A Tale Of China’s Corruption And Its Political Use – Analysis

By Bhaskar Roy*

Corruption among Chinese officials and Communist Party cadres has always been a problem. In more recent years the situation had become acute. Young people were joining the party to get advantage over non-party members in jobs, promotions and plum postings. The fact that corruption was present in the top echelons made the fight against this scourge even more difficult.

Former Premier Zhu Rongji tried to tackle corruption at the end of 1990s. He partially succeeded by closing down some People’s Liberation Army (PLA) business activities which had no accountability. But he was unable to make a dent, as the forces against him were too strong. He retired into the quiet life of an academic and has not touched politics since then.

It became apparent that the party was losing its moral standing among the people because of unbridled corruption. In China the party is supreme, and if it collapsed, the country would face huge challenges, threatening the integrity of the country and the fate of its leaders. Voices were rising, even among the party leadership for a more democratic system. Former premier Wen Jiabao talked publicly on this issue.

Some analysts suspect that it was a game of “good cop” and “bad cop” between Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao (In public, only Wen Jiabao’s comments are available). In the PLA too there were arguments for a non-political military, like in the west.

While neither of these two developments (in the party and the PLA) can be directly linked to corruption, they cannot be dismissed as unrelated to party protected corruption. A closed system can use ideology to keep every indiscretion inside a capsule within which the powers that be are the only rulers.

A profile of corruption in modern China was discussed by Wen Qiang, former deputy director and deputy secretary of Chongqing Municipality Police Dept., who was sentenced to death in 2010. In his confession he described the circumstances that forced him into corruption, writing about it a few days before he was executed in July 2010. His writings were posted on the internet.

Wen had started his career as a local policeman in Ba County. Admitting that he had accepted bribes and kept mistresses he added that he had done what others did-following the unwritten rules of the game. He had risen from a lowly position through hard work, not through corruption, he said. But once there, he found himself in a different league altogether.

Wen wrote, “Everyone knows this: if an official does not accept bribes and does not have mistresses, who would trust him and promote him? It does not matter how good a job he does. Besides there are several hundred thousand, if not several million officials who behave the same way I did. Will the problem be solved by singling me out and executing me?”

Wen went on to say, “If I did not accept bribes and help the bad guys out, they would take the money to my bosses and had me taken out”.

He said that China had not changed from several hundred years ago. Executing him was to keep his mouth shut. Wen declined to expose other culprits, fearing they would wreak vengeance on his wife and child, deciding to go down quietly. His footnote stated that currently officials were much worse than the Kuomintang officials in the late 1940s (Ack: Chinascope translation of Wen Qian’s confession).

Corruption has been present in the Chinese system for centuries. A person giving a gift to a government official for helping him was socially acceptable. This practice was not frowned upon by the principal or emperor. But under the communist party, an idealism was emphasised – the party was there to help the people, to work for them, not to rob them. But of course, the history of the party reveals that the party did not traverse that path, though the ideals of communism, in its different interpretations, continue to be emphasised even today.

China’s prime leader, Deng Xiaoping brought the country out of economic morass and blind ideological mind-set. His famous statements – “A cat may be black or white, as long as it catches mice”, and, “to be rich is glorious”, spurred the economy forward. He warned people that with “reform and opening up”, some. “flies and mosquitoes” will also come in. The afore mentioned ‘insects’ could not be controlled by his successors.

President Jiang Zemin, a leader whom Deng Xiaoping had handpicked is reported to have engaged in corruption in affairs of the party, in government civil administration as well as in the activities of the PLA. It was difficult to have him retired even after his full term of ten years were over. He kept the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC) for nearly two years after the completion of his term, till pressed by retired senior PLA leaders. But he refused to fade away from the political scene, wielding his clout for many years.

Jiang Zemin officially retired in 2002. His successor, Hu Jintao, another Deng Xiaoping favourite, led China for the next ten years. On his retirement in 2012, Hu withdrew from active politics, handing over all his posts to Xi Jinping.

It is not clear if Jiang opposed Xi’s elevation since Xi came from Shanghai, Jiang’s stronghold, but soon serious differences emerged between the two groups. Jiang had built up a huge network of loyalists across the country, one of his major instruments being the “Petroleum faction”, the richest and most powerful group which existed from Mao Zedong’s days.

With his formidable outreach Jiang Zemin was able to elevate some of his favoured candidates to the Xi Jinping – headed Politburo and its Standing Committee (PBSC).

