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The Dragon Awakes
Purging Rivals, Xi Dreams of a More Muscular China

President Xi Jinping’s efforts to tackle corruption in China raised a few eyebrows outside the country. Was he really interested in purging corrupt officials from even the highest echelons of China’s leadership? Did he really intend to impose austerity measures on the famously lavish Communist Party? A year ago, Xi made headlines by banning the Party’s opulent, taxpayer-funded banquets, encouraging officials to eat only “four dishes and a soup” and carpool together, and vowing to crack down on “flies” and “tigers”—code words for corrupt officials.

These efforts have brought down the low, the high, and those in-between. “Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign has lasted longer, gone deeper, and struck higher than many analysts and academics had expected,” Dexter Roberts reported for Bloomberg last week, “something no leader has done before.” The biggest tiger to fall was Zhou Yongkang, a retired domestic security chief who is now under house arrest; 300 of Zhou’s former associates and acolytes have been investigated or arrested as the sprawling investigation goes deeper and deeper. And Xi’s not done yet. “The work of criticism and self-criticism should be intensified,” he told a group of regional Party officials last month. “Adding a bit of chili pepper to make every Party official blush and sweat a little.”

But as Reuters reports today, citing seven unnamed sources, this corruption investigation is simply “a means to an end.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping plans to use a purge of senior officials suspected of corruption to put his own men and reform-minded bureaucrats into key positions across the Communist Party, the government and the military…

In the most far-reaching example of his intentions, Xi plans to promote about 200 progressive officials from the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang, where he served as party boss from 2002 to 2007, to senior positions across the spectrum in the years ahead, two of them said.

It’s nothing new for a Chinese leader to be promoting allies and taking down rivals on trumped up charges, but Xi Jinping is doing it with more gusto than his predecessors. The reason, Jonathan Fenby speculates in the Financial Times, could be that he “dreams of shaking docile China from its slumber.” Xi isn’t interested in the “self-abnegation” past Chinese leaders like Deng Xiaoping advocated. He wants China to “play a political role commensurate with its economic clout.”

The crisis in Ukraine has provided a tough test for this goal. China has had to walk a tightrope through the crisis, balancing its competing concerns: an unwillingness to support countries that meddle in the affairs of others, and a hesitation to support a popular uprising against autocratic rule. China abstained from the UN Security Council vote on Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but Beijing reportedly voiced anger when the Russian Foreign Minister said the two countries were on the same page. Xi’s rearranging of officials at home could soon provide some clarity on how his administration intends to pursue foreign policy going forward. Will he be able to put his men in the right positions of leadership and realize his dream of a muscular dragon on the international stage? Or will there be a backlash against the purges, as the Reuters reporters suggest is already under way?

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  • free_agent

    Of more interest, what is going to happen to the macro-level management of China’s economy?

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    I just see this as normal business, incoming dictators always use corruption as an excuse to consolidate power by purging political enemies.

    • Jim__L

      Well, China’s got more of a bugaboo about corruption than most. The classic dynastic cycle includes the corruption of the bureaucracy, followed by collapse / chaos / tens (or now, perhaps hundreds) of millions of deaths.

      Fighting corruption in China is a good thing. Filling old seats with warmongers, because no one fears the US (“release the socks!”) military anymore… not so good.

      • Corlyss

        “Fighting corruption in China is a good thing.”

        That never has happened in China, period. Okay, maybe in Confucius’ day but not since. It’s just been the bloody shirt waved by the ins to punish the outs.

        • Jim__L

          You may be right. Some salient evidence of the past couple of generations (Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward, etc) seems to be on your side, certainly.

          This is however VM, and to honor the spirit of the site I try to speak optimistically and idealistically from time to time. Ideally, China must fight corruption in the bureaucracy to maintain a harmonious society. And discord in China can get very, very ugly…

          • Corlyss

            “optimistically and idealistically”

            You shouldn’t stifle your realism instincts to humor the board. Some truths are too big to ride around. China’s a tyrannical society aping some western customs in order to make economic progress and to attract western investment. It is by no means even pre-democratic. The minute the weather gets heavy, they revert. Case in point: their production is falling; their populations, having tasted a little freedom, want more; wrong-headed policies like their one child policy, are now showing strains and sending chickens home to roost faster than the Chinese can mitigate the policies; their military wants more say and wants to start staking out zones in SE Asia to dominate, alarming their neighbors and driving them into mutual security pacts because they know they can’t trust the US. Deng unleashed forces that current leaders haven’t the charm nor the wit to control effectively. Nothing in this constellation of facts is reassuring to the gang in Beijing or the gang in Shanghai. So they are “doing what they know,” i.e., they are resorting to authoritarianism. I don’t see much harmony in China’s future.

          • Jim__L

            Well, speaking optimistically and idealistically from time to time makes a nice change for me, anyway. 😉

          • Corlyss

            Okay. Just so you know it’s a vacation from reality! 😉

  • Jim__L

    So much for the Pax Americana.

    For decades, the overwhelming might of the US military has served the world by broadly eliminating the will of other nation-states to fight.

    In other words, if a member of the elites of a foreign country stood up and said, “I know what we should do! Build up an army and revise the international system!” he would be immediately and firmly told to shut up and sit down.

    Apparently that isn’t happening in China.

    There is no social program so good and wonderful that it can do as much good as the Great-Power-war prevention of a strong and well-funded US military.

    • Corlyss

      “In other words, if a member of the elites of a foreign country stood up and said, “I know what we should do! Build up an army and revise the international system!” he would be immediately and firmly told to shut up and sit down.”
      That didn’t stop with Obama. That was a consequence of the end of the cold war. The two big dogs no longer had a rationale for disciplining their client states.

      • Jim__L

        I meant, immediately and firmly told by other members of his country’s elite to shut up and sit down, rather than by the US or USSR. Apologies for the ambiguity.

  • Corlyss

    Chinese purges always invoke corruption as the reason. One can’t deduce anything from Xi’s use of it to justify his purges. According to Batchelor’s reporters, Xi is breaking the gentlemen’s agreement that had existed since Deng’s reforms that the various factions wouldn’t jail and prosecute each other when there’s a change in administrations. As the Obama administration might say, “Where’s the fun in that? What’s political power good for if you can’t put the wood to your foes?”

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