Chinese politics over the past two years can be summarized in two words: anti-corruption. It is said that 100,000 corrupt officials have already been caught, and public has been dizzied by the rapid tempo at which “big tigers” are falling. Right now, it’s common to see netizens joking: Wow, it’s been two weeks – why hasn’t the next minister fallen?
There’s no doubt that this administration has shown unprecedented determination to fight corruption, with similarly unprecedented scale and results. But as anti-corruption deepens and becomes the new normal, some questions remain unanswered, or are even getting more serious. For example, why is the government fighting corruption? When will a system for fighting corruption be built? Is there a roadmap for fighting corruption to the end?
The question of “why the government is fighting corruption” is the most important one, and some officials are paying special attention to this. Many times one official or another has privately asked me whether the anti-corruption drive is meant to get rid of dissidents and strengthen power. I thought so at the beginning, but now it appears that’s not entirely true. Whether continuing the campaign was a case of having a tiger by the tail and being unable to let go, or whether the government is following threads to get to an ultimate target doesn’t matter. Anti-corruption is now seen as the “way of things” and can’t be stopped without good reason.
It confused me that some officials looked downcast upon hearing me say this. But I soon understood – if anti-corruption aims to get rid of dissidents, then the campaign will come to an end after dissenters are eliminated. If, on the other hand, it’s actually aimed at cleaning up corruption, that’s different – there’s no turning back. The Chinese people hate the idea of anti-corruption as a power consolidation tool, and support true anti-corruption. But it’s precisely the other way around for some officials in power, who don’t fear “anti-corruption” as a disguise for eliminating enemies but do fear a real corruption clean-up.
This made me wonder – why is it that anti-corruption always gives people the impression that it aims at eliminating dissidents? I asked this question to a capable friend of mine in Beijing. He replied that to begin with, an anti-corruption campaign must start from dissidents – a doctor cannot treat himself, after all. “But by now, the anti-corruption campaign has already changed. Can you tell me what faction that fallen Supreme People’s Court vice president supposedly belonged to?”
I asked, “Then why doesn’t the government make that clear? Why give people the wrong impression? Even some domestic media outlets hinted at first that the ousted corrupt officials had chosen the wrong side.”
My friend laughed and explained that was the strategy. “You know how bad corruption is in China – if as soon as Xi took office he announced he wanted to thoroughly eliminate corruption, he would be destroyed by the corrupt. If from the very beginning he said he wanted a system to fight corruption, then the current powerful system would certainly pulverize him like a meat grinder. But when anti-corruption starts with dissidents, tracing enemies back to the source, there’s a clear path to follow – and it’s only later that anti-corruption begins to change without anyone realizing it.”
Is this too sophisticated of a strategy? Apparently, anti-corruption has to adopt the strategy of boiling a frog by very slowly increasing the temperature. At the beginning, you have to make every official believe that this wave of anti-corruption is not aiming at them, but at those who choose the wrong team. So we see every fallen “tiger,” just before he falls, standing on a stage yelling “Support anti-corruption!” How marvelous, how satisfying, and how ironic.
Think about it – if the holders of “the gun and the knife” (those in charge of China’s military and security apparatus) knew how they would end up one day, would anti-corruption have proceeded so smoothly? No matter how big of cowards they were, there would have been some backlash.
Maybe this explanation is just wishful thinking on the part of my friend. But if I were in Xi’s place, I probably wouldn’t have any alternative to that strategy. Corruption in China is already deeply rooted in every corner of politics, society, and culture – even worse, it’s become part of our lifestyle. Under these circumstances, if you want to implement strong anti-corruption measures from top to bottom without causing a rebellion by corrupt officials or disappointing the public, you’ll need some special tactics.
Of course, having too sophisticated of a strategy is not always good either. It’s possible to have a strategy so subtle that people can’t understand it, and you can entrap yourself. In fact, that’s all too common. As long as corrupt officials are being caught, the public won’t be too offended by the tactics you use to wipe out corruption. But if there is no clear roadmap and you can’t effectively restrain corruption after a certain amount of time, or (worst of all) if new forms of corruption simply replace the old ways, that’s a big problem.
As for a roadmap for anti-corruption, Wang Qishan, the head of China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, has talked many times about the need for a temporary solution before a permanent cure. He means making officials “not dare to be corrupt,” then “not want to be corrupt,” and finally “not be able to be corrupt.” This roadmap seems clear enough, but out of all the people I’ve talked to, both in the government and not, almost no one believes that it’s possible.
As for me, I have put my hope in this roadmap, and become a target for criticism. Those outside the government think that I’m “hiding” within the system, while some corrupt officials who still hold power think that I’m the one who’s shaking up the system they depend on for corruption. I get attacked from all sides!
As a matter of fact, I have no special information channels and am not working for insiders. But my profound understanding of the situation both inside and outside of China’s system makes me believe that this is the last chance for the Chinese Communist Party to fight corruption, and it will make or break the CCP. And under those circumstances, I don’t believe there is anyone stupid enough to play politics and not really act.
The authorities definitely have a roadmap for fighting corruption. But when everyone doubts that this roadmap can be put into practice, then it truly does become impossible to implement the plan. In China, where corrupt and conservative forces are so powerful, the anti-corruption roadmap might share the fate of the roadmap for reform. Not only will it not be a guide for China’s path, but (on the contrary) it will become a target.
In this sense, it is the most profound strategy to work more and talk less, and move forward with deeply hidden intentions if necessary. But to succeed in that way takes an extremely strong person. Clearly, if we can’t place our hopes on the higher-ups, then we certainly can’t place them on a single person.
So finally, I want to emphasize that it doesn’t matter whether or not the authorities have a roadmap to fight corruption – what matters is whether or not we all have a roadmap in our hearts. If we all resolutely push China forward on the path toward clean governance, rule of law, freedom, democracy, equality, justice, and prosperity, and work toward this in all of our various fields, how can we not reach the goal?
This piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog.