Anti-Corruption Campaign: China’s Political “New Normal”
By Gang Chen

Anti-Corruption Campaign: China’s Political “New Normal”

Mar. 11, 2016  |     |  0 comments

China has always had an image problem on the issue of official corruption. Since the Tiananmen crackdown of 1989, corruption is generally believed to have worsened. According to the global Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) compiled by Transparency International, China ranked 83 in terms of cleanness among the 168 countries in 2015, same as Sri Lanka and Colombia (CPI Report, Transparency International, 2015). Earlier records revealed that it was mostly low and mid-level corrupted officials who had been exposed and punished in China, but these days high-level and high-stakes cases are on the rise. Some have deemed China’s corruption as being systematized and embedded in the system of state capitalism.

While scholars have been paying intensive attention to various aspects of corruption in China in the past two decades, cryptic anti-corruption institutions in this non-democratic governance are often understudied largely due to the opaque intra-regime disciplinary inspection process associated with extralegal detentions as well as the sub-rosa nature of corruption activities. Scholarly efforts have been made to provide detailed assessment of the effectiveness of China’s anti-corruption agencies and campaigns, but most of these research works have not been able to capture the recent dynamics of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign after the 18th Party Congress in 2012, and its institutional implications upon the current condition and future of the party-state.

Chinese leaders have the tendency to embark on anti-corruption campaigns in their first year of office to consolidate power and court the public. Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is no exception; the exception is in the scale and intensity of the crackdown as compared to similar political house-cleaning executed by his two predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, in the reform era. The investigation and detaining of Zhou Yongkang, the retired party security czar, and a large number of his family members, relatives, and protégés, broke the immunity of Politburo Standing Committee members from any corruption charges. This immunity has been an informal rule in Chinese elite politics in the past two decades.

The investigation and detaining of Zhou Yongkang broke the immunity of Politburo Standing Committee members from any corruption charges.

Xi has struck a populist tone through vows of fighting both “tigers” and “flies” or senior officials and lowly bureaucrats, respectively, in his campaign against runaway official corruption and extravagance. In Xi’s political “new normal” of anti-corruption movement, an unprecedented number of vice-ministerial-level-and-above officials (“tigers” in Xi’s words) has been investigated or detained under corruption charges. In 2015 alone, the administration snared 30 vice-ministerial-and-above officials, including Guo Boxiong, a retired politburo member and former vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. Besides, Beijing also unprecedentedly investigated 30 senior military officers on serious corruption charges, most of whom had ties with the scandal-ridden Guo Boxiong or Xu Caihou, another former vice chairman of the Central Military Commission that had been under corruption investigation. In comparison, the average number of vice-ministerial-and-above officials investigated in former Chinese President Hu Jintao’s second term (2008-2012) only reached six per annum.

Xi’s three-year anti-corruption campaign, however, has not improved China’s ranking in the Transparency International’s CPI (Table 1) as compared to another corruption-ridden developing peer, India, which saw its CPI ranking rise from 94 in 2012 to 76 in 2015. Timothy Ash argued that while the Indian system is a daily soap opera of small crises, the big crisis of China’s self-contradictory system of Leninist capitalism is yet to come (Ash, 2013, p. 48).

Table 1. China’s Ranking in the Corruption Perception Index by Transparency International (2005-2014)

2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
China’s Rank
No. of Countries Surveyed

In fact, many observers perceive China’s anti-corruption campaigns as reflective of intensifying political struggles within the ruling party. In the first few years of their tenure, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao had launched house-cleaning operations against senior corrupt officials like ex-Beijing Party Secretary Chen Xitong and ex-Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu to consolidate their power. Previous anti-corruption drives usually subsided when a new balance of power had been struck and the central leadership needed to rely on local officials to implement policies.

Corruption is not a new phenomenon in the history of the People’s Republic, which is often explained from the perspective of a lack of independent judiciary system and media supervision. After 30 years of gradual economic reform, the party-state’s partially marketized economy has become a hotbed for more high-stake and high-level corruption cases. Despite three decades of economic liberalization, the state has not withdrawn from the economy, which is still securely in control of state sectors and strongly intervened by government policies. China’s rapid marketization process after 1992 has opened up more opportunities for rent-seeking activities. Large state-owned enterprises, public service organizations and local governments have become corruption-prone.

