Xi Jinping’s comprehensive fight against corruption

Author: Angus Nicholson, ANU

Xi Jinping’s recent announcement of the Four Comprehensives is crucial to reform in the Chinese Communist Party (CPC).

The Four Comprehensives are likely to be put forward as Xi’s contribution to the CPC theoretical canon, providing the ideological legitimacy for his reform and anti-corruption campaign. If this is the case, this new concept is an important means for analysing the future direction of Xi Jinping’s leadership and makes it clear that the current cycle of increased power centralisation and party discipline will continue.

The Four Comprehensives are focused on comprehensively building a moderately prosperous society, deepening economic reforms, governing according to the law, and applying strictness in governing the Party.

The fourth is aimed at enshrining Xi’s corruption campaign as a key part of the ideological legitimacy for his rule. It will be very difficult for detractors to criticise it if it becomes part of the party’s guiding philosophy. Within the CPC’s system, new leaders must always explicate their planned policies and vision for the country as a natural extension of the canon of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong thought. This provides a leader’s mandate to rule, and defends them against those who may criticise their policies as going against the ideological tenets of the CPC.

At this current juncture in Xi’s leadership it is particularly important to have this ideological defence against his detractors and factional enemies. In 2014, the corruption campaign took the scalps of a number of ‘big tigers’, such as Zhou Yongkang, Ling Jihua and Xu Caihou. The rapid collapse of so many high-level party leaders in one year has not been seen since the 1980s or even the intra-party blood-letting of the Cultural Revolution.

The authorities have stated that the campaign has now punished over 100,000 cadres. And some senior party members are supposedly worried that the campaign is destabilising the legitimacy and integrity of the CPC itself. Former leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao have both spoken out about the campaign over-reaching.

There is a natural ebb and flow to China’s leadership dynamics, which switches between prioritising ideological purity, economic reform or the consolidation of political power. In 1987, the conservative theoretician Deng Liqun summarised the fraught ideological debates of the 1980s as a series of fang–shou (loosening and tightening) cycles. Loosening is characterised by more liberal ideology, economic reform and dispersion of powers to the provinces. Tightening sees conservative ideology, less economic reform and a consolidation of power in the central bureaucracy.

Using this rubric, the Hu Jintao–Wen Jiabao era was a loosening cycle. The 2009 stimulus gave provincial leaders unprecedented fiscal resources to achieve lofty growth targets in the lead up to 2012’s 18th Party Congress. Hu’s reign was also characterised by relatively weak control over the military. Provincial leaders like Bo Xilai and Wang Yang waged very public campaigns for higher office. And senior central leaders like Liu Zhijun and Zhou Yongkang were able to build virtual personal fiefdoms as the respective heads of railways and domestic security.

It was during this existential party crisis that Xi came to power. The weakness and failures of the Hu era were perceived to have led to an unprecedented level of corruption. This gave Xi a strong mandate to begin a tightening cycle to reform the party and centralise power. And he quickly sought to create a series of central leading groups to take personal charge and centralise control over key issues.

There have been winners from the tightening cycle. The Ministry of Finance has increased its fiscal powers at the expense of the provinces, health care has received greater powers, and a number of other central ministries have been strengthened.

By including the corruption crackdown as an intrinsic part of the Four Comprehensives Xi Jinping has made it very difficult for others to criticise the campaign without seeming to violate the theoretical basis of the party. This now gives him ballast to go after some other seemingly untouchable senior leaders, despite the protestations of some party power brokers.

As China struggles with its debt burden and a slowing economy, some have criticised the intensity of the campaign as threatening the stability of the government. But the tightening cycle does not seem to be slowing. If anything this has only increased the intensity. And Xi seems to believe that the party can only survive in a slower growing economic ‘new normal’ if it fundamentally changes its structure and governance.

Angus Nicholson is a graduate student at the Crawford School of Public Policy, the Australian National University.

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