BEIJING — When Xi Jinping assumed China’s top leadership post last year, skeptics doubted he’d follow through on vows to crack down on “tigers” and “flies” – corrupt high-level officials and lowly bureaucrats. After all, the Chinese people have heard official pledges to stamp out graft dating to the emperors.
But after nearly 16 months as president, Xi is earning some street cred. On Monday, China’s Communist Party announced it had expelled and is prosecuting former Gen. Xu Caihou, the highest military leader under Xi’s predecessor, on suspicion of taking bribes. That same day, the party sacked Wan Qingliang – the party chief in Guangzhou, one of China’s biggest cities – after announcing a corruption investigation against him three days earlier.
Doubters have wondered whether Xi is driving his anti-graft campaign for reasons that have little to do with clean governance. It opens up top positions that the president can fill with his cronies. It also wins over the public, which might then be more willing to overlook the vast wealth that Xi and others in China’s politburo have assembled for themselves and their families.
Whatever the motivation, nearly all experts agree that Xi is going beyond his predecessors in exposing official bribes and shakedowns, an everyday part of Chinese life and a major source of public unrest.
“When he first launched his campaign, I was pretty cynical, but that has changed,” said Andrew Wedeman, a political science professor at Georgia State University who specializes in Chinese governance issues. “My current sense is this is the most extensive crackdown (on corruption) since the start of the reform era in China.”
Wedeman said Xi seemed determined to convince the Chinese public that he was serious about prosecuting corruption, even at some risk to his political future.
“For the man on the street in China, the regime is rotten to the core,” said Wedeman, the author of the 2012 book “Double Paradox: Rapid Growth and Rising Corruption in China .” “Xi must demonstrate he will change things, and the only way he can do that is by taking out some of the tigers.”
Since December 2012, the party has arrested 463 mid- to top-level officials, including ministers and leaders of state-owned enterprises, according to the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Communist Party’s anti-graft agency. Along with purging Xu on Monday, the party expelled three other senior officials, including the former deputy general manager of the China National Petroleum Corp.
The prosecution of Xu is significant on several fronts. The former general hails from the same faction within China’s Communist Party that propelled Xi to power – supporters of former Party Secretary Jiang Zemin – suggesting that Xi isn’t playing favorites. Until he retired in 2012, Xu held one of the highest positions in the People’s Liberation Army, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. He’s also the most prominent party official to be purged since the government prosecuted Bo Xilai, whose wife was convicted of poisoning her British lover.
Christopher K. Johnson, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, posted an analysis Monday noting the lack of leniency toward Xu, who’s reported to be seriously ill with terminal cancer. Under China’s one-party legal system, Xu almost certainly will be convicted and face a death sentence, although he could be granted a reprieve, as have ailing officials charged with similar crimes.
Xu’s downfall actually originated under the rule of Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao. Early last year, military police raided a mansion owned by a deputy logistics chief for the People’s Liberation Army, Gu Junshan. As originally reported by Caixin, a Chinese investigative magazine, investigators carted away four truckloads of Gu’s spoils, including a gold statue of Chairman Mao Zedong and several cases of Moutai, a luxury liquor that’s become a symbol of official extravagance and graft.
That probe later ensnared other army officials and ultimately Xu, who’s been accused of accepting bribes in exchange for handing out promotions. According to Monday’s announcement by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, Xu “exploited the influence of his office to bring gain to others, and his family accepted wealth and property from others.”
Along with shoring up Xi’s public standing, the investigations of Xu and other high-level officials help elevate the stature of one of Xi’s top lieutenants, Wang Qishan, who heads the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Wang, who was also instrumental in the purging of Chongqinq’s Bo Xilai, is one of a group of top leaders known in China as the “Shaanxi Gang,” having either been born or served during their careers in Shaanxi province, Xi’s ancestral home.
Xi’s anti-graft campaign comes with some risks to his political ambitions. He’ll need the support of the military to carry out economic and other structural reforms. According to Johnson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, some of the top brass may be questioning Xi’s public treatment of an ailing former general.
Corruption crackdowns may also energize civic activists who’ve called for full public disclosure of the wealth held by top leaders. While the Communist Party has arrested and jailed some of those activists, many Chinese – particularly those who haven’t benefited much from China’s unprecedented boom – support the cause of greater disclosure.
Judging by the response on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, a good number of netizens support the government’s latest “tiger” hunt.
“Looks like it’s the real deal this time!” one Weibo user, “Jingzhong Fengxian Laowei,” wrote Tuesday. “This gives great hope to China. I hope fighting corruption will become a regular thing.”
Another Weibo user found little to celebrate. “When so many high-level officials and managers ‘fall together,’ it is not such an honorable thing,” wrote Zhou Han from Jiangsu province.
Wedeman agreed Xi has the opportunity to consolidate power by purging top leaders and putting his own people in newly opened positions. “On the other hand,” he said, “we can’t be too cynical. The guys he is taking out are not choirboys. They are very powerful people.”
Xu’s downfall was announced just a day before the 93rd anniversary of the formation of China’s Communist Party, the largest political party in the world, with more than 86 million members at the end of last year. In modern China, it’s widely known that joining the party helps people make business connections and tap into government funds for private projects.
At a public event in Beijing earlier this year, China historian Jonathan Fenby noted the tightrope that party leaders must walk in uprooting corruption, without going too far.
“If the party doesn’t get rid of corruption, it won’t earn the respect of its people,” Fenby said, quoting an old saying in China. “But if the party gets rid of corruption, it won’t have any more members.”
McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.