A paramilitary policeman stands guard in front of the Great Hall of the People, the venue of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, in Beijing. Reuters/Petar Kujundzic
Failing to tackle corruption “could cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state,” warned Hu Jintao, the outgoing general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, at the Eighteenth Party Congress in November 2012. By January, the newly appointed party chief, Xi Jinping, publicly pledged zero tolerance for corruption, vowing to prosecute both “tigers” and “flies”—i.e., top officials and lowly bureaucrats alike.
Both leaders were trying to temper public anger over the issue of corruption, which had led to massive demonstrations all over the country. Still, one wonders how sincere Xi is about tackling corruption. After all, Bloomberg News reported last June that the wealth of Xi’s extended family amounts to billions in minerals and real estate, including a stake in a rare-earth company that alone is worth $1.73 billion. So would Xi start by putting members of his own family in the dock?
This is not the first time that China’s leaders have promised to crack down on corruption. Some twenty-five years ago, former Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang began an anti-corruption campaign by investigating the finances of the children of high-ranking party officials. Hu’s investigation angered the top leaders, including Deng Xiaoping, who pushed for his downfall. When he died in April 1989, some 100,000 students marched to Tiananmen Square on the night before his funeral to mourn him and to voice their grievances against inflation and corruption. The demonstrators camped out in the square, and hundreds of thousands more joined them later. In the end, Deng rejected their demands and ordered the bloody Tiananmen Square massacre.
Deng had used force to save the Chinese Communist Party. Likewise, Xi—even as he publicly pledged to end corruption—delivered an entirely different message behind closed doors to the party cadres in Guangdong Province last December. There, he urged the party to heed the “deeply profound” lessons of the Soviet Union. To avoid the prospect of a similar demise, Xi insisted, the CCP should maintain absolute control over the military. Since Xi will not enact democratic reforms for fear of leading the party down the Soviet path to extinction, his only option is repression. To Xi, as to Deng, the survival of the Communist Party takes precedence over everything else.
But the corruption within the party is pervasive. In the past, the public has mostly witnessed corruption at the local level. However, shortly before the convening of the Eighteenth Party Congress, a factional struggle broke out at the highest level of the establishment over the slate of candidates for top party positions that were to be confirmed there. Incriminating evidence of corruption was leaked from different sides of the internal conflict. In the early spring of 2012, the party chief of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, who was also a member of the Chinese Communist Party Political Bureau, was accused of collaborating with his wife in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, with whom she’d had a disagreement over the amount of money owed to him for his alleged services in laundering $1.2 billion out of the country.