Dropping Tigers Like Flies

3 years ago ccwa 1

CHINA-ECONOMY/REFORMSIt’s been a year since I wrote my analysis of the Bo Xilai affair that set the China-related blogosphere abuzz. The ensuing twelve months have seen the comprehensive anticorruption campaign rapidly pick up pace. Now nearing the end of its second year, Xi Jinping’s pet project has dramatically changed the face of Chinese domestic politics. Analysis of the past year of new scandals and purges can provide some significant insights into Xi Jinping’s political calculus.

The campaign started in early 2012, before Xi even officially took office, with the ouster of Chongqing public security chief Wang Lijun. Wang ostensibly stepped away from politics of his own volition, but the story was fertile ground for rumors that higher-ups had strong-armed Wang into resignation. Later that year, an investigation into Chongqing party leader Bo Xilai was announced, and after a protracted legal battle, Bo was sentenced to life imprisonment.

From there, The Xi-Li administration moved on to tackle Xu Caihou, then vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. Xu was the highest official to be targeted since the Deng Xiaoping era following the Cultural Revolution. Then, this past July, the government announced an investigation into Zhou Yongkang, member of the Politburo Standing Committee and former leader of China’s state-owned petroleum company. Zhou is the highest-ranking official ever to be investigated on corruption charges, and his likely conviction will stand as a landmark in Chinese political history.

This most recent phase of the Xi’s quest against corruption is remarkable on multiple levels, not the least of which is its sheer scale. Upheaval so widespread that not even the highest officials are immune to criticism has not been seen since the power struggle that followed Mao’s death.

This anticorruption campaign is also significant because of the connections between the purged party members.  The first target, Wang Lijun, was a devotee of Bo Xilai, having followed him from Liaoning to Chongqing. Bo Xilai, in turn, was Zhou Yongkang’s protégé, rumored to be Zhou’s chosen successor. And Zhou Yongkang had his own alliance with Xu Caihou. But the ties binding these fallen political figures go beyond personal connection: all of Xi’s targets have been aligned with the Chinese New Left. This seems to indicate clearly that Xi’s “anticorruption campaign” is a deliberate effort to root out the New Left.

The New Left’s political agenda criticizes many of the policies that are core to Xi Jinping’s strategy, threatening to undermine his authority if the New Left gains traction. Informed by a neo-Maoist ideology, the New Left preaches a return to peasant-led, rural-based development, emphasizing popular involvement and mass movement. New Left thinkers criticize what they see as the haphazard application of capitalism to China’s economy, calling attention to ever-worsening inequality. They call for more selective application of capitalism to a fundamentally centralized economic policy.

To combat the leftist threat to his authority, the economically liberal Xi Jinping needed a strategy to quickly neutralize the New Left without calling attention to his political maneuvering. This strategy has been realized as his two-pronged anti-corruption strategy: sweeping out the “tigers and flies”. This strategy has enabled Xi to target and eliminate New Left leaders who challenge his authority, all under the guise of rooting out high-level corruption, the so-called “tigers”. By removing those opponents, he has consolidated his control over the civil service (Bo Xilai), military (Xu Caihou), and economy (Zhou Yongkang).

At the same time, Xi Jinping has used the campaign against the “flies” to coopt the New Left’s agenda. By declaring war on local-level corruption, Xi has mobilized mass public participation in politics and channeled it into frenzied support for his anticorruption campaign, keeping it from mobilizing against his own administration. In essence, he has used the New Left’s tools against them, gaining the public support he needs to secure his hold on the political elite.

The finesse with which Xi has conducted this purge is truly remarkable. We have seen none of the Cultural Revolution-style hyperbolism that has historically surrounded power struggles within the Party’s highest ranks. Instead, this battle against corruption has served to unite China under Xi Jinping as he quietly and methodically eliminates his enemies one by one. If there has ever been such a thing as political genius, I dare say this is it.


by Jayan Nair

(photo credit: america.aljazeera.com, www.scmp.com)