President Xi Jinping’s unyielding effort in the anti-corruption campaign has implicated 800,000 Chinese officials of all ranks out of the 85 million Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members. As President Xi relentlessly pursues his anti-corruption campaign to bring down “tigers and flies,” one key question is: How and when will he consider his mission to be accomplished?
China experts David Shambaugh, the founding director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University, and Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, had a candid and in-depth exchange of views at a panel discussion during a global forum on China in Singapore.
Zheng affirmed President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, opining that the campaign was for the party’s sustainability and survival. He suggested that the transformation of the political structure was more important than the transformation of the economic structure because a country could fall apart without a good political structure.
“Under Jiang Zemin and the previous leadership, China has formed what Xi Jinping called ‘factions’, which is also known as ‘political oligarchies’ in political science terms. Zhou Yongkang, Ling Jihua, Xu Caihou, and Guo Boxiong had formed their own political oligarchies. They formed nationwide networks from the central government to local governments, across different ministries. If these political oligarchies had not been brought down, China would have become Russia under Boris Yeltsin or even today’s Ukraine. It was not easy for Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan to bring those tigers down as they were so powerful.”
While anti-corruption is always an ongoing issue in a country and it is necessary, Zheng opined that China’s anti-corruption campaign was transformative. He believed that while the fight against corruption would continue, the large scale anti-corruption campaign would not go beyond the next Party Congress and the Chinese leadership had shifted its focus from the anti-corruption campaign to institution-building.
Shambaugh suggested that the campaign had lasted for eighteen months and it is now phasing out.
“The anti-corruption campaign is like a patron-client network, like a Mafia. When you start to mess with those networks, there is a risk that you might get pushback. Nonetheless, there are some big tigers like Yongnian mentioned — Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai. Recently, we got Ling Jihua who was Hu Jintao’s right hand person, and the two devils — Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong — who were Central Military Commission members and were very high ranking. There is a rumor that even political retirees were involved too. In the military, over 4,000 officers and 82 generals have been taken down in this campaign. This is extraordinary in term of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and it has badly affected the morale within the PLA.”
He commented that the anti-corruption campaign only dealt with the manifestation and not the sources of corruption. He raised the rent-seeking nature, the role of the media, the lack of an asset declaration law, judicial independence, as well as the complicated “guanxi” prevailing in the Chinese society as the roots of corruption.
“They are not dealing on the inputs of the phenomenon. You can punish as many tigers as you want but the pool of people self-regenerate.”
In response to Shambaugh’s comments, Zheng rebutted that the party had passed the reform proposal which focused on the “rule of law” two years ago, which was regarded as the most serious effort to deal with corruption. He recognized Wang Qishan as one of the most capable leaders in China today and remarked that the media had paid a lot of attention on those who had been arrested, but less on institution-building.
“If we look at the party document on the ‘rule of law’ two years ago, the cross-regional courts and circuit courts were to be established. Key political leaders were asked to bear “life-long responsibility” if they intervened in local judicial affairs. In addition, legal professionalism was repeatedly emphasized. So, personally I feel the party leadership is really trying to look for a way to establish an independent judicial system within the one-party system. Of course many people will doubt if the one-party system is compatible with judicial independence. It is worthwhile to explore that. I still believe that an independent judicial system is possible in a one party system. On the party side, party discipline is also important. For a few thousand years, China has had two systems — one for the elite and one for ordinary people. The two systems are still ongoing. If we look at the experience in the West, it took many centuries for the West to establish the rule of law. I think it will take China even longer to establish the system, but they are heading towards that direction now.”
Is the anti-corruption campaign part of Xi’s power consolidation effort?
Zheng commented that the anti-corruption campaign and consolidation of power were two separate issues. The consolidation of power to establish a leadership core was a reaction to the situation during the time of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao.
“During the time of Hu and Wen, there were nine members in the Standing Committee. There was a division of labor system, with each looking after his own territory. I called this ‘top feudalism’. The formal system was too diffused with no coordination at all. Remember when Hu and Wen came into power, they have very ambitious reform plans, but after ten years, nothing was accomplished as there were too much checks and balances at the top. Professor Hu Angang from Tsinghua University said that the US only has one President but China has nine Presidents. But if you have nine Presidents, there will be no President. No one took responsibility and the so-called ‘collective leadership’ could not be sustained. So, power centralization is a reaction to that phenomenon, and that should be viewed separately from the anti-corruption campaign. Centralization is not the purpose of Xi Jinping and he still needs to find a new way to promote intra-party democracy.”
“Under Zhao Ziyang, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, according to Deng Xiaoping’s principle, China established a new collective leadership system. They had this experiment, but the system just did not work out. I will say next year is very crucial. We will see what kind of intra-party democracy Xi Jinping will introduce. Without intra-party democracy, the party cannot be sustained. The age of personal dictatorship is gone. Now that China is experiencing economic and social polarization, they have to find a better coordination mechanism for different interests within one party.”
Shambaugh commented that, on the contrary, the anti-corruption campaign had been a part of the consolidation of power and it had a contradictory effect on Xi’s relationship with the bureaucracy and the party.
“This campaign is extremely popular with the public. It gets very high scores from the mass public but not from the elites; not from the corporate elite, not from the party elite and not from the military elite. There is a lot of grumbling when you speak with the Chinese elites about the campaign. This campaign damages Xi’s relationships with those institutions.”
“I would agree with Yongnian that Xi’s personal dictatorship and consolidation of all institutional powers is a reversal of the last three decades. Deng Xiaoping set the country’s political system on the path of collective consultative leadership. We have been through 30 years of institutionalizing collective consultative leadership and it is now being reversed in two and a half years. That is not a good thing for China and the party. On the surface, we see a consolidation and a strong leader, but institutionally, I see weaknesses and I think the anti-corruption campaign is injuring his ability and the consultative power in these institutions.”
Zheng then pointed out the peculiarity of the Chinese political system that it was neither a presidential system nor a cabinet system.
“Among the seven members of the standing committee, none of them was appointed by Xi Jinping. Xi Jinping cannot fire anyone he doesn’t like. Also, on Premier Li Keqiang’s side, no single minister was appointed by Li Keqiang. No single minister can be fired by Li Keqiang. This is the so-called ‘collective leadership’. In that sense, it is understandable that Xi Jinping must form his own team. Hopefully, Xi Jinping can form his own team next year.”
When asked if this was related to the Leading Small Groups (LSGs) which Xi Jinping currently chairs, Zheng remarked that at least four of the key LSGs were different from the previous ones.
“China has a lot of LSGs, but other groups are informal, under the table, and people do not know the committee members in the group and what they are doing. But Xi Jinping made those four LSGs formal and transparent. They regularly and frequently report on their meetings and conferences.”
How did the Chinese government identify who to inspect in the initial stage?
Shambaugh said that there was a lot that people did not know about the process and how the campaign was enforced. But what was known is that the Central Inspection Commission of the Party would send the investigation team into units. Sometimes it was publicly known but sometimes not. There were many Chinese units that were inspected over the last two and a half years.
He also commented that this had a “freezing effect” on the entire party. The fear of the anti-corruption campaign had a detrimental effect on the implementation of the reform plan.
“The investigation team goes into the units and holds all files and people. They have selective judgement on how a person acts and so there is an arbitrariness involved. This has produced a sense of deep distrust within the system. I have Chinese colleagues tell me that since the Cultural Revolution, this is the highest level of distrust in the party. This is a very selective purge and it has been run very secretively by a very secret organization inside the party and they called it ‘closed-door rectification’ (关门整风) and not ‘open-door rectification’ (开门整风).”
Zheng on the other hand replied that the Chinese system was very interesting. The system is called a party state, but the party and the state are two separate systems. For example, in China, there is the party secretary of a city and there is also the mayor of a city.
“Few years ago, I went to a party school and discussed China’s party system with them. They said, we have quite a good checks and balances system and we have the internal opposition party which is the government. The culture to ‘catch each other’s fault’ (互相揭发) is very effective. I don’t think the media is able to dig out these kinds of fancy stories which only the insiders will know. The problem is that it has become a Cultural Revolution style in many places, and if not stopped, there will be significant consequences.”
How far can China go with the one-party system?
Both Shambaugh and Zheng remained relatively optimistic with regard to China’s one-party system.
Shambaugh noted that the American democratic system was not the only effective way to regulate corruption. The one-party system could work with effective checks and balances within the system and autonomous secondary institutions including the media and the courts to regulate corruption.
“It can actually go much further. That is to say that corruption can be regulated under the one party system. Singapore, for example, is noted worldwide for its clean civil service, its rule of law, and its functioning judicial system. Even Hong Kong is also known for being corruption-free.”
Zheng on the other hand said that the CCP should be perceived as an organizational emperor.
“The CCP is not really a political party. It is a transformation of emperorship. I call it internal pluralism instead of external pluralism like the US and the West, as they have different parties. The Chinese system is always a unit. Within one unit, we have internal pluralism and a different checks and balances system. I believe this is still feasible.”
Backlash from the anti-corruption campaign?
Zheng claimed that the anti-corruption campaign was more popular in the initial stage but people were starting to question what they truly gained from the campaign.
Shambaugh commented that the anti-corruption campaign had fractured the system as much as it was healing it.
