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Lord of the Flies

Just how many low-level officials is Xi Jinping going to expel from the Chinese Communist Party? 

China's hunt for "tigers," or corrupt high-level officials, has been grabbing headlines but, meanwhile, another campaign has been quietly keeping pace: swatting "flies," or Chinese officials who flout rules rather than breaks laws. Recent news reports reveal that people across China are getting booted from the Communist Party for relatively minor violations. The casualties include Huang Genbao, a 40-year party veteran in inland Jiangxi province, who was kicked out of the party in April 2013 for harassing cadres who tried to tear down an unauthorized building at his son's factory. Yang Xiaohui, another official in Jiangxi's Yichun city, misappropriated a little over $3,000 in public funds, then reimbursed it all. He was expelled anyway. Bribe-taking led to the expulsion of Yang Jianfu, a hospital official in Henan's Hebi city, and Huang Quanfu, an official in the far western Ningxia region, who lost his party membership in July.

Since Xi Jinping ascended to the top of the party nearly two years ago, there's been a steady drumbeat of party expulsions at the top. The most high-level official yet, General Xu Caihou -- a former vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, the top body of China's People's Liberation Army -- was ousted on June 30. But below the radar is another parallel push to rid the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) lower ranks of members who have "unhealthy tendencies." Maybe they do drugs, gamble, skim modestly from state coffers, miss party meetings, or fail to pay their membership dues. While less flashy, the party sees this campaign to clean up the lesser bad apples -- and to keep them from joining in the first place with strict new vetting procedures -- as key to regaining flagging public trust.

The same day Xu's expulsion was announced, the party revealed its latest membership figures: Roughly 2.4 million joined in 2013, a whopping 825,000 fewer members than the year previous, marking the first decline in party membership growth in a decade. This was a reflection of the party's picky new attitude, and not for lack of applications, Zhang Xi'en, a political science professor at Shandong University, told the newspaper the Global Times.

There is room for scaling back. When it took power in 1949, the CCP had 4.5 million members. Today it has more than 86 million members and is the world's largest political party. The growth rate increased steadily between 2004 and 2012 as more people, particularly students, clamored for entry, and hit a historical high in 2012, with 3.23 million new members added. Many Chinese undergraduates have come to see membership as essential resume padding and a necessary networking tool, even though a survey published Dec. 2013 by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank, found that membership doesn't necessarily mean better job prospects for graduates.

Hoping to ensure that new members are less vulnerable to temptation, the government announced June 11 that it was tightening the guidelines for recruitment and would do things like conduct tougher background checks and ensure that recruits exhibit "socialist core values," though it didn't specify how the values vetting would be done. The party has scaled back quotas at universities; for example, Renmin University in Beijing, which used to have more than 1,000 spots for party aspirants, is now capped at 900, according to Southern Metropolis Weekly, a magazine based in the wealthy southern province of Guangdong.

While the party is tightening its regulations, it's still very hard to get kicked out unless one is convicted of a crime. The party doesn't consistently reveal expulsion figures; the most recent data reported by state media shows that roughly 32,000 people were expelled in 2010, mostly for corruption. Part of the reason so many cadres are retained is because there's no good mechanism for shedding them. The government worries that giving free rein to local-level party organizations could result in purges. Cai Xia, a professor at the party school in Beijing, told News China, a feature magazine put out by the official Xinhua News Agency, that there were concerns that the downsizing campaign could become a way "to punish grassroots members whose opinions differ from those of their leaders." In a bid to prevent that, the government has experimented with different pilot programs aimed at finding appropriate noncriminal criteria for expulsion. Huang and Ying, the officials mentioned above, were kicked out as part of an experiment in "party purification" launched in Yichun in April 2013. They were among 114 party members expelled in the city, which has 220,000 party members. A similar experiment in Tongxiang, a city in the wealthy coastal province of Zhejiang, resulted in an audit that found 230 "unqualified" cadres out of 36,425 assessed. But only nine were persuaded by the party audit committee to quit and 20 were kicked out.

It's no surprise that so-called unqualified members resist the booting. In China, leaving the party is almost always the death knell of one's career. In the case of Bo Xilai, the charismatic former party secretary of Chongqing, it became clear that he was being destroyed -- and not just sanctioned -- when the party announced in September 2012 that he had been expelled. "They want to drive a stake through the heart of his political career, and make it absolutely impossible," for him to reappear, said Rana Mitter, a history professor at Oxford University, at the time. Another year would pass before he was found guilty of bribe-taking, embezzlement, and abuse of power in a five-day trial and sentenced to life in prison. The verdict came as no surprise.

