Cheng Li, director of the Thornton China Center at Brookings, and his assistant director Ryan McElveen argue at China-US Focus that Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive is genuinely the most significant ever in the People’s Republic of China.
They also seek to refute speculation that Xi is simply trying to eliminate competitors from one or more other factions and concerns that the campaign is damaging the economy.
While Xi’s campaign has been deep and pervasive, it has not been excessive. A large number—but only a small percentage—of officials have been affected. China has over 5,000 officials who rank at the vice minister level or above. Of those officials, only 32 have been arrested, amounting to only roughly one-half of 1 percent of high-ranking officials.
Although the primary leaders of the campaign—namely Xi Jinping and Central Commission for Discipline Inspection Chief Wang Qishan— are both princelings in the faction led by former President Jiang Zemin, their factional association has not been a major driver of the campaign. In fact, the four largest corruption cases (namely Bo Xilai, Liu Zhijun, Xu Caihou and Zhou Yongkang) have all involved heavyweight leaders in the Jiang camp.
Despite having targeted these members of his own camp, it is also unlikely that Xi has strained his relationship with his two main patrons, former President Jiang and former Vice President Zeng Qinghong. Instead, he has most likely made a deal with them. Yet the majority of the prominent members of the Jiang camp, including some who were very close to Bo Xilai, Liu Zhijun and Xu Caihou, still remain in power.
If they’re right, this would seem to undermine a narrative I heard recently from Japanese analysts including Tetsuo Kotani, who argued in a recent speech in Beijing that some of China’s recent external activities—for example introducing the East China Sea ADIZ—reflect concessions to factions under pressure in the anti-corruption drive. As I heard it (and not just from Kotani), the idea is that Xi was seeking to solidify power through eliminating some “tigers” who hold sway over large networks of cadres, but that this upset some in the military and oil industry systems. Thus what neighboring countries have called “provocations” or “assertiveness” from China have been to some extent side-effects of domestic power plays. The PLA Air Force gets an ADIZ, and the oil industry gets to deploy its platform near Vietnam.
This explanation always seemed a little too neat and tidy to capture the full story, and the Brookings writers make a decent case. But reality is very likely to be somewhere in-between or something entirely different, and it seems unlikely that there is simply no “factional” play or rival-elimination going on in the anti-corruption campaign. Cheng Li and Ryan McElveen make a concise case that the highest-profile individuals to fall came from the same Jiang Zemin–oriented network as Xi and Wang Qishan. But what if this is not the salient division, and what if different battle lines have been drawn that aren’t captured by asking who’s loyal to Jiang or Hu Jintao?
A truly comprehensive anti-corruption campaign would have to be much, much bigger than what we’re seeing, so there must be a reason some people are targeted and some are not. Indeed, former Politburo Standing Committee No. 2 Wen Jiabao and Xi himself have been shown to have family members with immense wealth. There are clearly choices made on whom to target, and political analysts clearly don’t know exactly how they’re made.