“It has a healing intention as it has the intention to discipline the system but it is behaviorally producing a lot of distrust in the system. The bureaucracy is not doing their job. The think tanks are not writing papers for the emperor because they are afraid the emperor may not like the content. The political system is breaking down and it is fragile. There is a school of thought that says that Xi Jinping is cracking down before he opens up. After the next Party Congress, we are going to see a new Xi Jinping, an open reformist, intra-party democracy will get back to solve the authoritarianism, collective decision making, etc. I personally don’t buy it. I think he has burnt his bridges and he has painted himself into a corner, and he has made a lot of enemies.”
In response to Shambaugh’s comments, Zheng observed that the Chinese system was in fact more stable than the US system.
“The Chinese system is not as fragile as we perceive from outside China, I think it is more stable than the US system. The Chinese system is in fact very predictable as long as you understand it. That is very important. The democratic countries like the US have a lot of uncertainties. No one knows what will happen. However, the Chinese system is a combination of meritocracy, democracy, selection, and elections. China will never have a Donald Trump for example, coming out from nowhere. The US has different people from different parties competing with each other, and this is quite fragile. China does not have any opposition parties and I call it the ‘open one party system’. This is similar to Singapore. You have all the elites in the party and they coordinate their interests within the party.”
“If you talk to Chinese liberal intellectuals, they will argue that the system is too stable and rigid. As long as the leadership is unified, I think the Chinese system will do alright. That is why some form of intra-party democracy is important because unification cannot depend on centralization or one-man politics.”
Zheng also commented that Xi Jinping had a great sense of responsibility for the party.
“He could have chosen Hu Jintao’s way and it will be easy for him to
survive two terms, which is 10 years.
But he is planning for China’s future, not only for his two terms, but
he has also talked about the two 100-years anniversary, which will be the 100th
Anniversary of the CCP in the year 2021 and the People’s Republic of China’s in
the year 2049.”
Shambaugh responded that one-man political systems were not always overthrown from the outside but they corroded from the inside. He believed that what was happening in the party actually mattered, as it might be resistance.
He also commented that while Chinese officials had all shown fidelity (表态) to the supreme leader — the “core” — this actually weakened and not strengthened the system. He raised the examples of East Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea, and other states as comparison, and said that he saw a lot of similarities.
Zheng argued that in order to understand the nature of the CCP, one should place it in the historical context of China’s long civilization. That was the reason why he believed that the party was a transformation of emperorship. Zheng said that it was a new type of emperorship. He pointed out that if we looked from the civilizational perspective, it was quite possible that a new regime could survive a few hundred years. He said that even democracy had two hundred years of life.
Shambaugh then raised a question to Zheng: “Yongnian, if you look at the Chinese entity, Chinese dynasties also evolve and they die and replace themselves. Do you view the CCP in dynastic terms?” Zheng responded that there was no end to history.
“I disagreed with Fukuyama. Even democracy now also has a lot of troubles. I do not see that mass democracy can survive as it is. For the past two hundred years, there was a long period of elite democracy. During that time, elite could reach consensus. Now elites do not have consensus. Irresponsible politicians have called for referendums and asked the people to decide, then after the people have decided, they regret. The Chinese system is very different; they have one responsible party. And with one party, you have to be responsible to your country. According to Mengzi, if the Party or the Emperor is irresponsible, people have the right to overthrow it. According to Marx, nothing is permanent, everything will be gone. The question is about who can survive longer.”
What can we expect to see at the 19th Party Congress?
“In the Congress next year, 13 out of the 25 members of the Politburo Standing Committee will remain, and 12 will have to retire. Some even question if Wang Qishan will retire. There are 12 individuals have to be replaced. Out of the 13 who will stay, 8 of them are reformists like Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao who are identified as much more progressive in the party, and with political and economic reforms. However, they have been neutral and quiet in the last three years, Li Yuanchao in particular. That is one faction, and I called it the soft authoritarian faction. Then with regards to the 12 who need to be replaced, when I look at the system, this is a system with a patron but no clients. This is very strange. This is the man who worked his way up to the provincial level in Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai, he is a princeling, but he did not bring people with him. There is no identifiable group of individuals to assume those 12 positions.”
“I think Xi Jinping has a new way of thinking on how to organize elite politics. Jiang Zemin relied very much on the “Shanghai clique” (上海帮); Hu Jintao relied very much on “Youth League” (团派), but Xi Jinping, after so many years, has not relied on the princelings (太子党). Xi Jinping’s way of recruiting cadres is very similar to what Deng Xiaoping did, what is called in Chinese “wuhu sihai” (五湖四海), which means from different parts of society. I think before October, China will complete the personnel reshuffling on the provincial and ministerial levels. A lot has happened, if we look at the middle rank, a lot of capable people are already in place. By next year, it should be easier for Xi Jinping after the older cadres retire.”