Tea Leaf Nation

Don't Get Too Excited About China's Latest Corruption Crackdown

A human rights lawyer explains why party leaders have been doing this for decades.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Anyone who thinks that the evident fall of Zhou Yongkang, the powerful former security chief and erstwhile member of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the small group that effectively runs China, signals that the ruling Chinese Communist Party has taken steps towards fighting corruption in a systematic way -- or that President Xi Jinping wants and is able to build a transparent government -- fundamentally misunderstands Chinese politics. 

Xi has said that his anti-corruption campaign, announced January 2013, would go after "flies and tigers," meaning that it would target corruption at all levels. Prime Minister Li Keqiang also declared on March 13 that there would be "zero tolerance for corrupt officials." They seem to be saying that before they took office, the party did not have a zero-tolerance policy -- only small time "flies" were targeted.  

The "big tiger," of course, is Zhou. Beginning in late 2012 after he left office, many high-level officials connected to Zhou have been charged with corruption, such as the deputy party secretary of Sichuan province and the former head of China's largest petroleum company. Now many know about the investigation and house arrest of Zhou, even if the Chinese government has not officially acknowledged it.

It is indeed unusual to target a member of the PSC, even one no longer in power. In Chinese officialdom, there is a saying: "If you make it to bureau head [a mid-level ranking], you will be spared the death penalty. If you make it to the PSC, you will be spared any penalty." There is almost nothing a PSC member can't do. PSC members have the police, prosecutors, and courts in their pockets. They write the criminal laws, and even history.

From Mao Zedong, to Deng Xiaoping, and all the way to Xi, every generation of Chinese leaders has launched high-profile anti-corruption campaigns: Mao began his by having the officials Liu Qingshan and Zhang Zishan executed for corruption in 1952; Deng began a "party purification" campaign in 1986. Under President Jiang Zemin, then-Premier Zhu Rongji said he had prepared 100 coffins, "99 for corrupt officials, and one for myself." 

To the party, anti-corruption campaigns are very useful because they are popular with the masses and can help take out political rivals. But because they allow winners in a political struggle to consolidate their gains, the end result of these anti-corruption campaigns is yet more corruption among those lucky enough to remain in the system. A provincial-level official would probably be ashamed if he didn't have millions of dollars' worth of illegal income and a couple of starlets as mistresses. A race to the bottom has long meant that officials with real power have about as much luck keeping clean as porn stars do keeping their chastity. The probability of corruption, and the amount involved, is directly correlated with an official's power; meanwhile, the probability of facing punishment, and the severity of the punishment, is inversely correlated to the power of the official's patrons. In other words, corruption has become institutionalized, but anti-corruption is far from systematic. The anti-corruption "successes" are therefore the result of political infighting, not the rule of law.  

Without competition between political parties, real elections, checks and balances on power, judiciary independence, a free press, or a strong civil society, Chinese corruption will remain pervasive and systematic. Few corrupt officials are caught, a signaling function which invites yet more corruption. Foreign organizations like Bloomberg and the non-profit International Consortium of Investigative Journalists have exposed the assets of certain high-level officials and their families, but I believe those are but the tip of the iceberg. 

The recent anti-corruption campaigns have little to do with modern political culture. Xu Zhiyong, the founder of the New Citizens Movement, which advocates constitutionalism in China, has pioneered a protest that focuses on publicizing the assets of government officials, a needed ray of sunlight that would make it harder for corrupt bureaucrats to hide their misdeeds. Some brave human rights defenders have walked onto the streets, held up signs, shouted out slogans, given public speeches, and sought out signatures to call for the establishment of a system that would publicize assets of officials. But in January Xu was sentenced to four years in prison, and dozens of his comrades-in-arms have been arrested. The anti-corruption campaigns are not real -- but the anti-anti-corruption campaigns are. The punishment meted out to corrupt officials has been meager, while that given to anti-corruption activists has been devastating.

The move against Zhou is probably part of a larger political game, but its outcome is certain. There might be fierce infighting among the families and patrons of high-level officials as their interests collide, but they can probably agree on two things: Maintain one-party rule, and crush human rights activists. 

Translated by David Wertime. 

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

Occupy This

Chinese are not happy with recent Taiwanese protests against a trade pact with the mainland.

