Zhao Yongkang, former Chinese head of state security, has been placed under investigation for corruption. © Thierry Ehrmann

What's behind Chinese President Xi Jinping's corruption crackdown?

The premiere's operation is dominating local and international gossip
August 20, 2014

On 29th July, after a year of whispered gossip and internet speculation, China’s Communist Party announced that Zhou Yongkang, the former head of state security, had been placed under official investigation for corruption. The downfall of one of the party’s most powerful figures marked a new stage in President Xi Jinping’s ambitious anti-corruption campaign. Since Xi took office in late 2012, more than 182,000 party officials have been investigated, and many senior figures have been convicted.

Now even people who usually take little interest in politics are talking about it. At a recent gathering with high school classmates, Zhou’s name was brought up. “I can’t believe they finally moved in to investigate him,” said a friend. “I wonder who’ll be next,” said another.

Their eyes twinkled with excitement as names were bandied around. There was no moral outrage: it was just treated as good gossip. In a country where petty bribery is a fact of life—from securing a hospital bed to obtaining a driver’s licence—few citizens are surprised that there could be corruption at the highest levels. During the meal, one classmate mentioned that she might be starting a new job soon at an auction house. The place, she mentioned, is also reputed to act as a money laundering channel for a number of corrupt officials. Everybody smiled knowingly. One classmate joked that if he does well, in a few years he could be one of the auction house’s main clients.

But if many Chinese are wearily accustomed to corruption, that does not mean that they are not angry about the arrogance and callousness of those in power. After the arrest of each “tiger”—Xi’s metaphor for corrupt senior officials—comes a deluge of praise across social media platforms. Many western observers and Chinese liberals have condemned Xi’s anti-corruption campaign as an attempt to purge his opponents and consolidate power, rather than a genuine effort to increase political transparency. Much of the Chinese public agrees with this assessment. But that has not muted public support for the ongoing crackdowns.

The oil tycoons or military generals may have been toppled because they lost the political tussle, but Xi’s anti-corruption push also assuages public resentment towards the rich and powerful. “The sacked officials deserve no sympathy,” a liberal-minded friend said to me over dinner recently. “Regardless of motives, at least Xi is doing something.” In this respect, Xi is often compared favourably with his bland and ineffectual predecessor, Hu Jintao.

Given that politics in China is usually a dull mixture of hollow slogans and distant, robotic politicians, the recent high-profile crackdowns are a particularly thrilling spectacle. Xi Jinping’s campaign provides the most riveting political theatre in town since the fall of Bo Xilai, a former contender for the party’s top posts. “It feels like watching the World Cup: full of suspense and surprises,” wrote one web user, in a widely shared comment on the social media site Weibo.

But not everyone is able to enjoy the show as a casual bystander. A family friend, Mr Zhang, who is head of a Beijing-based publishing house recently came under investigation. Employees, who Zhang claims harbour personal grudges against him, alleged that he had “made illegal gains through work.” Anti-corruption authorities, keen to nab some “flies”—party parlance for corrupted lowly bureaucrats—jumped on the case.

They combed through Zhang’s records, apparently determined to find evidence of wrongdoing. Eventually they seized upon a delayed sales payment from a subsidiary publishing house and charged him with “violating party financial discipline.” This is the kind of offence that, owing to lax regulation in state sectors in China, is almost ubiquitous among Chinese companies, and Zhang claims to have made no personal gain from it. However, lacking powerful government connections to exonerate him, he was given a “severe warning” by the party. His name was also mentioned in prominent state media outlets as one of the “flies” netted by the campaign.

After the investigation was made public, Zhang received many concerned phone calls and emails from friends and relatives. “They patted me on the shoulder and told me they were sorry for my bad luck,” he told me. But no one asked about the details, about who was right and wrong, about why he was targeted. Zhang said that his friends probably understand that the system is rotten to the core. No one is clean, so it comes down to good or bad luck. “They don’t believe there is any logic to it,” he said, “but they don’t seem to care, either.”

“But, to be fair,” he added after a short pause, “I used to think the same way. I had no sympathy for those exposed for corruption, because I believed for whatever reason they were caught, they deserved it. Until this happened to me.”