Tag Archives: Brookings Institution

Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive not a factional struggle, or not one we recognize?

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.

'National interests' and dealing with U.S.–China distrust

From Kenneth Lieberthal, a political scientist now at the Brookings Institution, writing in a new report with Chinese scholar Wang Jisi, “Addressing U.S.–China Strategic Distrust“:

Too little understanding of how the Chinese political system actually functions also leads easily to Americans’ viewing Chinese decision making as strategic, coordinated, and disciplined. Disparate conflicting outcomes produced by the relatively uncoordinated initiatives of different ministries, enterprises, and localities are therefore often seen as part of a seamless web of Politbuto Standing Committee policy designed to confuse and deceive American policy makers.

Lieberthal is in a sense offering a think tank–style version of a much older insight that came to be known as the “fragmented authoritarianism” model. Nonetheless, presented here as part of an account of U.S.–China distrust, the message that U.S. leaders misunderstand Chinese political processes is important.

However, U.S. policy makers are not uniquely responsible, according to Lieberthal: “The Chinese system takes particular care to conceal its core political processes—such as selection of top leaders and civil-military interactions—from outside view.” Indeed, the lack of mutual understanding between the U.S. and Chinese governments is at times extraordinary.

I find the rest of the paper interesting, if not especially ground-breaking. Co-written with Wang (each author writing from the perspective of his government, and then co-writing the analysis), the Brookings paper has been touted by The New York Times as a “Rare Glimpse of U.S.-China Frictions.”

One thing that persists through the paper—though it includes some good ideas about potential for increased mutual trust—is that it stubbornly sticks to a rhetoric and vocabulary of “U.S. interests” and “Chinese interests.” This interests framework is terribly limiting: It fails to capture the entanglement and integration of the two countries’ economic, security, environmental, and political lives. Moreover, it buys the realist international relations conceit of self-same nation-states that possess characteristics like power and interests without internal differentiation or fundamental diversity.

As the paper argues, people in both countries would do better to think carefully about precisely who is doing what in the other country. The authors argue for more subtlety while using the language of simplicity. For a Brookings report (as opposed to for instance an academic conference paper), it’s perhaps hard to push a new way of thinking about “our nation,” but consider this:

Who do the so-called U.S. interests really represent, as practiced at the top of government? Has U.S. democracy been successful in aggregating, harmonizing, and empowering the collective interests of all citizens, or is it more likely that certain groups are being served more directly by U.S. foreign policy? How about in China: What precisely does a “Chinese interest” mean? As the report notes, various parts of the government don’t always act in coordination—so why should we expect interests to be more coherent than actions?

This is not a new argument, and indeed Lieberthal’s work helped introduce me to the notion of disaggregating the Chinese state for analysis, but it bears mentioning that even a paper about misperception and distrust falls into the old patterns of oversimplification. If there’s one message I’d like to pass across the trust divide here, it’s that we’re all baffled by the complexity. U.S. leaders are never sure what’s going to happen next at other levels of government. Chinese leaders may have little knowledge about what another department is up to. If top think tank and government thinkers start to acknowledge mutual confusion, perhaps caution will reign.