Xi Jinping plays high stakes game on corruption

Last Updated:2014-08-13

By Geoff Raby

A wild-eyed former US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, once said that there are “known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns". Today in the opaque world of Chinese elite politics, it is the “unknown unknowns" that are on the minds of many people.

President Xi Jinping has done what he said he would do – no mean feat in recent Chinese history – and caught tigers as well as flies in his anti-corruption campaign. The announcement of a formal investigation into former Standing Committee member, and internal security tsar, Zhou Yongkang was widely anticipated, but has still surprised many with its audacity and direct challenge to the powerful family interests that have so much at stake. As some close to the action would say privately, “when you have the body already, why chop it up?"

Zhou was understood to have been under arrest for the best part of the past year while the anti-corruption campaign enforcers set about investigating his vast network of personal power, centred mainly on PetroChina and Sichuan Province. The arrests have included some members of Zhou’s immediate family and senior political associates, including a vice-governor of Sichuan Province and Hainan Island, both of whom had been Zhou’s personal secretaries at various times.

Complex analysis

The day after the investigation (trial and punishment are foregone conclusions) into Zhou was announced, the local media were ready with complex charts showing the reach of Zhou’s personal fiefdom. Trendy weekly business magazine, Caixin, true to form, has just released a high-tech, interactive, map on its web edition enabling readers to trace the multilayered, intersecting relationships with Zhou in the centre, by calling up individual names.

In these respects, China has changed greatly. This campaign, at one level, is being played out publicly. In part, this can be attributed to changes wrought in recent years by the internet and social networking. Concealing secrets in contemporary times has become that much harder. China is also a changed society, reflecting the effects of growing wealth, education and travel with its flow of people and ideas.

Unimaginable a decade or so ago, now it is commonplace to discuss openly with foreigners the current political situation with officials and senior business figures over meals. Indeed, in the current febrile political climate of today, conversation turns quickly to the anti-corruption campaign; to the latest rumours of investigations and arrests, as well as to scuttlebutt on social network sites.

No doubt the campaign against corruption is widely popular among those who do not believe themselves to be at risk. But by its very novelty, in that it is being seriously pursued, and the opaqueness of Chinese elite politics, people are anxious about what all this means and where will it end? Who is next?

And what reaction can be expected from powerful families most at risk?

Xi Jinping himself has stoked anxieties in a recently reported speech to the Politburo. According to a South China Morning Post report from the Changbaishan Daily in the north-eastern province of Jilin, Xi had said he was “disregarding life, death and reputation" in his fight against corruption, reportedly going on to say that “the two armies of corruption and anti-corruption are in confrontation, and are in a stalemate."

Xi’s remarks echo those made by former premier Zhu Rongji in 1998 when he was at the time tackling corruption and pushing through a highly unpopular economic reform program which included mass redundancies in the state-owned rust-belt provinces in China’s north-east. Zhu had said then, “Prepare one hundred caskets and leave one for me. I’m ready to perish together in this fight."

Not about personal power

The stakes for all in this current campaign are every bit as high as back then. Xi has let it be known that the campaign is not about personal power: he has just authorised investigations into Zhejiang Province and Shanghai where he had been party secretary. But for Xi, consolidating more power in his hands and what is good for the country seem to be bound together. In a political system with, at best, only weak constraints on the abuse of power, this is a risky path.

CCTV – the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party – has just launched a 48-part series on the life and times of former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. Tellingly, it begins in 1976 with a palace coup against the Gang of Four. This will serve to help legitimise Xi’s campaign, leading up to the Fourth Party Plenum in October. Following the announcement of Zhou’s investigation, we are being told that the Plenum will be about the “rule of law".

This could be intended to mark the end of the current campaign. It may also be intended to provide some greater institutional basis for the campaign. After all, Xi can’t continue to arrest people indefinitely. But who else will fall from the opposing “army" are still all unknowns.

And as Rumsfeld was to discover in Iraq, when the “unknown unknowns" come to large, things can go badly wrong.

Geoff Raby is Chairman and CEO of Geoff Raby & Associates and a former Australian Ambassador to China.

This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review: