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Willy Lam: In the new normal, rules are meant to be followed

"There is no quota for the anti-graft campaign, and there is no upper limit" on the rank of those to be disciplined. This is the latest instruction given by President Xi Jinping on the clean-governance crusade that has shaken up the Chinese Communist Party in the past two years.

     There is good reason to believe China's ubiquitous graft-busters, who last year arrested 42 cadres with the rank of vice minister or above, will not slacken their pace for the rest of Xi's first five-year term, which runs into late 2017.

     First, given that senior officials nabbed so far -- including former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang and the disgraced director of the party's United Front Work Department, Ling Jihua -- included some of Xi's prominent political foes, the graft-busting crusade has the effect of consolidating the fifth-generation leader's position as perhaps the most powerful politician in China since Deng Xiaoping.

     Since the 1930s, rival factions within the party have used the anti-corruption card to settle scores. It is likely Xi will brandish the anti-graft weapon to intimidate members of the two major factions in the party, the Shanghai faction headed by ex-President Jiang Zemin and the Communist Youth League faction headed by ex-President Hu Jintao.

     Second, Xi and his close ally Wang Qishan, a Standing Committee member who heads the party's highest-level anti-graft organ, the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection, will try to weed out corruption within the country's 100-odd state-owned conglomerates.

Hitting the old guard

The commission announced in early February that six well-known state-controlled conglomerates -- China Unicom, Shenhua Group, Dongfeng Motor, China Radio International, China State Shipbuilding and China Huadian -- were being investigated for corruption and related economic crimes. An undisclosed number of senior executives have been detained for possible prosecution.

     Two of these behemoths, Shenhua and China Huadian, are energy and electricity companies with close links to the family of former Premier Li Peng. At this stage, however, there is no indication that Li's offspring or underlings may be implicated.

     Given that Wang is an expert on finance -- he was vice premier in charge of finance and foreign trade from 2008 to 2012 -- it is probable more state-owned conglomerates in the banking, insurance and related sectors may be investigated.

     Another major thrust of the anti-graft crusade is the People's Liberation Army, which is deemed a "disaster zone" of corruption due to ex-Presidents Jiang and Hu's relatively lax attitude toward misdemeanors among members of the top brass. Xi's bold decision last year to prosecute Gen. Xu Caihou, former Politburo member and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, shows he is not afraid to go after "big tigers" in the defense establishment.

     The official People's Liberation Army Daily disclosed in late January that more than 200 senior officers had in 2014 been reprimanded, demoted or sacked. Moreover, 4,024 officers with the rank of lieutenant colonel or above, including 82 generals, have been investigated by PLA auditors since January 2013.

Rules for whom?

Despite the fact that President Xi's "tiger hunting" campaign has garnered widespread support among the public, questions loom about the legality of his clean governance movement. After all, a Central Committee meeting in late 2014, which was devoted to "rule of law with Chinese characteristics," pledged that the party-state apparatus would operate within the law.

     However, the disciplinary commission, a secretive party organ outside the purview of both the National People's Congress and the courts, seems to be an extralegal institution that derives its authority from just one person: President Xi.

     Renmin University political scientist Zhang Ming recently warned that the anti-graft watchdog must not degenerate into something like the "Eastern Factory," a reference to the imperial spy agency run by eunuchs of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to get rid of critics of the regime, foes of the emperor and his favorite aides.

     "It is said in anti-corruption circles that the [commission] observes three big laws -- the way of thinking, opinions and instructions of top leaders," said the outspoken academic. "If the police, prosecutors or judges break the law, recourse is still possible. But when the [commission] makes a mistake, nobody is in a position to challenge it." Zhang noted the commission's system amounted to "the party investigating itself."

     The much bigger challenge for Xi in the medium to long term is to build viable systems of checks and balances so that even high-ranking corrupt officials face built-in institutional hurdles, and that senior cadres cannot use the anti-graft card against political foes.

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

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