China: Intensification Of Xi’s Anti-Corruption Campaign – Analysis


By Kalpit A Mankikar

In less than a month before the National Party Congress, which will decide the line-up of the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership bench, there has been a shakedown with the judicial convictions of six senior officials connected to either the law-enforcement or security establishment.

In the eye of a storm and at the centre of this ‘political clique’ is ex-Vice-Minister for Public Security Sun Lijun, who received a death sentence with a reprieve. Former Justice Minister Fu Zhenghua and Wang Like, who was tasked with political and legal affairs in the Jiangsu province, have also received suspended death sentences. According to Chinese media reports, Sun Lijun accumulatwsUS$92 million through corrupt deals over a period of nearly two decades, while Fu and Wang amassed US$16 million and US$62 million in bribes. Former police chiefs of Shanghai, Chongqing and Shanxi province—Gong Dao’an, Deng Huilin, and Liu Xinyun—will spend more than a decade in prison for corruption and their ties to Sun Lijun. Again, this is not simply a case of financial turpitude because Sun has been accused of jeopardising political security, which seems to be Party jargon for “challenging the authority” of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Sun Lijun and Fu Zhenghua were no ordinary apparatchiks in the security establishment. Sun was named Vice-Minister for public security in 2018 and did a stint in the ministry’s ‘first bureau’, which is responsible for China’s domestic security, including Hong Kong and Macau. He was part of a high-level team sent by the CCP leadership to Wuhan in February 2020 to assist in containing the COVID-19 outbreak. Fu had been the driver of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign and it was his investigation that brought down Zhou Yongkang, another security czar and a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee. The probe against Zhou was one of the first of its kind against a member of the ruling elite and broke the established Party convention.

However, it is significant that in the immediate aftermath of the convictions of these senior figures from the security establishment, speculation was rife on social media of Xi’s ouster in a “palace coup”. There is an intense buzz over who could be the instigator of such gossip. As the rivalry between the US and China has intensified against the backdrop of strategic competition, experts have speculated on whether covert regime-change could be a strategy to tackle China. Atlantic Council published a paper titled ‘Longer Telegram’ on American strategy to address the challenges of China’s strategic ambitions. It surmises that America’s sole challenge in the 21st century is the rise of an authoritarian China under Xi. The treatise authored by an anonymous senior official, who has extensively dealt with China, argued that the elites within the CCP were more divided about Xi’s leadership and his ambitions than is widely appreciated. The writer urged policymakers that they must solely focus on the fault lines between Xi and his inner coterie and seek to alter their behaviour which would result in changing their strategic course or replacing Xi with a more moderate leadership. In his book, ‘China Coup’, author-diplomat Roger Garside contends that a CCP faction, which may not be on the same page as Xi when it comes to his policy of confrontation with the US-led alliance and the subsequent backlash, may see an incentive to remove him.

However, is there any reason for us to look inwards—into the deep recesses of the Chinese state itself for clues regarding the “palace coup” rumour? The answer to this perhaps lies in the equation between the security establishment and technology giants in China. Lulu Chen’s book, ‘Influence Empire’, reveals that Sun Lijun in his capacity as Vice-Minister of Public Security sought the assistance of tech giant, Tencent, to keep tabs on members of the CCP ruling elite.[i] Subsequently reports emerged that a Tencent executive was under the lens for allegedly turning over data collected by the company to Sun Lijun without any authorisation after the security czar went out in disgrace. Incidentally, Tencent founder Ma Huateng (also known as Pony Ma) has ties to the CCP since he had been a delegate of the National People’s Congress—China’s national legislature. A rival tech company accused Tencent of using the security establishment to punish a schoolteacher who had spoken out against the latter’s interests in gaming. But in a nation where political succession is a tightly held secret and the sole prerogative of the CCP, Tencent’s employees were involved in an exercise to forecast the composition of the Politburo Standing Committee—which in effect is China’s ruling elite—using algorithms and data.[ii] Thus, there may be a clandestine relationship between Big Tech in China and the security establishment. While the tech giant denied any involvement in this endeavour, one is tempted to ask whether the CCP’s crackdown on China’s tech giants in 2021 is linked to these shenanigans. Again, there seems to be a perception in the CCP that some tech companies have obtained greater leverage as some of their services have become a fixture of public goods. There is apprehension that these tech firms will deploy their clout to pose a challenge to the CCP.

In his article in the CCP’s journal ‘Qiushi’ in January 2022, Xi himself articulated this line of thinking that China’s economic expansion had transformed social media firms, but cautioned that “unhealthy” developments had threatened economic and financial security. Such fear has been voiced by academics such as  Wu Xinwen, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, who has warned that China’s business elite has accumulated economic muscle and is eager to convert it into political clout with assistance from some elements in the CCP.

To sum up, first, the rumour was initially hyped by overseas social media influencers who have made phoney claims about China earlier. The intensification of the storm on social media and a senior Indian politician tweeting these rumours meant that despite no concrete evidence, many credulous Indian media outlets lapped up the reports of Xi’s political fall even as western media stayed silent. China monitors the discourse in the Indian press and warned the media against promoting “Taiwan independence forces” last year. That the Indian media are now fanning falsehoods about potential instability in China ahead of the political transition may play into the hands of the CCP, which sees an axis of US-India to its west and US-Taiwan to its east—in a two-frontpincer situation. This episode where media in India jumped the gun with respect to developments in China must serve as a wake-up call that we must improve our understanding of our neighbour, who aspires to be a global power. Second, Xi has had an uneasy relationship with the security establishment. This can be evidenced by the downfall and disgrace of ex-Public Security Vice-Ministers Sun Lijun and Meng Hongwei, who was the first Chinese to head the International Criminal Police Organisation. The “coup” rumour does not seem to have any substance at this point since state media lists Xi as one of the delegates to the 20th Party Congress. However, the surfacing of this rumour at a time when Xi has been trying to signal his absolute control over China’s security establishment is “significant”, since Xi is keen to wangle an unprecedented third term in office and has not named a successor, say members of the diplomatic community. Lastly, a high-level panel was appointed in January to purge Sun’s “influence” in the security apparatus. Besides this, since the members of the security establishment purged may have their death sentences commuted to life in lieu of their cooperation in further investigation, there is reason to believe that after the Party Congress announces a new leadership line-up, more heads, higher up in the pecking order, may roll.

[i] Lulu Yilun Chen, Influence Empire: The Story Of Tencent And China’s Tech Ambition(Hodder & Stoughton, 2022), pp. 198-199.

[ii] Chen, Influence Empire, pp. 199.

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ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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