Corruption in China is not a recent phenomenon; nor are anti-corruption efforts initiated by the party-state. Corruption features prominently in China’s history, but the practice became increasingly visible after the reform and opening up of 1978. The injection of capital created opportunities for Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and state officials to exploit state resources for private gain. Tackling corruption took a back seat as China embraced capital and private enterprise, reflected in Deng Xiaoping’s phrase “to get rich is glorious.”
Nearly four decades later, in November 2012, China’s outgoing leader Hu Jintao was warning the country that systemic corruption could lead to the downfall of the CCP and the People’s Republic of China. Picking up where Hu left off, Xi Jinping, in his first speech as the CCP’s general secretary, highlighted graft and corruption as the most pressing challenge confronting the party. A decade later, Xi’s anti-corruption drive is an all-encompassing campaign sweeping across the party, state, and private enterprises, eliminating his political opponents and becoming a hallmark of his tenure as China’s top leader.
Anti-corruption investigations in China are carried out by the Central Committee for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) and the National Supervision Commission (NSC). The CCDI in particular is at the core of corruption investigations at the central and provincial level, investigating and punishing more than 4 million cadres and nearly 500 senior officials since Xi took office in 2012. The CCDI even has its own TV program called “Zero Tolerance,” an annual production popular with the public for showcasing the body’s work in tacking graft and exposing the corruption and opulence of high-ranking members in the party.
Since 2018, the anti-corruption campaign has focused on non-CCP members as well, made possible by the formation of the NSC and passage of the Supervision Law to govern its operations. The Supervision Law widened the range of targets to include managers of state-owned enterprises, administrators in public institutions, and state officials across government branches. The anti-corruption campaign coincides with the arrival of Xi Jinping, evidenced by data released by the CCDI, which shows an increase in the prosecution of senior officials in 2013 compared to 2012. The inclusion in the campaign of both “tigers” and “flies,” of party and state officials, and of rivals and allies has several pressing implications for elite politics in China and public perception of Xi’s regime.
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The anti-corruption campaign was set in motion by a sensational scandal in February 2012 involving the head of Chongqing’s Public Security Bureau, who fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu in a bid to claim asylum in the United States. The incident revealed the alleged murder of a British businessman, which snowballed into rumors of a coup plot against Xi Jinping by Bo Xilai, party secretary of Chongqing, and Zhou Yongkang, secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission and a member of the 17th Politburo Standing Committee. Soon after the incident, Bo was dismissed from the CCP and eventually sentenced to life in prison for bribery, abuse of power, and embezzlement.
The incident was followed by another high-profile investigation, this time focused on Liu Zhijun, the minister of railways responsible for China’s sprawling high-speed railway network. Liu’s case was by far one of the most widely followed news stories in China and the prosecution’s recommendation that he be given a lenient sentence was met with unanimous opposition by citizens across the country. These incidents cultivated the necessary public support for an anti-corruption campaign that was then in its infancy; however, this public support remains misguided by CCP propaganda.
The anti-corruption campaign was supported by a Party Education Program (PEP) in 2012, the first of three such ideological education campaigns launched by Xi in his first term. The “Mass Line Program” targeted Party cadres in order to rectify behaviors like hedonism, superficial conformity, and inactiveness. The Politburo followed up with a directive called the “Eight Provisions” in December 2012 that set concrete regulations to instill discipline among party cadres: emphasizing regular inspection visits to the local level, prohibiting ribbon cutting and cornerstone laying ceremonies, reducing the number of foreign visits, reducing traffic controls when officials travel, and placing other budgetary restrictions on the use of public finance for business meals and government cars. These provisions essentially set the rules for acceptable behavior by CCP officials and thus have become the basis for launching investigations.
In operation for two years, the Mass Line Program was a populist measure emphasizing austerity that removed the perks associated with CCP positions. In the first year of the campaign, more than 30,000 party officials were investigated and 7,600 of them were sanctioned for violations of the Eight Provisions. The second and third ideological campaigns, the “Three Stricts” and “Two Studies” programs, were slightly different in emphasis, focusing on political discipline and protocols that ensure loyalty to the party center and Xi Jinping.
The “Three Stricts” campaign was focused on the ethical conduct of CCP officials, including offenses like ideological deviance, sedition, espionage, and treason. The concept of political protocols became popular between 2014 and 2016, with Xi urging officials to follow the unified party center and later prohibiting alliance-forming activity. One prominent example of prosecution for conducting unorganized political activity was the case against Ling Jihua, Hu Jintao’s former chief of staff, who was accused of organizing a factional group called the Xishan society. Similarly, nearly 300 members connected to Zhou Yongkang were questioned or detained in 2014, while other leaders within the Sichuan faction were investigated as well. Zhou himself was put on trial and imprisoned for life, both firsts for a former Politburo Standing Committee member.
On the other hand, Hebei Party Secretary Zhou Benshun was charged for expressing a dissenting opinion on the Eight Provisions directive by the Politburo, defying the orders of the party center. Policing political discipline and loyalty to the party center – and later, Xi personally as the “core” leader – became the defining feature of the second wave of anti-corruption efforts. By 2017, 15,000 party members had received punishment for violations of CCP discipline, more than the number of officials punished during the Tiananmen purge of 1989-1992. Another highlight of the political discipline campaign was the expulsion of 63 military generals, the largest such anti-corruption effort targeting the military in China’s modern history.
The ideology campaign, which had morphed into a political discipline campaign, maintained its intensity until 2018, and then expanded its reach to include the private sector, which continues to this day. The campaigns have heavily relied on disciplinary mechanisms like the CCDI and Central Inspection Teams (CITs) while punishment is mostly carried out by CCP organizations and later handled by the state’s judicial bodies. The CCDI is now highly institutionalized; it tackles corruption and roots out cliques and individuals challenging the authority of the party core, Xi Jinping.
The scope of the anti-corruption campaign has expanded to countries outside China as well, as evidenced by Operation Fox Hunt and Operation Sky Net. In 2015, the Chinese government released a list of 100 most-wanted fugitives who had fled to foreign countries; by 2017, the anti-corruption organization had managed to bring back 40 individuals on the list.
In 2018 alone, more than 1,000 Chinese fugitives who fled abroad were brought back to the country, of which 307 were party or government officials. The most high profile incident included the disappearance of the first Chinese head of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, who was detained in September 2018 during a visit to China and later sentenced to 13 years in jail.
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Between 2018 and 2020, the NSC claimed in its first work report that it brought back 3,848 fugitives from abroad and nearly 10 billion renminbi in illegal funds. The operation to bring back fugitives from foreign countries is focused on white-collar criminals, but is also deployed to target dissidents and political opponents.
The expansion of the CCDI and NSC’s operations abroad also accompanied a shift in the emphasis of the campaign. The CCDI has targeted bureaucratic inefficiency and performance-related issues, such as the failure to meet key performance indicators, unaccountability to constituents, and the lack of compliance with directives issued by the party center. For example, in January 2022, the Zhengzhou city party chief, Xu Liyi, and 89 other officials were disciplined for their poor handling of the Henan floods, which claimed the lives of 380 people in the city. Similarly, after an investigation by the CCDI into Hubei’s early COVID-19 response, the province’s party chief, Jiang Chaoliang, and the director of the provincial health commission were dismissed from their posts.
Most recently, the anti-corruption campaign has turned its attention to financial regulators, whom the CCDI has accused of wielding regulatory power for personal gain, describing a revolving door relationship between business and government. The CCDI in October 2021 initiated a two-month long inspection of more than 20 financial institutions, including banks, stock exchanges, insurance regulators, and asset management companies. So far, more than 40 officials in the financial sector have been investigated by the CCDI for financial crimes and violations of political discipline.
One example is the case of Zhou Jiangyong, the Hangzhou party secretary with close ties to Alibaba, who was expelled for profiting from the disorderly expansion of private companies. The targeting of private companies and SOEs that began with a crackdown on tech companies and education firms has now swept through the financial sector. Most recently, in April of this year, nearly 17 officials including the president of China Merchants Bank, Tian Huiyu, were investigated or punished for violations of political discipline.
The anti-corruption campaign and institutionalization of CCP organizations like the CCDI has massively affected the elite politics, political culture, and public perception of the CCP. The campaigns have increased Xi Jinping’s unilateral ability to leverage political loyalty and discipline to regulate the behavior of party officials. Wang Qishan, the CCDI’s former head and close ally of Xi Jinping, noted that killing tigers and swatting flies serves as a deterrent to corrupt officials, calling the body a “Sword of Damocles.”
Local officials and party members at the center are now increasingly worried about an investigation into their past, income sources, and conduct, or the leak of information from other functionaries that could involve them in an investigation, especially if they present anti-establishment views. The proliferation of the CCDI units across all party and state bodies has heightened the risk of being investigated upon presenting a threat to Xi.
The anti-corruption campaign also has a dual effect on factions and cliques, dampening their operation on the one hand while also increasing the opposition to Xi’s efforts. Factions and cliques like the Xishan society, the Sichuan faction, and Shaanxi faction, with the potential to destabilize leadership unity, were purged for forming alliances. As the anti-corruption struggle against party members and vested business interests carries on, however, Xi increases the potential for opposition to his campaign and rule.
Lastly, public perception of the anti-corruption campaign has been largely supportive of Xi’s efforts. Combined with corruption within the CCP, the rising inequality in incomes in China is likely to generate support for the campaign as it moves forward. As the 20th Party Congress approaches, the anti-corruption drive shows no signs of slowing, indicating Xi’s resolve to maintain his authority over the party and demonstrating his willingness to shape the future of the CCP in his image.
This article was previously published by the Organisation for Research on China and Asia (ORCA) and is republished here with permission.