August 7, 2014 12:00 am JST

Willy Lam: Despite Xi, China will remain China

It is a credit to Xi Jinping's genius for power plays and Machiavellian maneuvers that he has pulled off a major achievement in fighting corruption -- universally regarded as the scourge of Chinese politics -- in less than two years as China's paramount leader.

     The announcement that Zhou Yongkang -- a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee and senior leader of the Chinese Communist Party -- is being investigated for graft-related felonies amounts to a watershed in the party's 93-year history. Disregarding the Cultural Revolution, no leader at the Politburo Standing Committee level has ever been incriminated.

     A public trial is expected to take place in the autumn. In line with past practice, both Zhou, 71, and his businessman son, Zhou Bin, 42, will likely get suspended death sentences for tens of billions of yuan worth of corruption-related crimes.

     With one stroke, Xi has broken the long-standing taboo that serving or former Politburo Standing Committee members are untouchable. The position of Xi as a Mao-like strongman seems assured. That is how well he and his ally -- fellow Standing Committee member Wang Qishan, who heads the party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, China's highest graft-busting organ -- have wielded the anti-corruption card.

     Xi's achievement, however, has to be put in the context of the party's long tradition of Byzantine skulduggery. From the beginning -- when the party's founders were guerrilla warriors who holed up in caves in Yan'an, Shaanxi Province -- anti-corruption operations have been closely linked to factional intrigue and back-stabbing. It is well known that Zhou and Bo Xilai -- the fallen Politburo member and former Chongqing party boss -- were opposed to Xi becoming party General Secretary at the 18th National Congress in November 2012.

     Most importantly, the removal of Zhou -- and scores of his proteges and relatives who have become multimillionaires -- does not mean Xi will widen his dragnet to nab the notorious princelings, the offspring of senior cadres. Well-placed sources in Beijing say Xi struck a deal with party elders (who are also former Standing Committee members) like ex-presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, ex-vice president Zeng Qinghong, and former premiers Li Peng and Wen Jiabao.

     Jiang and the other bigwigs have acquiesced to Xi's taboo-breaking on condition that the fifth-generation supremo not go after them or their well-heeled children. For example, Jiang Mianheng, the eldest son of former president Jiang, is a multibillionaire with large holdings in numerous IT corporations. When he inspected Shanghai last March, Xi made a point of taking a photo with Jiang with the apparent intention of dashing rumors that Jiang might be under investigation.

     According to Ren Jianming, a Beijing-based social scientist and expert on clean governance, one-third of all those who have held ministerial-level positions are deemed to be tainted with graft-related misdemeanors. This comes to about 10,000 cadres. Ren's estimation squares with a Reuters news agency report from a few months ago that "more than 30 percent of (senior) party, government and military officials were found to be involved in some form of corruption."

     It is inconceivable that Xi will go after all 10,000 swindlers. The anti-graft drive has already badly affected not only the prestige of the party but also the morale of mid- to senior-ranking officials. The influential mainland website Caixin Online suggested that the entire rectification campaign could decelerate because it has hurt the morale of too many mid- to high-ranking officials throughout the party-state apparatus.

     Caixin commentators Gao Yu and Wang Heyan have pointed out that advocates of reining in the anti-graft movement "include party supporters who worry that the campaign could tarnish the public's view of the government and party. ... Others wonder whether the campaign is hurting economic growth and the productivity of officials, some of whom are lying low in hopes of avoiding the inspectors."

     After the Zhou episode, Wang of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection was eulogized by numerous Hong Kong and Taiwan news outlets for having been much more energetic, efficient and forthright than previous top graft-busters. It is, however, equally true that particularly after the 18th National Congress, the commission has essentially reported to only one person, President Xi. The question of "who investigates the CCDI," if it abuses its power, has prompted comparisons between the commission and imperial spy agencies run by emperors during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

     The Commission has also run afoul of intellectuals for hitting out at academics who advocate "westernized" values like the rule of law and checks and balances. Zhang Yingwei, who heads the CCDI unit stationed at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has said the elite academic institution has been "infiltrated" by "anti-China foreign forces." He Weifang, a legal scholar and Peking University professor, responded by saying that "it is bizarre that graft-busters should be doing the work of the Ministry of State Security" -- the Chinese equivalent of the old Soviet Union's KGB.

     President Xi will likely have a chance to tell the world that he is serious about reform in October, when the fourth Central Committee plenum is tentatively scheduled. The Chinese media has indicated that a major theme of the conclave will be legal and judicial liberalization. Last month, the Supreme People's Court released a blueprint for judicial reform for the years 2014 to 2018. Among other things, the document indicates that more professionally qualified judges will be hired and that efforts will be made to reduce political influence on due process.

     Public confidence in legal and related reforms is low, owing to many promulgated reforms never being carried out. For example, while the much-maligned laogai "reform through labor" system was publicly abrogated on Jan. 1, police departments admitted recently that more than 100 penal institutions under the Ministry of Public Security are still taking in inmates for up to two years of "political re-education" outside the judicial system. Moreover, Xi on numerous occasions has indicated that the Communist Party will not accept "universal values," including the rule of law and an independent judiciary.

     Unless the party leadership is willing to adopt global norms, including freedom of expression, corruption will continue to be an essential part of Chinese politics -- and the party's already tattered mandate from heaven will remain as tenuous as ever.

Willy Lam is an adjunct professor in the history department and the Center for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.