After Taiwan's January 2012 presidential election, many Chinese Internet users came down with a case of democracy-envy, as their cultural cousins seemed to enjoy the luxury of free speech, orderly voting, and the power to change their government. Chinese Internet users certainly liked the winner: Ma Ying-jeou, the handsome incumbent belonging to the Kuomintang (KMT) party who favored closer relationships with mainland China. Chinese social media tracked Ma and electoral opponent Tsai's every move, and many users compared the humility of the Taiwanese campaigners with the arrogance often seen in largely unaccountable Chinese officials. Even outside observers have held up Taiwan's democratic institutions -- which have supported five presidential elections, generally free expression of political opinions, and have survived a number of street protests involving hundreds of thousands of people -- as a potential model for China's future. But now, in the wake of recent protests, Chinese mainlanders are questioning whether all this democracy is worth the trouble.

Taiwan's reputation seems to have suffered a particular hit in Chinese eyes after college-age students began to occupy Taiwan's legislature on March 18. The move followed a KMT effort to use its legislative majority to push through a free trade agreement with mainland China, known as the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), without debating it item by item. On the evening of March 23, the movement saw a major escalation when hundreds of students broke into the Executive Yuan, the seat of Taiwan's cabinet, after Ma refused to meet protester demands to annul the CSSTA in its current form. Video footage showed ransacked offices with broken windows, furniture, and computers. Hours later, riot police armed with batons and water cannons forcibly evicted hundreds of protesters from the Executive Yuan. (As of this article's publication, protesters continue to occupy the legislature.)

To many mainland observers consigned to observing Taiwan through the looking glass -- one shaped by history, distance, and the inevitable effect of propaganda that praises China's status quo -- the whole controversy over the CSSTA is evidence that democratic institutions in Taiwan are failing. Chen Min, a noted Chinese liberal who uses the penname Xiaoshu and is currently banned from Sina Weibo, China's most popular microblogging platform, wrote from a friend's account that he believes the movement had "exceeded its original intention" when the leaders sought to use what he called "violence" to annul the CSSTA instead of pursuing legal means. Chen added that Taiwan's democratic institutions should be carefully protected because they represent the "highest level of democratic achievement in a society with Chinese culture." A teacher at Jinan University, a research university in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, described Taiwanese authorities as a "black box" -- a critique Chinese often direct at their Communist government -- who were using  "violence to counter violence," finally questioning what Taiwan has to show for its political system. A young historian using the pen name Ya Shalong also defended the Taiwanese right to protest, but called the occupation of Taiwan's legislature "a different matter" because he believed it was a "violation of rule of law and a breakdown of democracy."   

The judgment of many Chinese is inevitably colored by widespread resentment against what many see as Taiwanese rejection of the mainland, its closest cultural cousin and most significant trading partner. A popular explainer on Chinese social media about the CSSTA, which has been shared over 18,000 times, describes it as a major concession by the mainland. Xu Qinduo, a host on a state-owned radio station, wrote on Weibo that he wanted China to "call off the CSSTA," asking why the mainland needs "to put its hot cheeks against Taiwan's cold buttocks." An attorney named Duan Wanjin agreed, asking why the mainland, which made "many economic concessions in the CSSTA," received "only accusations and anger in exchange."

Prompted by the recent protests, Chinese web users are now digging around for further evidence of Taiwanese disrespect. "Tea egg," a hashtag lately used over 7.7 million times on Weibo, refers to a televised August 2011 episode of a Taiwan food show in which guest Gao Zhibin, from Taiwan's Ministry of Labor, claimed that many mainland Chinese could not afford to buy tea eggs, an inexpensive Chinese snack. Also widely circulating on Chinese social media is a video that shows a Taiwanese student leader addressing protesters of the recent occupation, one of many to do so. The speaker warns that if the CSSTA were passed, the Taiwanese would become like China's Uighurs, an ethnic minority that has a tense relationship with Beijing and the majority Han, frequently suffering crackdowns at the behest of central authorities. The speaker made numerous false claims -- at one point he avers, incredibly, that 450,000 18-year-old Uighur girls are sent to the (nonexistent) southwest coast of China every year -- drawing a predictably angry reaction in the mainland. One Weibo user fumed in response that Taiwanese "have only the mouths but not the ears for democracy."

Mainland backlash against the Taiwanese protests is widespread, but it was not inevitable. Chinese have shown themselves willing to use Taiwan as a foil for self-criticism before; in May 2012, ultra-famous Chinese blogger Han Han thanked Taiwan for "protecting Chinese civilization" along with Hong Kong. But the recent criticism currently coming from Taiwanese, some of whom have averred that they fear China for wanting to "seize our economy by its lifeline," may be too much for the mainland's collective ego to bear. 

Yiqin Fu contributed research. 

Photo: Getty Images