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Xi Jinping’s Three Easy Steps to a Clean China

by Elizabeth C. Economy
December 10, 2012

China's newly appointed leader Xi Jinping attends a meeting with foreign experts at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on December 5, 2012. China's newly appointed leader Xi Jinping attends a meeting with foreign experts at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on December 5, 2012. (Ed Jones/Courtesy Reuters)

Xi Jinping has one over-riding political mandate: clean up corruption or clear out. Corruption and its manifestations are at the heart of the Party’s greatest challenges: its glaring lack of legitimacy; one hundred eighty thousand mass demonstrations annually by most recent count; and an outflow of money through corruption, crime, and tax evasion as high as $3.72 trillion over the past decade. Is Xi up to the task?

In a 2000 interview, Xi Jinping stressed his belief that a new leader should set his own agenda but also build upon the work of his predecessors. Xi is pushing forward on an anti-corruption platform and in so doing is following a long and storied tradition in Chinese history. Mao Zedong launched the country’s first anti-corruption campaign in 1951, just two years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and such campaigns have been a staple of every Chinese leadership since. In the past five years alone, over six hundred thousand Party officials have been investigated for “corruption-related activities.” The challenge here is two-fold: the number that should be investigated is probably closer to six million or even sixty million; and the traditional method of attack—simply plucking out corrupt officials one by one from on high—is woefully inadequate to the task at hand. Fortunately, Xi and his corruption czar Wang Qishan appear to have some other tricks up their sleeves:

Make first impressions count: Within the first month of Xi being selected as General Secretary of the Communist Party, the Party issued eight new guidelines for officials designed to help them clean up their act and be “men of the people.” Most of the new regulations revolve around reducing official excesses, such as controlling the funds spent on official banquets, renovating government buildings, or purchasing official cars. Gone are ribbon-cutting ceremonies, long and empty speeches, and orchestrated rallies for Party leaders when they travel at home or abroad. Losing all these perks may do more over time to improve the quality of Party members than any anti-corruption campaign.

Introduce democracy but just a little: Look for small bore—not bold, but not boring—changes in Party governance under Xi. He will likely support two small “democracy” reforms: greater intra-party democracy—ensuring that there are more candidates than positions throughout the Party hierarchy; and deliberative democracy, engaging the Chinese people at the local level in the decision-making process, while still retaining the decision-making part of the process in the hands of the Party. Down south, officials are also experimenting with disclosing their financial assets, and there are plans to release this information to the public. According to Mei Heqing, a senior official with the Guangzhou municipal commission for discipline inspection, people will even be able to go online to find out how many properties local officials own.

Befriend the Internet: This may turn out to be the boldest advance in Xi’s first year, or it may not. The official Xinhuanet.com recently published a report underscoring the positive role of Chinese netizens in ferreting out official corruption, suggesting that the new leadership may appreciate a helping hand from the country’s mass-based anti-corruption campaigners. The elevation of Liu Yunshan—renowned for his “draconian control of the media and Internet” over the past ten years—to the Politburo Standing Committee, however, has many reformers predicting a tough road ahead for freedom of speech and Internet expression. The netizens will almost certainly win the war, but the battles will be ugly.

Xi Jinping’s domestic political agenda over the next year might best be summed up by simple, clean men in a simple, clean government. Xi wants his officials to be corruption-free, servants of the public good, and modest. Getting there won’t be easy, but he has made his intentions clear.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Rousseauc

    I am always fasincated by American pundits who believe they have a receipe for China. In fact, they don’t even have a recipe for their own leader, Obama, or the Congress. Look at the mess in Washington, and this is where all the think tanks are located.

    China has one-fifth of humanity and if you think you can generalize China in one sentence, or one article, you are a real laowai (foreigner).

  • Posted by Liguo Ren

    Xi’s best efforts notwithstanding, the dominant law of Chinese central government campaigns will still hold sway: 上有政策, 下有对策. “From the top comes the policy, down below comes the counter-policy.”

  • Posted by Elizabeth C. Economy

    Rousseauc,
    Thank you for your comment. The piece was not meant to convey my recipe for China’s leaders to clean up corruption but rather their own steps thus far to take action and what more we might reasonably expect them to do in the near term. Take another look at the piece, and I think you will see the difference.

  • Posted by Gary

    I think what Xi is trying to do is introduce these reform measures from the bottom up (asset disclosure for isntance) or regionally so that higher ups, at the provincial, ministrial, and SOE level can have time to prepare.

    That is, major interest groups aren’t hurt if county-township level cadres are sacked. Xi won’t lose any political capital. But the difference is when provincial/central party committee members are exposed to have massive amounts of illegal assets, Li Chunpeng in Sichuan, for example. What the leadership wants to do is give enough time for higher level party officials to get their own houses in order and get used to the new anti-corruption norms.

  • Posted by Df-41

    This conservative leadership was a response to the Asia pivot, the more the US encircle China, the more hardline leaders that will take over the leadership. You think this current bunch is conservative, just wait 5 years when the next group comes in, they will make this current group look like liberals.

    As I said, China will get alot more tough and hard line against the US, infact the Obama pivot was the best thing that happened to Chinese hardliners and the military budget.

    Chinese hardliners will now get top positions and the military will get all the money it wants and China will go from the current military modernisation to a full scale military build up.

    Xi has already said to build up the missile forces. If the US wants to punch China, then expect to get punched back in no uncertain terms.

  • Posted by Elizabeth C. Economy

    Great point. Interestingly, Yu Zhengsheng has said that he would be willing to release information on his assets–that would put a lot of pressure on other central-level leaders to do the same.

  • Posted by Elizabeth C. Economy

    Well, let’s not forget that the U.S. pivot was at least in part a response to calls from other actors in the region to respond to China’s growing assertiveness. Causality can be tricky to determine. Moreover, I would imagine that the leadership lineup is determined more by domestic interests and issues than by anything the United States does or doesn’t do.

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