HONG KONG -- Chinese President Xi Jinping two years ago declared he would "strike both tigers and flies." In plain English, Xi was saying he would expose and stamp out corruption at all levels of the Chinese bureaucracy. The country's anti-corruption campaign has so far felled two "tigers." Leading the purge is "fire chief" Wang Qishan.
More than 50 high-ranking officials have so far been busted, from regional bureaucrats to national leaders. The enforcement of strict official discipline has had a ripple effect on the economy, pushing down sales of maotai -- a Chinese liquor often gifted among the elite and drank at state banquets -- and other luxury goods.
Two scalps claimed in 2014 stand out: those of Xu Caihou and Zhou Yongkang. Xu, former vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, was the highest-ranking army general until two years ago. Zhou was a member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Community Party until 2012. Both were accused of corruption.
With the campaign allaying the Chinese public's pent-up anger at shady deals and backroom politics, the perceived corruption smashing of the Xi government has proven popular. That, in turn, has helped the Communist Party further centralize power. The "fire chief" has spearheaded the anti-corruption drive as secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, and must take a large portion of the credit for the party's momentum.
Wang is officially ranked sixth in the party. Some, however, believe his influence surpasses that of Premier Li Keqiang, officially second in command. When a critical problem arises, the party often turns to Wang, hence the nickname.
When China's inflation rate exceeded 20% in 1993, Wang was at hand. Then-Vice Premier Zhu Rongji doubled as the governor of the People's Bank of China, the central bank, at the time. Looking to get the troubled economy back into shape, Zhu appointed Wang, then an executive of a commercial bank, as his deputy.
In 1997, Guangdong Province's economy was reeling in the wake of the Asian currency crisis. Wang was sent to the rescue. He disposed of the ailing Guangdong International Trust and Investment Corp. When the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) ran rampant in China, he was appointed mayor of Beijing, after his incumbent was sacked, and handled the situation incisively.
Now the "fire chief" faces his biggest challenge: extinguishing corruption. President Xi has stood firm with Wang; both repeat like a mantra that corruption needs to be rooted out or the Communist Party will perish.
Internal power struggles are at the heart of the anti-corruption campaign. In more than a few cases, senior officials close to Xi have taken over posts vacated by purged colleagues. Foreign media have reported on the shady wealth accumulation of Xi's relatives, but investigators appear to be turning a blind eye.
Wang is expected to retire at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, to be held in 2017. Xi, five years younger than Wang, will likely stay in office for one more five-year term. Wang's last stand will involve solidifying Xi's power base before retiring.
The central government is likely to arrest more heavyweights in 2015. Overseas Chinese-language media is already abuzz over which tigers Wang will slay next. They speculate that among his targets will be former Premier Li Peng, who is seen as heading the electric power clique, and his family. Another target could be Jiang Mianheng, the eldest son of former President Jiang Zemin and vice president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who is widely regarded as the electronic industry clique's main man.
Foreign media were ahead of their Chinese peers in reporting Zhou Yongkang's involvement in corruption. They will keep a close eye on further tiger slaying in the coming years.
A different Enlightenment
It would be a mistake to believe that China's anti-corruption campaign will lead to more transparency and freedom of speech. Those Western Enlightenment values are incompatible with one-party rule.
"Liberalism is a breeding ground for deeds eroding political discipline," Wang once said. He is a traditionalist in some senses: "Filiality, brotherhood, loyalty, trustworthiness, propriety, justness, incorruptibility and a sense of shame are part of the DNA of Chinese civilization."
The remarks suggest Wang regards modern civil society's tenets, such as freedom and equality, with hostility. Xi's government often speaks of the promotion of the rule of law. What it appears to be talking about, however, is a sort of "legalism" -- the ancient Chinese philosophy of administration. The philosophy dates back more than 2,000 years.
Xi's government, in fact, appears to have intensified China's crackdown on free speech. The repression of intellectuals and activists criticizing the Communist Party-led government has gathered pace. Ethnic minorities have also been dealt with in a more heavy-handed manner.
Brute force is a distinctive feature of the Xi's government. China's foreign policy moves have included unilaterally creating an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea and accelerating reclamation work on reefs in a disputed area of the South China Sea.
The law of nature stipulates that the more forcibly one behaves, the fiercer the backlash he faces. Xi's government appears to be making enemies in the Communist Party, China and the international community.
China's nominal gross domestic product for 2014 is forecast to more than double Japan's. Many predict the Chinese economy will become the world's biggest in a decade or so. The Wang-led purge may yet change the course of global affairs.