Author: Kerry Brown, King’s College
These days, political death in China comes in two moves. The first is when the dreaded Central Discipline and Inspection Commission (CDIC) announce that you are under investigation. After that you live on a sort of life-support machine until the final blade falls with your expulsion from the Communist Party. Then there is no turning back.
High-level official Lu Xiwen entered the outer circles of the damned of contemporary China when the announcement came from the CDIC in November 2015 that her case was being looked at. Her phone from that moment went unanswered and she in effect disappeared from public life. Her case is of particular interest because of her roles in the capital and central administration — she was vice mayor of Beijing and had responsibilities at the Party School covering ideological training.
Almost simultaneously the vice mayor of Shanghai was also taken in. Beijing and Shanghai are regarded as privileged zones in the Chinese political universe. Mao Zedong himself complained half a century ago about how hard it was, even for him, to control the officials in the capital city. So far, the anti-corruption campaign under Xi Jinping, which has been waged for almost three years, has targeted state enterprises and specific provinces. But to investigate someone involved in the country’s prime city, and in the ideological arena, marked a new phase.
Over the last few months, this sense of diversification has been reinforced. The CDIC has targeted non-state companies, those working in the media sector and in finance. Even in the depths of the party apparatus, in the fields of ideology and organisation, there seem to be no refuges left. Former elite leaders have not been granted immunity (witness the sobering case of Zhou Yongkang), nor have close protégées of senior elite leaders (even Ling Jihua, formerly the chief aide of Hu Jintao, has been charged).
To make matters more confusing, the list of proven crimes — when they are finally issued on expulsion from the party — give little sense of precisely why these people rather than others have been targeted. In Lu’s case, on 5 January 2016, the CDIC website issued a staggering menu of abuse: it said Lu had `violated political rules, trivialised policies and the direction of the party centre, formed cliques of her own, resisted investigation, did not honestly report her own activities to the [investigating] organisation, interfered in the personnel decisions of her previous area of oversight and lost control of her staff.’
It even went on to accuse her of frequenting private clubs, interfering with the market economy and with law enforcement, `violating lifestyle discipline’ and ‘living a life of luxury and pleasure seeking’.
This heap of misdemeanours does start to sound like the hatchet work done on past political targets during Party struggles. All of the crimes on the list above are generic. What actually constitutes `interfering with the market economy’ or `violating political rules’? What were the specific things she did to deserve banishment? The CDIC website offers no details, dates, times, events or other involved people.
That points to what is almost certainly her underlying real crimes: disloyalty, political unreliability and resistance to the `direction of the party centre’. These are sins of attitude. The evidence for them is the impressions she made on others that, evidently, had the power to bring her down.
Probably the only people in China at the moment who know exactly what the benchmark for measuring loyalty is in any real detail are Xi Jinping and his anti-corruption enforcer Wang Qishan. The lack of transparency about how loyalty is defined and classified means that outside observers look at a case like that of Lu and can only suspect that it is politically motivated — not in the sense of narrowly serving Xi’s cliques and influence, but in the sense of supporting his vision of what the Party should be, where it should be going and who should be steering it in the coming years.
The problem now is that after all the work illustrating what the Party is not, typified by cases like Lu’s, Xi and his allies still need to spell out forcefully their positive vision, in detail. The public want more than just seeing one official after another dragged over the coals and humiliated. For them, 2016 has to be about sorting out bread and butter issues — healthcare, housing costs, wages and environmental quality.
As they reach the mid-way point of their time in power, Xi and his colleagues are going to have to supply answers to these questions, rather than just smash up rotten cliques and those they posit as their enemies. And unlike accusations of corruption, vague statements and general directives will not be enough. They will need detail — something that, so far, this leadership has been reluctant to supply.
Kerry Brown is a Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute, King’s College, London and an Associate Fellow at Chatham House, London. He is the author of the upcoming book CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping.