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Xi must revamp system to root out graft in China

Publication Date : 04-08-2014


By taking down former security czar Zhou Yongkang, Chinese President Xi Jinping has killed several birds with one stone.

First, he silenced the critics who questioned his resolve in tackling official corruption, widely seen as the single biggest threat to the ruling status of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Second, the bold move firmly established Xi as China's indisputable strongman.

This stemmed from the fact that he dared to break the tacit rule that current or retired members of the apex Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), of which Zhou was a member between 2007 and 2012, were untouchable.

Most importantly, by wiping out Zhou and his network of allies in the state security apparatus and energy sector, Xi eliminated a latent threat to his own position as party chief.

Media reports in recent years have associated Zhou and disgraced former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai with a plot to unseat Xi.

The question on many people's minds now is whether Xi will go further and target Zhou's patrons, including former president Jiang Zemin.

Signs are that he would not.

For instance, two hard-hitting online commentaries published on the news portals of the the People's Daily, the party mouthpiece, and Xinhua, the official news agency, were deleted a day after they first appeared.

One of the commentaries said the move to investigate Zhou did not mark the end of the anti-corruption campaign, while the other called for a probe into the people who promoted and protected him - strong hints that those behind Zhou could be in the crosshairs next.

But both articles have since been removed. The gesture was clear: Xi did not seek to extend the probe to Jiang, who made Zhou a PSC member.

Recent comments by Wang Qishan, who heads the party's anti-graft agency, the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI), appeared to lend further weight to this interpretation.

On July 28, in a meeting with Laotian President Choummaly Sayasone, Wang remarked that "starting from 1993, the (CCP's) party central realised that the anti-corruption situation was extremely grave".

This echoed comments made by Jiang himself at a CCDI meeting on Aug 21, 1993, when he warned that rampant corruption would "bury" the CCP if not contained.

By relating the current anti- graft campaign to Jiang's 1993 speech, observers said Wang was effectively making an oblique endorsement of the retired president. In other words, Jiang would be spared.

In any case, it would be foolhardy for Xi to risk overreaching by going after an even bigger target than Zhou.

As it was, Xi had to marshal considerable resources, particularly full support from the military, before he could go public with the probe against Zhou. Pragmatism dictates that Xi should not push the envelope too far.

One thing for sure, though, is that regardless of how many powerful current or former leaders get taken down for graft, corruption will not be eradicated until Xi revamps the current system.

Corruption in China is rooted in the one-party system where the CCP monopolises all power without any effective checks and balances. Lord Acton's famous observation about the nature of politics applies here: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Zhou's case is a classic example. After he entered the PSC and became the country's security czar in 2007, he was virtually above the law.

There was nothing in the system to restrain him, and he could easily suppress dissenting voices in the name of maintaining social stability.

So unless Xi is able to reform the system and introduce effective checks and balances, his anti-corruption campaign can act only as a temporary restraint.

In the long run, some form of check and balance within the party has to be created. But even before such changes are introduced, China needs an independent judiciary and a freer press if it truly wants to fight corruption more effectively.

On the former, Xi is experimenting with the idea of de-linking the regional courts from the regional party committees. This would provide some form of judiciary independence.

But he has shown great disdain for a freer press. He passed a document in April last year banning discussion on seven major ideological issues and one of them was press freedom.

As an interim measure, he could at least order the implementation of two existing administrative regulations, one issued by the State Council in 1995 and the other by the CCDI in 2001 which obligates senior officials to disclose their personal and family wealth on a regular basis.

Yet, since the promulgation of these regulations, not a single official has complied.

If Xi and members of the current PSC could take the lead in disclosing their wealth, they would set a good example for the whole party and it would go a long way in fighting corruption.

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