Xi Jinping has one over-riding political mandate: clean up corruption or clear out. Corruption and its manifestations are at the heart of the Party’s greatest challenges: its glaring lack of legitimacy; one hundred eighty thousand mass demonstrations annually by most recent count; and an outflow of money through corruption, crime, and tax evasion as high as $3.72 trillion over the past decade. Is Xi up to the task?
In a 2000 interview, Xi Jinping stressed his belief that a new leader should set his own agenda but also build upon the work of his predecessors. Xi is pushing forward on an anti-corruption platform and in so doing is following a long and storied tradition in Chinese history. Mao Zedong launched the country’s first anti-corruption campaign in 1951, just two years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and such campaigns have been a staple of every Chinese leadership since. In the past five years alone, over six hundred thousand Party officials have been investigated for “corruption-related activities.” The challenge here is two-fold: the number that should be investigated is probably closer to six million or even sixty million; and the traditional method of attack—simply plucking out corrupt officials one by one from on high—is woefully inadequate to the task at hand. Fortunately, Xi and his corruption czar Wang Qishan appear to have some other tricks up their sleeves:
Make first impressions count: Within the first month of Xi being selected as General Secretary of the Communist Party, the Party issued eight new guidelines for officials designed to help them clean up their act and be “men of the people.” Most of the new regulations revolve around reducing official excesses, such as controlling the funds spent on official banquets, renovating government buildings, or purchasing official cars. Gone are ribbon-cutting ceremonies, long and empty speeches, and orchestrated rallies for Party leaders when they travel at home or abroad. Losing all these perks may do more over time to improve the quality of Party members than any anti-corruption campaign.
Introduce democracy … but just a little: Look for small bore—not bold, but not boring—changes in Party governance under Xi. He will likely support two small “democracy” reforms: greater intra-party democracy—ensuring that there are more candidates than positions throughout the Party hierarchy; and deliberative democracy, engaging the Chinese people at the local level in the decision-making process, while still retaining the decision-making part of the process in the hands of the Party. Down south, officials are also experimenting with disclosing their financial assets, and there are plans to release this information to the public. According to Mei Heqing, a senior official with the Guangzhou municipal commission for discipline inspection, people will even be able to go online to find out how many properties local officials own.
Befriend the Internet: This may turn out to be the boldest advance in Xi’s first year, or it may not. The official Xinhuanet.com recently published a report underscoring the positive role of Chinese netizens in ferreting out official corruption, suggesting that the new leadership may appreciate a helping hand from the country’s mass-based anti-corruption campaigners. The elevation of Liu Yunshan—renowned for his "draconian control of the media and Internet" over the past ten years—to the Politburo Standing Committee, however, has many reformers predicting a tough road ahead for freedom of speech and Internet expression. The netizens will almost certainly win the war, but the battles will be ugly.
Xi Jinping’s domestic political agenda over the next year might best be summed up by simple, clean men in a simple, clean government. Xi wants his officials to be corruption-free, servants of the public good, and modest. Getting there won’t be easy, but he has made his intentions clear.