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Emperor Xi’s Dilemma

LONDON – I once spoke with a Chinese academic whose parents had fled China during the 1930s, appalled by the greed and corruption rampant in the country before the communist revolution. They returned after 1949, leaving comfortable jobs in California universities to help build a new China.

The academic’s father suffered during the anti-rightist campaigns of the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, and died a broken man after a prison sentence. But her mother always remained faithful to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). She regarded her husband’s travails as a personal price paid for a greater good.

In her last years, however, the academic’s mother grew increasingly depressed by the rising tide of corruption. When she died, it was with the sense that she and her husband had offered a lifetime of sacrifice in vain. The poisonous immorality of the 1930s had returned.

Today, the fight against corruption is consuming a large share of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s energy and attention – and rightly so. The anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International lists China as the world’s 80th most corrupt country, between Greece and Tunisia. As story follows story of government officials flashing Rolex watches, driving Maseratis, and being overly familiar with overseas tax havens, public distrust of the CCP is growing.