Xi Jinping faced the challenge of a coup from Bo Xilai, Chongqing Municipality’s powerful secretary and a Politburo member himself. Bo is the son of the former party elder Bo Yibo, “princeling” (progeny of revolutionary leaders) like Xi Jinping. The coup broke the myth that all “princelings” were united. Bo Xilai, who eulogized Mao and brought back the “Red Songs” of the Cultural Revolution era, was a power to reckon with, having established a network in the PLA, sharply in opposition of the domestic and foreign policies current in China. His Achilles’ heel was corruption and demonstration of power. He and his corrupt wife, Gu Kaili, were brought down. The evidence against both were so compelling that even the head of Chinese intelligence and security affairs, Zhou Yongkang and Jiang Zemin could not oppose the prosecution.

The cover that was built with focused national and international propaganda that there was not internal propaganda that there was no internal power struggle in China, has been torn to shreds. Thousands of officials, leaders and provincial chiefs have been brought down. A similar war has been launched in the PLA. General Xu Caihou former vice chairman of the CMC and other military leaders suspected to be close to Jiang Zemin have been dismissed and prosecuted, Xi Jinping has taken the war to the doorstep of Jiang and his ‘Tigers group’.

A new book published by the central government’s Central documents Press describes plots by senior members to “wreck and split the party”. The book has drawn from the selected speeches, both internal and open, by Xi Jinping. This suggests that Xi has basically defeated his opponents. Xi Jinping will have to consider very carefully whether a former party chief can be brought down and thereby set a precedent. When Mao Zedong unleashed the Cultural Revolution, many of his rivals were vanquished, sent down to villages, expelled or banished. Deng Xiaoping himself was purged, brought back and again purged by Mao. He came back to build modern China. Most of his dirty work was done by the Red Guards.

Xi is, therefore, trying various ways to squeeze out Jiang Zemin. In August 2015, the party’s mouthpiece, the “People’s Daily” carried a signed article, “Dialectically View the Phenomenon of ‘Tea Turns Cold when People are Away’”. The author’s background was not available suggesting it was a high level party sanctioned piece. It was evident to any reader that the article was an attack on Jiang Zemin, that he had retired and should step back, like former leaders such as Wan Li, Tian Jiyun, Zhu Rongji and Hu Jintao,. These names were specifically mentioned in the article. The article made the accusation that a “highly positioned cadre” who when in power had placed his trusted aides in top positions to manipulate power after his retirement, averring that “cold tea” is the norm, otherwise it undermines the party’s unity, creates cliques and internal power struggles.

The fourth plenary session of the 18 CCP Central Committee (October 2014) enacted new guidelines on Rule of Law. Parts of the guidelines were gradually available in public from mid-2015. The guidelines may look very progressive to foreigners, allowing aggrieved parties to re-appeal cases as old as 20 years, adding, “Redress can go back 25 years”. The response from Falung Gong practitioners revealed the intention of this progressive law, when more than 150,000 practitioners of this meditation group petitioned against the persecution they had suffered.

Jiang Zemin had banned the Falun Gong in the late 1990s, after initially welcoming them. It was advised that their practices were religious in nature and a major threat to the communist party.

Jiang Zemin established the Office of Central Anti-Cult Leading Group, otherwise known as the Central 610 office. In June 2015 this office issued a notification directing subordinate offices and relevant regions to severely crack down on Falun Gong.

The critical observation of the circular known as Document No. 21, classified SECRET (pl. see Chinascope), was, “Falun Gong activists have brought up false charges and litigation against our former party and state leader in an attempt to make a noise and challenge our policy and legal bottom lines”. The Document No. 21 of 610 office clearly countermanded the new guidelines of Rule of Law issued under Xi Jinping. It directed courts and procuratorates Ko counter the Falun Gong legal petition.

It is not known if Xi Jinping has disbanded the 610 office since. Had that happened, some information would have leaked out. There is no information if the Falun Gong petitions are being heard by the highest courts as they are supposed to be.

Surely Jiang Zemin and his network are not sitting quietly. Jiang’s tigers and cubs are fighting back and an existentialist battle is emerging.

In the meanwhile Xi, with his right hand man and Tiger hunter Wang Qishian, is busy consolidating power. He has not only clamped down on journalists, media, professors and internet bloggers, but also high level officials including provincial parties and government heads. Xi is pushing himself to be declared the “core” of the party, a position Mao had enjoyed, Deng had thrust upon himself, and Jiang tried but failed to acquire.

If China’s economy goes down, it may be difficult for Xi Jinping to adorn himself as a modern Mao Zedong. It is expected that at the 19th Party Congress he may have emerged as a more powerful leader when he may be crowned as the “core”. If, however, he tries to extend his rule beyond 2021, he will face the “cold tea” dialectics. To ride a tiger is difficult, but dismounting it is even more difficult.

*The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at email: [email protected]


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SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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