Only the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Disciplinary Inspection Commission (CDIC), with approval from the Politburo, is empowered to investigate and detain ministerial-level-and-above leaders. The three-year anti-corruption campaign has significantly expanded the power base of Xi Jinping and the CDIC headed by Wang Qishan in the Chinese party-state system. Ranked sixth in the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee, Wang is now believed to be the second most powerful man only after Xi himself.

The campaign against corruption is going on unabated, focusing first on big-timers in the Party and government departments and now to senior executives in state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and generals in the military forces. In January 2015, the CDIC began to inspect more SOEs, making combating corruption in SOEs one of its priorities for the following two years.

Anti-corruption purges are often based on mentor-protégé ties or townsfolk relationship built by party barons; many of these informal political networks are now the targets of CDIC investigations.

Xi has yet to take into account the political cost of his anti-corruption campaign.

Apparently, more aides and family members of party elders could be investigated by the CDIC, breaking the unwritten rule in Chinese elite politics which had previously constrained CDIC authority. Xi and Wang clearly do not want to be held back by their former superiors who are now facing increasing risks of being investigated under corruption charges.

So far most Chinese “netizens” and social media are solidly behind Xi’s anti-corruption endeavor. However, the fact that rampant corruption prevails may not spell well for the reputation of the Party. Xi has yet to take into account the political cost of his anti-corruption campaign, be it rising public cynicism or declining prestige and authority of the Party.

The economic costs of the campaign have started to mount. Many of the government’s anti-corruption and anti-extravagance measures as stipulated in its “Eight-point Regulations” covering official travels, official dinners and other perks of officials, have reduced domestic consumption.

Economically, China’s galloping economic growth has been decelerated by such harsh anti-graft and austerity measures. Local officials’ appetites in promoting GDP and fiscal revenues, which have been incentivized by the 1994 tax-sharing system (TSS) reform and rent-seeking activities under CPC’s acquiescence thereafter, are now being impaired by Xi’s anti-corruption movements. While the anti-corruption campaign may bring down overall GDP growth, it will have the positive impact of rectifying the asymmetry between strong government consumption and weak household consumption. Suppliers of luxurious products and services targeted at well-heeled officials have been hit hard by Xi’s austerity measures, while companies and restaurants on the other side of the spectrum are thriving in the new context.

Corruption poses serious threat to the image and legitimacy of the new leadership under Xi, who has to prevent the escalation of large-scale corruption in order to regain public support. In recent years, public discontent with official corruption and malfeasance has spread when social media brought to light sex scandals and the extravagant lifestyles of cadres. The leadership under Xi seemingly wants to ride on this online anti-corruption trend to better oversee its gigantic officialdom. State media like Xinhua and People’s Daily have emphasized the role of public and social media in monitoring corruption.

Nevertheless, uprooting corruption is mission impossible in the current political, economic and social context, and Chinese leaders fully understand the limit of anti-corruption actions. China’s pervasive corruption is closely related to institutional flaws within the party-state. The top leadership has realized that to win a full-scale war on corruption, the Party has to rely more on institutional improvements rather than on high-handed campaigns to make the regime more accountable, transparent and responsive. China’s special judicial system dominated by the ruling party keeps all anti-corruption investigations under wraps and makes it easy for manipulation.

Although western observers often criticize China’s anti-corruption work as ineffective and superficial, China’s long-time adherence to stern actions does prevent corruption from being a fatal threat to the Party’s rule or the country’s economic growth. Punishing big timers severely is also an efficient way of redistributing wealth in the context of exacerbating social inequalities. In the long run, China has to gradually institutionalize an independent judiciary system with enhanced supervisory role for the media and public. Catching the “tigers” alone is not enough to make the regime more accountable, transparent and responsive. Selective enforcement in a politicized process would only lead to more corruption and undermine the effectiveness of anti-corruption campaigns.


Ash, T. G. (2013, February 8). How can such poverty, corruption and inequality endure in the world’s largest, most diverse democracy? Come on, India! Guardian Weekly.

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