By Alexandra Fiol-Mahon*
(FPRI) — Throughout history, leaders in China have often resorted to implementing anti-corruption campaigns. Though these campaigns are a means of curbing extreme levels of corruption, they are also an effective method of pursuing political goals. The latest leader to utilize this technique is current President Xi Jinping, who has built a campaign with a reach that compares only to initiatives seen under his most infamous predecessor, Mao Zedong. Although many differences separate the background, goals, and execution of Mao’s and Xi’s anti-corruption campaigns, the basic objective is the same: to rid the party of any political opposition or potential rivals.
Mao Leads a Revolution – and a Purge
Throughout his nearly 30 years as China’s leader, Mao Zedong launched various campaigns and revolutions. Though all rationalized as great strides in the pursuit of socialist tendencies or truer forms of communism, these movements were arguably constructed as a means for Mao to root out his opposition. The anti-corruption campaign was one of the forms this strategy took on, the most significant of which being the Three-anti and Five-anti Campaigns of 1951 and 1952. These two campaigns were crusades against “evils” that ranged from corruption, waste, and bureaucracy, to business and capitalism. Unlike Xi, however, these two campaigns were not Mao’s main political purges. The main event came years later, in the form of the Cultural Revolution.
Officially, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was labelled as a fight against capitalism and the path to strengthening Communism in China. In reality, it symbolized a great power struggle within the Chinese Communist Party and Mao’s attempt to regain control over a divided government. From 1966 until Mao’s death in 1976, China was characterized by mass imprisonments, banishments, and executions. Unlike many of the previous political purges, during which top party leadership was left untouched, the consequences of the Cultural Revolution reached to the highest levels of the party and government as Mao eliminated any officials whose opinions contradicted his own. Among the most prominent party officials targeted were Deng Xiaoping and Peng Chen, whose sole wrongdoings were likely their inability to subscribe strictly to Mao’s ideology and remain in his good graces.
Once high-powered politicians, Deng Xiaoping and Peng Zhen were both exiled to the Chinese countryside at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Before their respective purges, Deng and Peng were members of the Politburo Standing Committee, a small body composed of China’s top leadership, as well as organizers of the Three-anti Campaign years prior. It was only after making statements contradicting Mao’s policies that Deng and Peng quickly found themselves out of favor and out of the party.
By the time of his death, Mao had rid the government of scores of officials who voiced any thoughts or opinions that differed from his own. Making no distinctions between friends and adversaries, Mao removed any and all voices of opposition from within the government and, by doing so, ensured that his was the sole voice of China.
For Xi, Anti-Corruption is a Convenient Cover
In March 2018, at China’s 13th National People’s Congress, three important votes were cast that resulted in multiple expansions of Xi Jinping’s power. Not only was he elected for his second term, but presidential term limits were also abolished and a powerful new government agency was incorporated into China’s constitution: the National Supervisory Commission. Yang Xiaodu, appointed as head of this agency, is a trusted aide of Xi and an unexpected choice for the job. Yang’s selection for the post indicates the likely control that Xi will have over the commission’s operations since Yang was chosen over his high-ranking former boss, the country’s top anti-corruption authority. Unconstrained by law or government, of higher status than China’s Supreme Court, and accountable only to top party leadership, this new anti-corruption authority will provide Xi with a great deal more influence.
As with the removal of term limits, the expansion of Xi’s anti-corruption initiative was a decisive power play. Since its inception in 2012, the campaign has found over 1.5 million government officials guilty of a variety of corruption-related charges. It is a defining part of Xi’s presidency as well as the principal reason why he has been able to consolidate his power so quickly and effectively.
The range of people targeted by Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is extensive. The list includes army generals, 35 members of the party’s influential Central Committee, nine members of the party’s internal disciplinary body, as well as senior officials, such as a former Chinese president’s chief of staff. Most telling, though, are the two highest-ranking officials prosecuted: Xi’s main political rivals, Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang. A powerful party chief known for his charisma and political potential, Bo was taken down when crimes committed by his family members were exposed at a time politically advantageous for Xi: shortly before Bo was expected to be appointed to the influential Politburo Standing Committee. Not long after, Minister of Public Security and a member of the same committee Bo was set to join, Zhou Yongkang, a rumored close friend and ally of Bo’s, was brought up on similar charges. Seemingly, the sole basis of the case against him was his alleged connection to a political rival of Xi’s. This correlation between indictments of high-level political figures and their political benefit to Xi is indicative of the alternate use that Xi has found for his anti-corruption campaign. Interestingly enough, one of the criticisms made against Bo by a longstanding party chief was that Bo revived songs and culture representative of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The very same ones that, ironically, are now a constant feature of Chinese television under Xi’s administration.
