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Behind China's Anti-Graft Campaign, A Drive To Crush Rivals

A man takes a selfie near a picture of Chinese President Xi Jinping at an exhibition at a military museum in Beijing on Monday. Xi is expected to use an important meeting this week to re-emphasize his anti-graft campaign. Analysts say the campaign is also used to go after rival factions within the Communist Party.
Andy Wong
A man takes a selfie near a picture of Chinese President Xi Jinping at an exhibition at a military museum in Beijing on Monday. Xi is expected to use an important meeting this week to re-emphasize his anti-graft campaign. Analysts say the campaign is also used to go after rival factions within the Communist Party.

China's ruling Communist Party is pledging tighter discipline than ever for its 88 million members and no let up in a four-year anti-corruption campaign that has seen more than 1 million officials investigated for graft.

The party's self-supervision, since it doesn't allow much independent oversight, is the focus of the party's most important meeting of the year this week. The four-day conclave will lay the groundwork for an expected second and final term for President Xi Jinping, following a congress of party delegates next fall.

The anti-corruption drive has boosted Xi's popularity among the graft-weary populace. It has also cast a chill over some sectors of the economy — luxury goods, restaurants — that benefited from the wheeling and dealing of businessmen and officials.

But Xi's administration has admitted that deeper structural reforms will be needed to address the root causes of corruption, and those measures have not yet taken shape. Corruption remains rampant in daily life, such as the state-dominated health and education sectors, where citizens have to pay bribes to get access to top schools and hospitals.

Eliminating factions

Absent from the discussion is the fact that much of the anti-corruption campaign so far has been aimed at eliminating covert factions operating inside the party, which experts fear could threaten China's stability.

"These issues could, in the future, be one of regime survival," warns Boston University political scientist Joe Fewsmith.

He argues that this is how Chinese Communist Party leaders rise to power — by eliminating rival factions. Chairman Mao Zedong did it some seven decades ago, and Xi appears to be doing it now.

He says these winner-take-all feuds break out "because you don't really have a mechanism to sort out who legitimately rules."

It's not a subject China's leaders like to talk about in public. The phrase and the idea of factions is taboo to a party that proclaims its own unity and altruism. Official literature refers to "gangs" and "cliques," not factions.

China's anti-corruption campaign "has nothing to do with a power struggle," Xi insisted in a speech in Seattle last year. "In this case, there is no House of Cards."

Xi was referring, of course, to the TV drama in which actor Kevin Spacey plays Frank Underwood, a conniving politician with an arsenal of dirty tricks.

Xi may deny that there's a power struggle, but experts and state media often describe the anti-graft drive as a fierce political struggle.

Zhuang Deshui, who follows the anti-corruption issue at Beijing University, says that high-ranking officials netted in the anti-graft drive did indeed pocket large chunks of the nation's wealth.

But "more importantly," he says, "they were trying to seize control of state power."

High-profile figures go down

The highest of these officials to fall so far are ex-security czar Zhou Yongkang, and ex-presidential aide Ling Jihua. Both were convicted on criminal corruption charges, not political offenses.

"There are many details of this that we don't know," adds Fewsmith, "but they are clearly being accused here by Xi of engaging in factional activity to contest some part of the party's leadership."

Both men commanded large factions which controlled parts of the government and owed personal allegiance to these two men, not the party or the state.

Zhou installed confidantes throughout the security apparatus, and in Sichuan province, where he worked as an official.

"This is why Xi Jinping had to rebuild the security system" after taking office in 2012, notes Zhuang Deshui.

State media have reported that anti-graft officials were still mopping up the remains of these two factions within the bureaucracy this year.

In an indication of the importance of factions as a target of the anti-graft drive, Zhuang estimates that nearly half of the roughly 160 officials at the Cabinet level or above netted so far in the campaign had ties to these two factions.

A long history

Factions are not allowed in the Communist Party, but they have nevertheless been a prominent feature of Chinese politics in the modern age, and for centuries before that.

For example, statesman and essayist Ouyang Xiu counseled the Renzong Emperor of the Song Dynasty that political factions have existed all along, and what's important is distinguishing between good and bad ones.

"In general," Ouyang wrote in the year 1044 AD, "gentlemen form factions on the basis of shared moral principles. Men of lesser character form them on the basis of profit."

In recent decades, some have advocated legalizing factions within the Communist Party. After all, they argue, party members should be allowed to group themselves based on ideas and policies. But unfortunately, says Beijing University's Zhuang Deshui, that's not the case.

"It would be better if these factions had common goals and ideologies," he says. "What concerns us is that they're only after power for its own sake."

But experts say it would be an oversimplification to say that Xi Jinping is only interested in knocking out rivals and consolidating power.

Joe Fewsmith of Boston University adds that Xi wants to change his party's political culture, restoring the discipline and loyalty he believes the party commanded under Chairman Mao, and other revolutionaries, including Xi's own father, Xi Zhongxun. He served in a number of positions after the revolution, including vice premier, and head of the Communist Party's propaganda department.

Xi "does worry a lot about who's up and down. But, yes, he also worries about the party as an institution, and he's determined to revive those elements of the party which he associates with his father and the 1950s," says Fewsmith.

But Ren Jianming, who studies anti-corruption issues at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, says that besides strict party discipline, another approach is also needed: "To develop democracy within the party, allowing everyone to express their opinions and prescriptions through formal channels."

However, official news reports about this week's meeting make no mention of such an approach.

And with Xi's main rival factions quashed, it's not clear who the next big targets of the anti-corruption campaign will be.

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Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.