Richard McGregor, bureau chief for the Financial Times in Washington and author of The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers, told Foreign Policy that, for members at all social strata, getting ejected is "pretty much crippling." But not doing the booting threatens to be crippling for the party itself. McGregor says that although the party would like to be seen as a "benevolent but distant and upright father figure," the Chinese public has long held a different view. "The father figure these days is very scary, sometimes cruel, and, for many years but especially so in recent years, much soiled and very corrupt."

Fixing that tarnished image will mean more expulsions and tougher recruitment, and not just to satisfy party vanity. It's required to give the leadership the political will it needs to push through tough reforms necessary for its survival. But just how many cadres will be cut remains unclear. In May 2013, Zhang the political science professor suggested the party downsize to a "moderate" 51 million members by shedding some 30 million from the rolls. It's extremely unlikely that the party will take Zhang's suggestion. But there are a lot of potential flies to swat.  

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I Thought Xi Liked Sports

China's soccer-mad president is heading to Brazil. Why is he skipping the World Cup final?

The private lives of China's leaders have such a black box quality that when state media released a video of President Xi Jinping delivering New Year's greetings from his office on December 31, it caused a stir. Was that a picture of his daughter in the background? How many pencils sit in the cup on his desk? So his love of soccer and willingness to gush about it when he travels comes as a refreshing surprise, a rare glimpse of the man behind the job.

In March in Berlin, Xi visited a group of young Chinese athletes training with German football coaches, and proudly told them they were the future of Chinese football. While visiting Dublin in February 2012, Xi looked delighted to kick around a soccer ball, even though he was restrictively dressed in a big overcoat. Xi's wife Peng Liyuan has said her husband likes to stay up late watching soccer. And Xi enthused to Indonesian journalists in October 2012 about how soccer is great because it's team-focused and not for grandstanders -- perhaps a surprising admission for a leader sometimes described as the "emperor" of the Politburo Standing Committee, China's top decision-making body. Xi is so associated with soccer in China that people on Chinese social media sites like Sina Weibo debated whether he was a World Cup "good luck charm" based on the fanciful notion that countries he had visited in the last two years were advancing.

So why did Xi decline the invitation from Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to the July 13 World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro? Xi is already heading to the Brazilian city of Fortaleza July 15-16 for the sixth annual BRICS summit. The official line doesn't give much to work with: A Chinese official told reporters that Xi couldn't make it "due to a scheduling issue." Brazil's ambassador to China, Valdemar Carneiro Leão, told state-owned China News Service that Xi would arrive the day after the match. "Unfortunately for some reason he cannot be present but he was invited," he said, adding almost quizzically: "I know he is a very great fan of football."

Perhaps Xi decided to skip it because host Brazil had been so thoroughly humiliated in the tournament. But China had already announced Xi wasn't going on July 7, the day before Brazil's mortifying 7-1 loss to Germany in the semi-finals. And China has suffered plenty of its own football defeats -- not least of which was its failure to qualify for the World Cup (again) this year. In South Korea in July 2011, Xi outlined his hopes for Chinese soccer: "To qualify for the World Cup, to host the World Cup, and to win the World Cup." If China were to host, it would automatically qualify. But the last wish seems a tall order for a country that has only qualified for the World Cup once, in 2002, when it lost all three games it played, and did not score a single goal.

For Xi, going to the match might present an image problem. Bai Qiang, the CEO of a Beijing entertainment company and a huge football fan, is in Brazil for the World Cup and has so far gone to two quarter-final games and two semi-finals. He'll be at the last match in Rio de Janeiro on July 13 but he thinks Xi is smart to stay away. "Never to put personal hobby ahead of political needs has always been China's habit," he wrote by email.

Maybe Xi is leery of being pictured at an event marred by corruption and overspending claims, particularly while he oversees a massive anti-corruption battle at home. But simple frugality probably isn't the motive -- he was flying to Brazil anyway. "It's not about the money," said Zha Daojiong, a professor of political economy at Peking University. If Xi went, people at home would be bound to talk and not favorably, Zha said. "To go as an individual is one thing, but for him to go as a world leader, when his team didn't qualify, would be laughable." It would be different if it was the World Cup of something China is great at, like ping-pong or badminton, Zha said. "Then, of course he would go." Perhaps Zha is right. In that case, until China excels at soccer, Xi might have to contend himself with watching World Cup games from afar. 

Rowan Simons, a Beijing-based Brit who wrote Bamboo Goalposts, a book about his quest to popularize soccer in China, didn't know why Xi would be staying away from the final. But he was certain of one thing. "I am sure it is not because he doesn't want to!" he said.  

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