in the Elliott School, double majoring in International Affairs and Economics, and hoping to concentrate in Conflict Resolution. Ryan possesses a special interest in international criminal law, Chinese politics and foreign policy, transnational security, and Asian languages and cultures. In his free time, Ryan enjoys exploring Washington, D.C. with friends, reading up on current events, playing soccer, and rooting for his favorite American and European football teams, the Carolina Panthers and Arsenal F.C. He is also a proud member of the Pre-Law Student Association, and regularly writes articles for their blog, the GW Justice Journal.