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Tigers and Flies: power consolidation in Xi’s anti-corruption drive

Image credit: UN Women (Creative Commons: Flickr)

A strong anti-corruption campaign has been at the centre of Xi Jinping’s time as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CCP) since his inauguration in 2012. This position has not changed in the subsequent years. Xi still promises to eliminate the ‘tigers and flies’ and oust corrupt individuals ranging from reputable political figures to lowly party officials.

With the Chinese government establishing the National Supervisory Commission (NSC) in March this year, necessary questions are being asked about the extent of power being granted to the agency, as well as the nature of the state’s intent to exert this power.

There can be no questioning Xi’s dedication to this initiative. Recent estimates suggest as many as 1.3 million individuals have been disciplined in relation to corruption, all within the first five years of his presidency. True to his word, individuals disciplined range from the lowest village officials to the heights of sitting politburo member Sun Zhengcai. Zhengcai served as party secretary for the municipality of Chongqing until he was removed and later admitted to having accepted US$27 million in bribes.

Corruption on the mind

The motivations behind this campaign are fiercely debated by observers. In 2012 when Xi Jinping stepped into the position of Party Chairman, corruption was a hot topic in China. This issue gained international attention when a high-level official’s wife was accused of murdering a British businessman.

The Bo Xilai scandal was closely followed by the accidental leaking of a report from the People’s Bank of China that implicated more than 15,000 Chinese officials in various money laundering incidents in overseas accounts. It was the proximity and gravity of these events that made avoiding the issue of corruption impossible, especially with Xi Jinping the ushering in a new party direction.

Despite his ostensible commitment to his anti-corruption promises, there remain large question marks over the legitimacy of his practices. With NSC documentation made public, academics and lawyers have begun poring over the institute’s legislation. Of concern to many is the inclusion of the new ‘Liuzhi’ law, which translates as to ‘keep somewhere’. The formal provision laid out by the NSC confirms what most critics of Xi’s corruption-drive have known for some time; that investigators are permitted to hold members of the party for interrogation for months without legal assistance.

The NSC is already raising more questions than it has answered, most of which tend to circle back to concerns of a continued isolation and consolidation of power at the top of the CCP hierarchy. The recent removal of term limits which grants Xi Jinping unimpeded political tenure only substantiate these concerns. This, five years since he first proclaimed his vision for a less-corrupt political environment, specifically noting that “power should be restricted by the cage of regulations.”

What’s more, Xi’s leading anti-graft marksman Wang Qishan was conspicuously selected as the Vice President of the People’s Republic of China just months after stepping down as head of Xi’s anti-corruption drive.

Means to what end?

The opaque picture of political decision-making afforded to outside observers of Chinese policy can often make grappling with true CCP motivations a difficult task.Yet in this case, with fresh institutional documentation as well as a surfeit of recent developments in Xi Jinping’s isolation of power, that paint a troubling picture of the CCP’s anti-graft program, the root of the issue is beginning to show.

The newly-formed NSC and its dubious documentation confirm widely held suspicions that those at the top of CCP hierarchy are using unlawful tactics in detaining suspected individuals. That corruption is an issue plaguing Chinese politics has been quite clear for some time, however, what is now clear is it is first necessary to question the basis from which this culture emerges. And if the train of power seclusion is to continue to build momentum as it has done during the early stages of Xi’s potentially mammoth term, then no matter how many flies are swatted by the NSC, they will continue to reproduce whilst the environment remains fertile.

Oliver Martin Lees is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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