Tuesday, September 23, 2014
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Hunting Tigers in China

CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – In the boldest move yet since President Xi Jinping launched his anti-corruption campaign, China has announced the start of a formal investigation into “serious disciplinary violations” by one of the Chinese Communist Party’s most senior figures, Zhou Yongkang. Though rumors of Zhou’s political demise had been circulating for nearly a year, anyone familiar with Chinese political intrigue knew that, until the CCP made it official, Zhou’s many powerful patrons and cronies could still save him. Now it is official: a “mega-tiger” has been brought down. But is that what China really needs?

Since 2012, when Xi began “hunting tigers,” as he put it, three dozen government ministers, provincial governors, and other high-level officials have fallen into his net. But Zhou is no ordinary tiger. A former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the CCP’s top decision-making body, Zhou was considered untouchable.

Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, the CCP has adhered to the implicit rule that members of the Politburo Standing Committee, sitting or retired, enjoy immunity from criminal prosecution. Some have, of course, been purged in power struggles, such as the one that led to the fall of Hua Guofeng, Mao’s immediate successor, in the early 1980s. But the defeated have typically retired quietly, and never faced formal corruption charges.

Given this history, the prosecution of Zhou is a watershed event – far more significant than the riveting trial of the disgraced former Chongqing Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai a year ago. It unambiguously demonstrates Xi’s personal authority and political resolve. But the question remains: What exactly does Xi hope to achieve with China’s most fearsome anti-corruption campaign in more than three decades?

The conventional wisdom is that the threat of prosecution serves Xi’s goals of consolidating power and compelling the bureaucracy to implement economic reforms that run counter to its interests. The two prongs of Xi’s political strategy – cleansing the Party and reinvigorating China’s economy – are thus complementary and interdependent.

This strategy has considerable merit. But even the Machiavellian dictum that a ruler should encourage his citizens’ fear rather than their love can go only so far. The most successful political leaders are skilled coalition-builders.

Consider Deng Xiaoping, China’s most successful reformer (the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 notwithstanding). The grand coalition that he forged, against all odds, upon his return to power in 1979 was essential to bringing about the economic transformation that followed.

The question today is thus not whether Xi has amassed enough authority to effect change in China (he has), but whether he has built a coalition capable of advancing his declared goal of reviving pro-market reforms. And, so far, the answer seems to be no.

Since taking over the presidency, Xi’s actions have been both resolute and contradictory. On one hand, he has been aggressively pursuing “tigers” and “flies” (lower-level officials), while curbing, at least temporarily, the privileges enjoyed by Chinese officials. On the other hand, he has launched an equally ferocious campaign against political liberalization, arresting and jailing leading human-rights activists and cracking down on China’s once-vibrant social media.

The risks of waging a two-front war are obvious. If Xi’s fight against corruption is genuine, it will engender fear and resentment among the Chinese bureaucracy. While officials feign compliance with Xi’s economic-reform agenda, they will seek any opportunity to stymie it. The absence of significant real progress since Xi unveiled his economic blueprint last November suggests that this is already happening.

At the same time, Xi’s tough stance against political reform is diminishing hope among liberals. Of course, this group – including intellectuals, social activists, journalists, and progressive private entrepreneurs – has little institutional power. What it does have is the capacity to influence ordinary Chinese – making them a valuable addition to a pro-reform coalition. Deng recognized this potential in the 1980s; unless Xi follows suit, he will find it increasingly difficult to rally the public behind his vision for China’s future.

This is not to say that caging Zhou was not a good move. But Xi must now shift his focus from bagging another quarry to winning over new and perhaps unexpected allies. His long-term success – and that of China – depends on it.

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  1. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Mr. Minxin Pei, President Xi Jinping's crusade against "tigers and flies" is nothing new. Already in September 2000 a number of officials were put on trial in China's biggest corruption case, The dozens of defendants were accused of involvement in a huge smuggling scandal in Fujian province. Both "tigers and flies" were being targeted, and no favouritism was shown to officials of higher rank. Authorities are said to take off their kid gloves in dealing with them and the trials were being held amid intense secrecy.
    In January 2013, Xi had promised he would battle both "tigers and flies" and Zhou Yongkang, being "one of the Chinese Communist Party’s most senior figures", is so far the biggest quarry. What's new is that Xi is treading into a tricky territory, because there's an "implicit rule that members of the Politburo Standing Committee, sitting or retired, enjoy immunity from criminal prosecution". Last year Bo Xilai's trial was the first of its kind, that made international headline. Time will tell how much support Xi gets from the CCP's members, who fear of losing their perks and privileges they so far enjoy with impunity.
    Mr. Pei asks, " What exactly does Xi hope to achieve with China’s most fearsome anti-corruption campaign in more than three decades"? In the past people were used to hollow words in their new leaders' anti-corruption campaigns, When Xi came to power, he showed that he meant serious. Given his "goals of consolidating power", by "cleansing the Party and reinvigorating China’s economy", he won't clean up the government overnight.
    Chinese citizens are pressuring Xi to translate words into action, or he could quickly lose credibility. Yet if Xi pushes the cronies to give up their benefits too quickly, he also risks losing their loyalty. He also realises that internet users are active in exposing corrupt officials and put pressure on the leadership to be more transparent. Bloggers are constantly on a knife-edge, as China has been waging war on "human-rights activists and cracking down on China’s once-vibrant social media". Some of them pointed out that Xi is a princeling and rose through the same corrupt system as the political elite.
    This muzzle is a "tough stance against political reform" and shelves all hope "among liberals". Although these "intellectuals, social activists, journalists, and progressive private entrepreneurs" have "little institutional power", they are the pillars of a strong middle-class civil society, something that China lacks.

  2. CommentedJeff GE

    I have issue with two points raised in this article.
    1) There is no such thing as the implicit rule that members of the Politburo Standing Committee enjoy immunity. Something did not happen in the past 30 years does not mean that there is a rule in place preventing it from happening. If you are a student of Chinese history, you would not be surprised about the fate of Zhou, who amassed great wealth, had control of the security apparatus, and widely unpopular for his hardline tactics.

    2) The influence of the so-called liberals is greatly exaggerated. This was a small group who knew how to make noise on various websites and weixin sites, with the aid of for-profit internet companies. Their view of reform is very much based on their desire for a western-like society, rather than the concrete ideas of how to push for successful reform, navigating complex issues within the Chinese society.

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