Friday, January 9, 2015

Xi’s 2015 mission: Fighting graft, tightening grip on China


As New Year’s Eve messages go, Mr Xi Jinping’s speech on national television was almost pitch-perfect.

Highlighting continued economic growth and rising living standards last year, the Chinese President — entering the third year in his expected decade-long reign — said he wanted to “click the ‘like’ button” for the country’s 1.3 billion citizens, whose support for officials at all levels made such achievements possible.

Mr Xi — who heads the ruling Communist Party as well as the world’s largest standing army — promised deeper reform and the rule of law in the coming year, comparing them to “a bird’s two wings”.

While he hit all the right notes, Mr Xi saved the most dramatic metaphors for his massive anti-corruption campaign.

The 61-year-old leader, considered China’s most powerful in decades, reiterated his “zero-tolerance” stance, vowing to keep “waving high the sword against corruption” and “fastening the cage of regulations”.

For a nation still largely ruled from behind closed doors, however, official pronouncements after a series of year-end leadership meetings have offered better clues to his ambitions and priorities this year.


In the last week of December, Mr Xi presided over the gathering of the 25-member Politburo, the Communist Party’s elite decision-making body.

“Organising cliques within the party to run personal businesses is absolutely not tolerated,” read a statement issued after the meeting, while it acknowledged the challenges in the ongoing fight against corruption, a lightning rod for mass discontent.

The past year has certainly seen Mr Xi break some powerful cliques involving an intricate web of officials, cronies and tycoons as well as billions of dollars worth of bribes and deals.

He took down former domestic security tsar Zhou Yongkang, likely soon to become the most senior Chinese official to face corruption charges; General Xu Caihou, once the military’s second-in-command; and Ling Jihua, a top aide to former President Hu Jintao.

State media have touted them as the three biggest “tigers” caught in Mr Xi’s two-year-old anti-graft campaign, with a stated goal of targeting both “tigers” and “flies” — high- and low-ranking officials.

While applauded by many ordinary citizens, his ever-wider dragnet has also attracted increasing scrutiny.

“The question remains ... whether Xi is taking a page from Chairman Mao,” said long-time political analyst Willy Lam from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, noting that the three fallen leaders were all considered to be Mr Xi’s political opponents. “Starting with Mao, corruption has been used to take down enemies of the more powerful faction.”

For the sake of stability within the party, Professor Lam predicted a moratorium on the hunt for “big tigers” — Politburo members and above — in the next few years.

Other observers even detect the anti-corruption campaign’s ominous effect on the economy, the world’s second-largest.

“China’s economic success has relied on some very capable people, who also happened to be corrupt because of the system,” said economist Mao Yushi, one of the country’s leading liberal voices.

He pointed to the example of former Railway Minister Liu Zhijun, who was often credited with turning the country’s high-speed rail network from non-existent into the world’s largest in a few years. Liu received a suspended death sentence in 2013 for corruption and abuse of power.

“Now we’re getting rid of all of them,” Professor Mao added. “The new reality is that officials don’t want kickbacks, but also feel no incentive to get anything done.”


“The rule of law” has become an unlikely catchphrase in the state media since late October, when the Communist leadership made it the theme of a major meeting and declared the importance of upholding the Constitution, which enshrines respect for human rights.

“Only if the Communist Party rules the country in line with the law, will people’s rights as the master of the nation be realised,” read a communique released after the gathering, known as the Fourth Plenum.

“It’s the rule of law with Chinese characteristics,” said Prof Lam, before pointing to the Communist Party agency in charge of corruption probes. “The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection is a powerful example of the party operating outside the law — the way it conducts its investigations.”

The existence of a secretive process — based on party regulations instead of laws — faced by accused Communist officials has come to light in recent years, amid reports of suspicious deaths of detainees in the custody of party investigators.

“When the authorities don’t play by the rules, nobody has freedom from fear — I know I don’t,” said Mr Mo Shaoping, a prominent Beijing lawyer known for defending politically sensitive cases involving dissidents and activists.


One of the hottest topics across Chinese cyberspace so far this year has been the case of vanishing cleavage in a hit television show called The Empress of China.

Reflecting aesthetics in the Tang dynasty in the seventh century, the historical drama — depicting the life of the only woman who ruled China in her own right — had featured ample female bosoms before being suddenly pulled off air late last month.

When the series returned to air on New Year’s Day, viewers nationwide noticed crudely edited scenes in which women were only shown in close-up shots to avoid revealing their chests.

The show’s creators probably should have seen this coming, though, after Mr Xi addressed a delegation of actors, dancers and writers in Beijing last October.

Underscoring the need for art to serve socialism and foster correct world views, the President told the artists not to pursue commercial success at the expense of producing work with moral values.

“Popularity should not necessitate vulgarity,” Mr Xi said. “Pure sensual entertainment does not equate spiritual elation.”

“Anybody associated with thought work or ideology or the image of China — everything is being squeezed or tightened or limited,” said Mr Jeremy Goldkorn, a leading commentator on the country’s media landscape.

Signs were plenty last year: Universities and state-run think-tanks were warned to toe the party line in their teaching and research, civil rights groups were forced to cancel most public events and Google’s popular Gmail service was completely blocked in China.

All the worrying developments have only confirmed some observers’ grim view on Mr Xi’s signature political campaign.

“Fighting corruption is necessary,” offered Prof Mao. “But it’s a complex issue related to income, education, freedom of speech and the rule of law. Without fundamental changes in these areas, the campaign won’t succeed in the long run.”

“There were expectations that once he consolidated power, he would launch far-reaching reforms — but the past two years have not been encouraging,” said Prof Lam. “The big question in 2015 is: How will Xi use his newfound supreme power?”


Steven Jiang is a CNN producer based in Beijing.

No comments: