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The Difficulty of Being Clean in China

Photo: Image by author

This week, China put Jiang Jiemin, the former head of its biggest oil company, National Petroleum Corp., and a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, on trial for bribery and abuse of power. This prosecution is the latest—and most senior-level—in President Xi Jinping’s two-year-long anti-corruption campaign. It also paves the way for the trial of Zhou Yongkang, Jiang’s mentor and a previous domestic security chief and member of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest decision-making body.

So far, Xi Jinping’s push to rid the Chinese Community Party of corruption has led to investigations of over 200,000 officials at various levels and the arrests of 14 generals and 34 provincial and minister-level government officials. With no end in sight, many in and outside of China are asking—what is Xi Jinping’s ultimate goal?

Every time I visited China in the past two years, I asked my friends this question, because although rampant corruption has severely damaged the legitimacy of the communist one-party rule, many analysts in the West still view the campaign as a thinly veiled political purge that helps Xi consolidate his power.

Those Communist Party members in my circle tended to view Xi’s efforts with skepticism. One mid-level police officer in Beijing regarded the crackdown as a traditional court cleanup. “Every new emperor has to replace old mandarins with his own people,” he said. Xi, the new “emperor,” was following that age-old custom.

Two years ago in my hometown of Chengdu, my high-school classmates who work in state-owned banks were even more cynical. Xi was simply putting up a show, they said, with all the high-profile arrests and mandatory “mass-line” re-education sessions for party members. His ultra-left rhetoric reminded them of the Cultural Revolution, which none of them took seriously.

As time went by, however, perceptions of Xi have slowly changed. Xi has expanded the corruption probe beyond the traditional political bases of his opponents and officials at all levels are refraining from any extravagance that might attract scrutiny. When I returned to China earlier this year for the Chinese New Year, most of my friends, who have remained in the party purely for practical benefits, thought Xi Jinping might be sincere about his dedication to rein in corruption.

Observing this shift in feeling about Xi, I was left to wonder: if everyone is considered dirty, how can the system be made clean?

During my most recent visit, I posed this question to my cousin Lanzhong* over dinner in Shanghai. Lanzhong served as party secretary for a municipal branch of a national economic agency in Sichuan, a position that’s somewhere in the middle of China’s civil service hierarchy. The party had sent him to Shanghai for a month-long training at an elite university—a clear sign that he was being groomed for further promotion. Before dinner, my father had informed me that back in our ancestral village, Lanzhong was considered one of the most successful members of his generation.

“It’s tricky not to be corrupt,” explained Lanzhong. He had served as secretary to several officials who now hold mayoral-level positions, and, along the way, he had received many unsavory tasks to complete. To keep his favor with his superiors and also his reputation he stuck to the “middle way.” Whatever task assigned to him, he strived to execute it in the best and most legal way; if he had to clearly break the law, however, he procrastinated and let the job sit on the desk collecting dust.

In today’s China, officialdom is still valued over all other professions, because it holds the promise of stable income and lucrative perks, and of power any official post may yield to enrich oneself and one’s extended circle of family and friends. But the reality is a lot more complex. Lanzhong described hordes of young people who squeezed their way into civil service, only to find the work demanding, the pay low, and promotion to positions of power rare. So they quit. Even Lanzhong complained about his pay—his official salary is only 5000 RMB a month (about $850 dollars), just slightly higher than the starting salary of a new graduate from a good university.

Fortunately for Lanzhong, he did not have to choose graft to supplement his income. His parents were among the first group of peasants who heeded Deng Xiaoping’s call of “to get rich is glorious” in the 1980s. They did business and were among the first batch of Chinese households accumulating wealth over ten thousand yuan (about $3000 based on exchange rate in the 1980s). Now Lanzhong invested his family’s money in his friends’ businesses, to make ends meet, so to speak.

Most of his colleagues were not as lucky, however. Lanzhong told me stories of dodging invitations to engage in kickbacks. He understood the root causes of corruption—low civil servant pay, lack of systematic supervision, too much state control over resource allocation, among others—and he could offer no good solution. Nevertheless, he trusted the party’s central leadership.

President Xi Jinping intends to clean up the government, he said, and to stabilize employment and economic growth. But his reform agenda is facing serious pushback from vested interests. So Xi uses the anti-corruption campaign to remove those against his reforms –to buy time and to buy people’s confidence during what will be a long fight.

When I asked him whether Xi can deepen his campaign without overhauling and thus endangering the whole system, Lanzhong chuckled at my question. He said earlier that day during the training course at that elite Shanghai university, they had asked their professor the same thing. The professor diplomatically replied that history has picked the Communist Party as China’s current governing party. How long the party can continue to govern is up to the people.

For now, Lanzhong said he was most concerned with his own future. He was already in his mid-40s; if he could not score another promotion to bureau-level soon, he would get stuck on his career track. Without dire need for more money, he had always remained clean. But if his career was stalled and he had no money to show for all the hard work, he had no idea what he would do.

For thousands of years, the vast territory of China has been governed by a single centralized focus of power, supported by a huge bureaucracy. For as long, the abuse and the corruption by those in power have brought down once-powerful dynasties. President Xi has a tough road ahead to tackle deep-rooted challenges of governing with centralized power, in order to keep the Party intact. Luckily for him, at least some of the Party members are begrudgingly supporting his cleanup efforts.

*The name of Lanzhong has been changed to protect his identity.

Author:

Hao Wu is an International Security program fellow at New America.