A Genuine Anti-Corruption Drive In China? The fight against corruption is not conducted in a transparent way. The danger of upsetting an established power system

WASHINGTON – The arrest in China of Zhou Yongkang, former head of domestic security and (even in retirement) still a powerful member of the political elites, made news.

No longer untouchable

China’s top Communist Party leaders used to enjoy special status and protection, even after they left office. They used to be untouchable. But now it is different. Under the guise of an all out war against corruption –a war that will target “tigers and flies”, big and small fish– President Xi Jinping has openly incriminated Zhou, one of the most illustrious untouchables.

Recreate trust in the party?

And what is the real end-game here? We are told by commentators that this Beijing-mandated and led anti-graft, anti-corruption drive is aimed at re-establishing trust in the party, although this may be a difficult task.

Difficult indeed. In fact, probably impossible. Anybody can see that there is a credibility problem when a secretive autocracy openly declares war against bad apples within; but uses a secretive process to identify and charge them.

Non transparent methods

The Communist Party is non transparent in most of what it does, beginning with the way in which it recruits, promotes and sometimes demotes its high-ranking officials. Therefore, in the eyes of the average Chinese citizen, it may appear that the Chinese leaders now are pursuing a new agenda that is simply called “fight against corruption”. Still, whatever the label, this campaign may have little to do with creating a new regime of real accountability, transparency and honest practices.

A credible campaign would have to be transparent

I do not have any trouble believing that President Xi may be serious about fighting corruption; simply because a totally corrupt political system eventually becomes both weak and unruly.

However, a real anti-corruption campaign that the common people could believe in would have to be based on clear laws. It would have to be managed in an open and transparent way by independent prosecutors and an independent judiciary, while truly free media would have unfettered access to all records and proceedings.

A way to get rid of enemies?

But we know that none of this exists in China. Right now, we see that many powerful people, both in the government and in the private sector, have been arrested and charged. Some have simply disappeared. Are all these people really engaged in corruption? Probably. But most likely many others are too. So, who gets to pick the targets?

More accurately, is this anti-corruption crusade a convenient way to eliminate potential rivals and/or other power centers that might in any way challenge the authority of President Xi and his allies? Who knows really.

Autocracies cannot be reformed

All this aside, a word of caution. Autocracies cannot be easily reformed or “improved”. As the experience of the old Soviet Union demonstrates, those who try to improve an autocracy –remember Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev?– may end up triggering a process that leads to the destruction of the old regime.

China is different, of course. The Chinese Communist Party is not ruling a quasi-failed state. Still, China is entering the uncharted territory of slower economic growth and increasing social tensions.

Unintended consequences

I can understand the public relations goal of trying to make the ruling Communist Party more popular. But I am not so sure that a few high visibility staged trials and a few purges will do the trick.

Meanwhile, a very complex and vast system of patronage, supported by bribes, kickbacks and all sorts of shady relationships may react in unpredictable ways under the new stress created by the zealous Beijing cops.


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