Beijing’s anti-corruption drive: what’s at stake?

The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) anti-corruption drive is of staggering scale, reach and audacity. From the powerful ‘tigers’ to the low-ranking ‘flies’, the anti-corruption policy of Xi Jinping’s leadership has targeted and frightened multiple segments of the party, government, military, and state-owned enterprises.

Many have since wondered about the motivation and nature of the wide-ranging and ambitious anti-corruption policy unleashed by President Xi and carried out by Wang Qishan, who is Secretary of the powerful CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) and one of the seven members in the Politburo Standing Committee.

On 9 September, I attended a now-annual conference co-hosted by the International Department of the CCP Central Committee and the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the CCP Central Committee. This year’s theme was To Discipline the Party: Responsibility of the Party. It was appropriate that Wang—who’s in charge of the party’s anti-corruption drive and the broader strategy of ‘comprehensively disciplining the party’—agreed to offer his views to a select group of scholars and officials from China and abroad.

As I listened to Wang’s remarks at the Great Hall of the People, I realized that he was making a revolutionary statement in the history of the CCP. Wang raised an extremely provocative and hitherto taboo idea in CCP political discourse: he spoke of the legitimacy of CCP rule. Never before has the CCP leadership openly raised and even questioned the legitimacy of its own rule. Moreover, Wang actually set out to explain the legitimacy of CCP’s long one-party rule in China, which he pointed out to be the key distinguishing characteristic of Chinese politics. The legitimacy of CCP rule, Wang explained, is based on the ‘endorsement of the people’ and the ‘choice made by the people.’ He elaborated that the CCP depends on the people being satisfied and happy.

Through his comments, Wang was trying to imply that the anti-corruption effort was much more than a short-term expedient for the new leadership to win favor from the public or to establish political authority through factional or interest-groups-related struggles—just some of the hypotheses offered by outside observers for the push. He pointed out that anti-corruption isn’t a political campaign or movement—Mao’s Cultural Revolution taught the CCP that campaigns and movements eventually cease to exist. Anti-corruption, this time, will ‘always be on the road’, and ‘there is only a beginning, never an end’.

Those remarks, together with the invocation of the all-important concept of CCP legitimacy, suggest that Wang is seeing anti-corruption as a long-term strategy to maintain and enhance the legitimacy of CCP rule in China; it’s not just a temporary device for consolidating the rule of the new Xi leadership. Such an explanation would refute many existing hypotheses about anti-corruption. According to this view, what’s at stake in anti-corruption is nothing less than the legitimacy and survival of the CCP as the sole ruling party in China—something much more significant than the survival of the current Xi leadership, which, after all, has an implicit two-term limit of 10 years.

But is that explanation credible? Wang struck many of us in attendance at the meeting as a deeply impressive political leader and as an intellectual. His remarks on the many issues of dissatisfaction the Chinese people have with CCP rule left the impression that the current generation of CCP leaders face significant governance challenges in China. He spoke of the difficulties and complexities of CCP rule in today’s ‘extraordinary difficulty’ period, and he even said that the new leadership hasn’t taken rest for a single day since it took office.

His legitimacy-based explanation of the anti-corruption strategy would be readily comprehensible to a Western audience. The term ‘legitimacy’—Wang used the Chinese translation of hefaxing—is, after all, of Western origin. The difference between Wang’s narrative and many existing explanations for the anti-corruption effort comes down to the timeline: one takes a short-term tactical perspective, the other a long-term strategic view. While many Western analyses focus on the short-term interest maximization and political survival of the new Xi leadership, Wang takes a strategic view geared toward the long-term legitimacy of CCP rule beyond the expediencies of the current leadership.

But if enduring legitimacy is the motivation, it’s often asked why the focus is on anti-corruption and not also on other aspects of national policy, like the economy and the environment? But that question overlooks the fact that anti-corruption is in fact not the sole focus of the Xi leadership.

In order to fully appreciate the role of anti-corruption in Xi’s new strategy of national governance, one must understand the so-called ‘four comprehensives’ theory proposed by the leadership early this year. The ‘four comprehensives’ are: comprehensively building a well-off (xiaokang) society, comprehensively deepening reform, comprehensively ruling by law, and comprehensively disciplining the party. The theory is now presented by the leadership as a new strategy for governing the country under the current circumstances. It’s almost a kind of grand strategy for CCP rule in China.

The ‘four comprehensives’ have logical connections with one another. Building a well-off society is the overarching goal, and deepening reform and ruling by law are two major means for achieving this goal. The CCP is the designer as well as executor of this strategy. But in order to enhance its legitimacy in this role, it must achieve self-restraint, self-innovation and self-development by comprehensively disciplining itself. Anti-corruption is a key strategic means of disciplining party members, and part of a broader—comprehensive—strategy for maintaining and enhancing CCP rule in China.

Viewed from the perspective of the ‘four comprehensives’, one can also detect an intriguing relationship between ruling by law and disciplining the party. In CCP politics, it’s often asked whether national laws or party rules take priority in practice. This is an extremely important question for understanding the nature of Chinese politics. But with respect to anti-corruption, the question is somewhat misleading. The CCP’s anti-corruption strategy is never about the rule of law: it’s fundamentally a political question about whether the party can successfully restrain its members and about the extent to which the leadership is willing to go to clean up the party.

Huge political risks and costs lie in wait, as is apparent from the arrests of top political and military leaders such as Zhou Yongkang and Xu Caihou. But the party is compelled to undertake the project, and even to elevate a specific strategy of anti-corruption to a comprehensive approach of ‘disciplining the party’. For, as Mr. Wang Qishan recognised, the legitimacy of the CCP as the sole ruling party of China requires it to discipline itself in order to gain and enhance the trust of the people. For this reason, party rules and regulations, and associated moral education programs, necessarily come before national laws, although laws can play a useful complementary function of punishing and containing the spread of corruption. To CCP members, however, party rules lay down higher and stricter moral and behavioral standards than required by national laws. The CCP must maintain its purity and keep itself in the vanguard.

Wang Qishan and the top CCP leadership should be applauded for deploying a political vocabulary that is conducive to international and cross-cultural exchange. Breaking the taboo of examining the legitimacy of CCP rule demonstrates the self-confidence and candidness of the leadership, as well as its sincerity to conduct a meaningful dialogue with the outside world. To make the narrative of a CCP accountable to the people more persuasive, however, the party must take the idea of the ‘endorsement of the people’ much more seriously.

How to deal with and respond to the ‘endorsement of the people’ is a huge challenge to the CCP. In essence, the CCP must create a mechanism or a set of institutions for measuring the degree of satisfaction of the Chinese people with a good degree of independence and fairness, and then to respond to public needs in a timely, creative and effectively manner. Only by doing so can the CCP build the long-term support of the people and maintain the legitimacy of its rule. Such moves will also help to foster a far more positive image of the CCP to the outside world than it is capable of projecting now.

© This article first appeared in two parts in The Strategist blog, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, on 24 and 29 September 2015.

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Feng Zhang is a Senior Lecturer at the Australian National University’s Department of International Relations, Deputy Director (Higher Degree by Research) of the ANU’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, and a member of the executive committee of the Australian Centre on China in the World based at the ANU. His research focuses on Chinese foreign policy, Asia-Pacific security, and international relations theory. He is also Adjunct Professor at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in China.

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