How Unified is China?
Nearly 3,000 delegates attended China’s 2018 National People’s Congress, and every one of them voted to re-elect Xi Jinping. One week prior, the same body voted almost unanimously (with two opposed, three abstentions, and one vote invalidated) to abolish presidential term limits, paving the way for many more years of Xi. This is the image that China broadcasts: a government unified and loyal under Xi Jinping. However, this portrayal contradicts the theory that Xi has been targeting officials for his own political gain under the guise of an anti-corruption campaign, as there would be no reason for him to eliminate opponents if they did not exist in the first place. Unfortunately for Xi, this unity may be just a façade, as revealed by an alleged coup attempt that came to light in late 2017.
Reports from multiple top party officials confirm that a group of six high-ranking party members attempted to overthrow Xi Jinping and seize control of the government. This revelation, surfacing amid Xi’s denials of any power struggles or divisions within the party, suggests that all is not as it seems within the Chinese government. After being accused of corruption and disloyalty, those involved were disciplined and quickly replaced with loyal longtime friends and associates of Xi’s: a trend prevalent throughout this campaign.
Additional opposition to Xi was revealed by a recently published article by a Beijing law professor denouncing the recent abolition of the presidential term limit and criticizing many of Xi’s policies. It is a rare instance that disapproval of Xi is voiced publicly and by such a distinguished figure, and this event is another strong indicator that the unity portrayed in the most recent National People’s Congress may not be authentic.
Mao vs. Xi: A Difference in Focus
Through these recent developments in Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, some parallels between Xi and Mao have surfaced. Yet, despite these similarities, significant variations remain within the scope of their politically motivated targeting.
Though both Xi and Mao utilized nationwide campaigns to eradicate much of their political opposition, the focus of their purges is not the same. While Mao targeted anyone whose opinions differed from his own, Xi is focused on the elimination of all political rivals and potential successors. The range of Mao’s crusade was much wider: he did not discriminate between friends and adversaries in his purge, while Xi has yet to implicate a single official for corruption that he sees as unthreatening and loyal to him personally. For this reason, Xi’s questionable prosecutions are more visible to the public eye than Mao’s were during the Cultural Revolution. Not only have more high-level government and party officials been disciplined under Xi than under Mao, but there is also a clear line drawn between Xi’s associates and those who were eliminated through his anti-corruption purge. Additionally, most of those prosecuted under Xi, especially those of high rank, face incarceration in a “luxury prison,” a far departure from the banishments and executions issued by Mao.
How Much More Of Mao Will We See In Xi?
Corruption has been a prevalent part of Chinese government for decades, and the initiatives led by Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping undoubtedly uncovered a few of its worst perpetrators. However, these campaigns also possess an ulterior motive, apparent through the politically advantageous and strategically timed downfalls of these leaders’ numerous rivals and opponents. This careful political targeting has solidified and centralized Xi’s power, within just his first term, to a degree unseen since Mao. Yet, as effective as Xi’s highly specific aim is, it is equally as recognizable. In the long run, however, this high degree of visibility is more favorable for Xi than Mao’s large-scale tactics would be. If an event of equal magnitude to the Cultural Revolution, which ultimately resulted in the deaths of approximately 1.5-2 million Chinese people, were to happen today under Xi, it would bring unwanted international attention as well as possible intervention.
As Xi enters his second term with the potential to remain in power indefinitely, it is not yet clear how far he will go, or perhaps attempt to go, in order to eliminate anyone preventing him from making his continued tenure in office a reality. Considering the lessons that Xi probably learned from Mao’s mistakes, it is unlikely he will expand his anti-corruption campaign to a scale that could put his presidency at risk. However, this does not mean that Xi’s anti-corruption campaign will come to an end anytime in the near future. As of now, it has been working in his favor, meaning that this may be the beginning of a lengthy presidency aided by a convenient lack of potential successors.
About the author:
*Alexandra Fiol-Mahon, an intern at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Philosophy, Politics & Economics.
This article was published by FPRI.