A New Dawn in China? Economic Reform and Corruption Crackdown

When Chinese President Xi Jinping, assumed office two years ago, he promised to embark on a campaign to reduce toxic levels of corruption amongst both party officials and private actors. He assured the people that both ‘flies and tigers’ would be targeted, and that no one, even top Communist Party officials, would be brought to justice and punished for their crimes. Now, two years after, the numbers speak for themselves. In collaboration with the Central Commission for Discipline and Inspection (CCDI), President Jinping has, according to Chinese authorities, approximately 100,000 officials, with unofficial numbers even going as high as 250,000. Moreover, he has also gone after several ‘top dogs’ from a variety of official institutions, with former security chief and China’s ‘most feared man’ Zhou Yongkang perhaps being the biggest of them all. In addition to Mr. Yonkang, Su Rong, former vice-chairman of China’s parliamentary advisory body, and General Xu Caihou, the retired vice-chariman of the central military commission, have been arrested for taking bribes and using their positions to amass wealth at a grand scale. In fact, in the case of General Caihou, reports have stated that fourteen trucks were needed to transport all the

So, what lies behind this massive crackdown on corrupt party officials and businessmen? Using an issue like corruption to purge key government institutions is a well-known strategy for leaders of authoritarian regimes, as it is a quick and effective way of getting rid of opposition figures that stand in the way of political and economic reforms.

Consequently, it has been suggested that President Jinping, like so many authoritarian leaders before him, is using this strategy to root out opposition and consolidate power at the centre – simply trying to empower himself and his most trusted allies without a broader goal in sight. Others have pointed out that it is an attempt to improve the Party’s relations with the Chinese people. Indeed, as President Jinping himself has . The Communist Party is immensely popular amongst broad sections of the public, but this could change if corruption is not dealt with, the president has warned.


Image courtesy of nznationalparty, ©2010, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of nznationalparty, ©2010, some rights reserved.

However, considering the apparent economic overhaul that President Jinping has embarked on, in an attempt to bounce back from decline in economic growth, it seems that there might be a more rational explanation for the crackdown. Hans Hendrischke, director of China Studies Centre at The University of Sydney, has pointed out that, although the corruption crackdown seems to be a very politicised affair, it is important to look behind newspaper headlines and instead at the broader political picture in China at the moment. It does, in fact, seem as if the crackdown is very much linked to , and that the campaign is simply a regularisation of government processes aiming to reform the economy.

There are two explanations for this :

Firstly, economic reform is a much discussed, though delicate, subject in China. With a communist history of economic planning, a people who have been indoctrinated with free market capitalism criticism for decades, and millions of people with vested interests in the current system, a reformist is bound to face fierce opposition. Consequently, to get his will and push through reforms, the president has to take on key Party officials and significant players in the business community. Hence, by going after some of the biggest fish in the pond, most of whom are well-known critics of the president, President Jinping has proved his commitment to reform and sent a clear message to those who oppose him: that they will be dragged into the ever-expanding pool of corrupt officials sent to jail or executed. Moreover, the link between the anti-corruption campaign, the . Therefore, claims that President Jinping is indeed going after specific targets that could potentially halt economic reforms seem to hold some truth, as reports suggest that government officials responsible for corruption on a much larger scale still have not been targeted.

Secondly, although it might come as a surprise to many, it does seem that President Jinping really does want to reform the economy and to allow the market to play an increasingly more important role in the future. Consequently, the anti-corruption campaign not only aims to remove opposition, but, in fact, also to fight corruption in general, because, as State Council Premier Li Keqiang argued twelve months ago, corruption is a key barrier to economic reform. Moreover, President Jinping has publicly stated that widespread corruption is crippling the Chinese economy, and as a major economic player, the state holds a great deal of responsibility. By putting leading economists, who had previously been in charge of large-scale banking and SOE de-regularisation processes, at the helm of the anti-corruption campaign, the president makes it clear that he is not just attempting to root out corruption for the fun of it. Thus, it becomes reasonable to believe that tackling corruption has indeed become a key part of the government program for reform, as President Jinping expresses understanding of the fact that a credible and transparent economic environment is key for attracting investment and boosting economic growth.

Although the state will definitely continue to play a key role in the Chinese economy, it seems that President Jinping seeks to transform the government into a more accountable version of the current corruption-permeated state apparatus. To be able to do this, he has cleverly made use of an anti-corruption campaign that both roots out opposition within the Party and tackles the negative effect corruption has on the Chinese economy as a whole. President Jinping has really made an impact in his first years in office, and there are no signs to suggest that he will stop before he reaches his final goal, though whether that is an overhaul of the economy, or something more sinister remains to be seen.

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