Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.08.04

Corruption Crises in China

JBpress on August 1, 2014

China's Communist Party on July 29 finally announced its long-rumored investigation of Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the powerful Standing Committee of the party's Politburo. To the silent majority of Japanese, however, this feels like déjà-vu, because they experienced something similar in Tokyo between the 1950s and 70s.

In China, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that Zhou, the powerful former domestic security chief, was suspected of "serious disciplinary violations." With such an announcement, most China watchers agree that he is politically "finished." U.S. media reported that in China, "an anti-corruption drive is now reaching previously untouchable levels." Is that really the case?

In 1974, then U.S. President Richard Nixon resigned in the Watergate scandal. In 1976, Japan's former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka was arrested for corruption charges during the Lockheed scandal, although the amount of dirty money involved is much smaller than Zhou's. Both cases reminded ordinary Japanese that under democracy even the most powerful are subject to the rule of law.

Compared to Japan's political saga, China's corruption charges are not yet targeting the highest ranking politicians. Although China's top political leaders have been ousted before, during the Cultural Revolution and in the late 1980s, none of them were charged under the rule of law. They were just removed from the Communist Party for political, not legal, reasons.

Having said that, the purge of Zhou Yongkang is worth watching closely. Some pundits stated that "the move reflects the tenacity of President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption drive." This school of thought claims that the "announcement revealed how thoroughly Xi has consolidated his power since taking over the party in 2012."

Another school of thought is not so optimistic. Its supporters believe that Xi Jinping is still trying to consolidate his power base, because this sort of anti-corruption move "risks generating a backlash from various party factions on whose support he depends to rule" and "raises the possibility of future investigations into their own patrons and former top leaders."

The first school of thought misses an important aspect of power struggles in China. That is: If Xi has to remove someone, it is because Xi is in a weaker position being challenged by powerful foes. Japanese Prime Minister Takeo Miki, for example, who succeeded and eventually agreed to arrest Kakuei Tanaka, was considered the weakest faction leader inside the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

In other words, if Xi is politically strong enough, he need not resort to such a flamboyant public campaign. Having said that, the second school may be wrong, too. This is because the real objective of the ousting of Zhou is not just to remove a corrupt--but not the most corrupt--politician, but rather to save the legitimacy of the Communist Party's political leadership.

Here comes a third school of thought which considers that President Xi is neither powerful nor weak. He started the anti-corruption campaign not because of power struggles but out of political necessity. This school claims that the top leaders in Beijing are well aware that their party is losing what popular support they once might have enjoyed and is now entering a politically dangerous landscape.

Zhou Yongkang has long been considered one of China's most unpopular senior officials. He was a guru in both the energy and security-intelligence communities. He, like any other powerful party member, knows how to turn power into cash and knows it well. It is quite likely that Xi Jinping thought it necessary for the survival of the party to now remove Zhou and his ilk.

There is always a dark side to political campaigns. If a General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party says "it's white," everybody says "it's white." The real problem is that once you start such an unprecedented anti-corruption purge against "both flies and tigers," you cannot stop it mid-stream. Xi has already crossed the Rubicon, the point of no return.

The silent majority of Japanese have seen similar political dramas in Tokyo before. They refer to it as a "lizard cutting off its own tail to survive." Prime Minister Miki's anti-corruption campaign in 1976 was not only aimed at finishing Kakuei Tanaka, but also at enabling the LDP's rule to survive its series of serious corruption scandals since the 1950s.

What is necessary in Beijing now is not only to arrest the corrupt politicians, because corruption to a greater or lesser degree is endemic in China, but rather, what is really required is to enact a "political funds control law." In Japan, the law was heavily amended in 1975 to limit political donations and to promote financial transparency. This is what China needs today, not "cutting a lizard's tail" to escape crises.