In China, tales of Communist Party cadres’ excesses are many. But few officials reach the level of notoriety achieved by Shaanxi province’s work safety administrator Yang Dacai, also known as “Brother Watch.”
In September 2012, Yang was photographed smiling at the scene of an accident between a bus and a tanker truck that killed 36 people. But it was the high-end watch on his wrist—not his lack of compassion—that caught the ire of Chinese netizens, who soon published a flurry of imagines featuring Yang and his expensive timepiece collection. How, commentators wondered, could a civil servant afford luxury accessories on a government salary? The furor grew, and Beijing soon moved to dispose of Yang. Last September Brother Watch was convicted of corruption and sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Yang’s case could serve as a warning to officials across the country. Since officially taking the reigns of power last year, President Xi Jinping has launched a crusade to root out government corruption and lavish living. He has vowed to eliminate the “tigers and flies” that have grown rich on bribery and patronage. Similar campaigns have come and gone in China, but Xi’s appears to be the most vigorous in decades.
President Xi has called for a “thorough cleanup” of the party, with cadres instructed to “take baths” to purify themselves of greed, extravagance, and hedonism and to reconnect with the ideologies of Marx and Mao. In in many ways, Xi is modelling himself in the image of a 21st century Mao. He is portrayed in the Chinese media as a man of modest upbringing, who ate steamed buns with ordinary citizens when he worked as a local-level party secretary in Hebei province in the early 1980s.
In reality, Xi’s family has amassed a future worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but the new leader is acutely aware that the Communist Party’s image has been severely battered in recent years, as cases of corruption have emerged and tales of officials’ many comforts have become commonplace. “Winning or losing public support is an issue that concerns the CPC’s survival or extinction,” the leader said in a speech in June, as he kicked off a one-year campaign to strengthen party discipline and cut down on luxurious living among the its 85 million members.
The most high profile anti-corruption case began before Xi took power: that of ousted Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, who was sentenced in September to life imprisonment for embezzlement, abuse of power, and accepting bribes valued at more than 20.4m yuan ($3.3m). Many have followed. In October, Ji Jianye, the mayor of Nanjing, was arrested on suspicion of accepting bribes worth 20m yuan ($3.3m). In November, Guo Youming, the vice governor of Hubei province, was sacked for “suspected serious disciplinary violations.” That same week the government announced it was investigating graft allegations against two other officials—Xu Jie, a deputy of the petitions office, and Cai Rongsheng, head of admissions at Renmin University.
But even as corrupt officials topple, evidence suggests there are other motives that lay behind Xi’s effort. Critics say it is little more than smoke and mirrors—a public relations campaign aimed at calming an angry public while solidifying the Communist Party’s grip on power.
Rooting out corruption is also useful tool for getting rid of political enemies, and in August, when officials opened a corruption investigation into the state-owned oil giant PetroChina, many saw it as an attack on allies of former security chief Zhou Yongkang, who had been embroiled in a factional power struggle with Xi last year. Despite the possibility of a political play, Xi’s move on PetroChina was tremendously popular in China—as has been the overall campaign. Hu Xingdou, a professor of economics at the Beijing Institute of Technology, told the BBC, “This is an unprecedented effort to crackdown on corruption, and the level of officials getting investigated is getting higher and higher.”
Another indication of the hollowness of Xi’s corruption crackdown is that it falls short of any serious reform to the country’s judicial system, which Stanley Lubman, a specialist on Chinese law and Distinguished Lecturer in Residence at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, says is “infected by corruption.” Writing recently in the Wall Street Journal, Lubman notes, “The issue of corruption in the courts has not been raised in the current anti-corruption drive, probably because judicial reform of any kind would affect the basic roots of CPC power.”
Meanwhile, Chinese officials have arrested more than a dozen citizen anti-corruption advocates—even as Xi has ramped up his own anti-corruption crusade. Consider the case of Xu Zhiyong, a law professor, legislator, and civil activist who has fought against government corruption for much of the last decade, advocating that public officials disclose their financial assets to improve transparency.
But last summer, after he sent an open letter to authorities calling for the release of ten anti-corruption activists who had been arrested for public demonstration, officials detained Xu at his Beijing apartment, seizing computers and his cell phone. He was briefly released and arrested again in August on the charge of “gathering a crowd to disturb order in a public place.” By arresting Xu, Chinese authorities were able to silence a vocal advocate of reform, thereby easing the pressure on themselves to institute any meaningful measures.
Lijia Zhang, a leading Chinese writer, has dismissed the crackdown, recently telling CNN that in China, “everyone is guilty of corruption,” and The Atlantic magazine has called Xi’s anti-corruption campaign “hollow” and “unserious.” Minxin Pei, a political scientist at Claremont State University, told the magazine: “Corruption might destroy the party, but fighting corruption will definitively destroy the party.” In other words, graft is so much a part of the party that any real attack on corruption would be tantamount to an attack on the party itself.