China, the politics of corruption

China's new leader Xi Jinping has gathered more power more quickly than any of his predecessors. The big test now facing him will be to translate his concern about corruption into decisive action - and the early signs are promising, says Kerry Brown.

In the early 1990s, a young official serving in Fujian, one of the poorer regions of southern China, mounted a campaign against corruption in the vicinity. He spoke forcefully about the need for local officials to keep their hands out of business and be careful what they did. "If you want to get rich", he said, "then don’t go into politics". At the time, an economic boom was beginning to offer irresistible temptations to relatively lowly paid bureaucrats, and infrastructure and public-project funds were already being siphoned off at an alarming rate.

By the early 2000s, the now-promoted official sat at the centre of a whirlwind: one of the largest embezzlement scandals ever to hit China. A provincial businessman had created a network of officials and business people to facilitate the smuggling of goods worth billions of yuan into the country, avoiding customs and tariffs. A scam this size would have been impossible to hide without collusion in high places, including the local customs bureau. A series of investigations even reached the politburo of the Communist Party of China (CPC), a member of which was implicated in the vast corruption network via his divorced wife. Oddly, only one senior provincial official remained unscathed by the affair.

As the decade progressed, so did that official's career. He was next promoted to be party head of Zhejiang, then briefly of Shanghai, and then onto the politburo's standing committee - the elite club of China’s elites. And on 14 March 2013, the long march of Xi Jinping reached the summit of power when his appointment as state president in place of Hu Jintao was confirmed. Indeed, he has now become (at least on paper) the most directly powerful figure in Chinese politics since Hua Guofeng succeeded Mao Zedong after the death of the "great helmsman" in 1976. For where Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao had to wait between one and two years to collect the full suite of titles - Communist Party secretary, chair of the central military commission, and presidency - Xi has gathered these in under six months.

Even more significant than Xi Jinping's ascent and accumulation of job titles, however, is the sense he conveys of possessing considerable political will. The speech he delivered in Beijing on 15 November 2012, after he emerged as party leader, was no formulaic list of empty plaudits but a focused address whose emphasis on the need to curb corruption and reach out to the people struck many observers. He has since returned often to these themes, including in a powerful attack on vested interest in January 2013, and at the national people’s congress (NPC) in March during a meeting with delegation from Shanghai. So far, Xi is acting as if he intends to make those titles mean something.

A time of change

All this could turn out to be the familiar fodder China's leaders serve to the public: sonorous condemnation of corruption while doing nothing significant to combat it; the kind received with resigned scepticism, an attitude of "we know they have to say this, but we also don’t believe them" (a similar response western politicians provoke when they claim to be acting from principle not party interest). Wen Jiabao, the just-retired premier (whose replacement is Li Kexiang), made stirring utterances about corruption being a threat to the very existence of the party over his decade in office. But that didn’t stop his immediate family  - his wife, son and mother included - making an immense amount of wealth, according to a New York Times investigation in October 2012.

At this early stage, though, Xi does seem to be at the centre of a leadership that is willing to go further than mere words. A good example is government reorganisation. The received wisdom over the a decade or more was that there was every reason to create an integrated transport ministry, but that vested interests in the ministry of railways had made it an impregnable fiefdom of powerful, rich officials and their families. At the just-concluded NPC, however, this "insoluble" conundrum was solved overnight: the ministry of railways no longer exists.

True, there is nothing new in campaigns to snare corrupt officials. A report of the supreme people’s procuratorate in March 2013 says that thirty officials at ministerial level or above have been disciplined since 2008. The biggest fish to be caught so far is Li Chuncheng, former vice-secretary of the CPC committee in Sichuan province, who was dismissed in December 2012. Xi's requirement is less to increase these statistics than to impose his impressive presence and pronouncements on corruption by targeting individuals within the system who control the client networks where the covert deals and scams thrive. The big money is in the state-controlled areas of the economy - energy, telecoms, construction - where relationships between party, government and business elites are cosiest, immense power and patronage are concentrated - and the risks of political challenge are highest. To nail one of the top figures will be worth thousands of smaller, for this would carry the powerful message that the rule of law applies to everyone.

In just one respect, Xi Jinping might turn out to be different from former leaders. If the stories about his early attitudes to corruption in Fujian are accurate, he may genuinely regard it as a deep affront to the party and to the cause that his family (in particular his father) sacrificed so much for. This personal motive could explain the missionary edge to his language on the issue, which the pronouncements of his predecessors lacked.

He may be helped by an awareness that the boom years of Hu Jintao's reign are ending, and with them the luxury of being able to tolerate the inefficiencies and institutional distrust corruption brings. A sign of Xi's seriousness will be whether he continues to show the hard judgment hinted by the transport-ministry decision. Already, though, the outlines of a more "political" and strategic figure than Hu Jintao was are emerging. As China enters a testing new era, that may be no bad thing.