China’s anti-corruption campaign has been netting increasingly lofty officials, as President Xi goes after the “tigers” as well as the “flies” (i.e. crooks, high level and low). Most recently arrested was retired general Xu Caihou, the highest-ranking official to be ousted since Deng Xiaoping’s reign.Bill Bishop, author of the indispensable Sinocism China Newsletter, reckons that Xi is just getting started. While the purge may be a way for Xi to centralize his power, the reforms he’s enacting aren’t just for show:
As for the question of whether the corruption crackdown is about consolidating power, of course it is, these crackdowns almost all have an element of that. It is a mistake however to conclude that it is only about reshuffling officials so Xi can put his people in place. I believe that Xi is serious about improving governance and cleaning up at least the more egregious corruption in both the Party-state and the military. Improving Party-state governance does not mean making political reforms in any Western sense but it does mean trying to build a more adaptable and accountable authoritarianism, while cleaning up the military is necessary to achieve his stated goals of building a strong, professional military.
We agree, and we’d add that the aggressive reform (or power centralization, whichever you want to call it) is likely linked Xi’s sense of trouble on the horizon. That trouble looms because of the fundamentally shifting economic model that China must be a part of, and a particularly difficult external geopolitical moment. Because of this, we are seeing more and more signs that China is battening down the hatches.Also, in attempting to preserve the post-Mao system in China, Xi is being forced to change it. China has moved toward a ‘collective responsibility’ model, and towards government by consensus, precisely to avoid a situation in which one person grabs hold of the whole state. But that system has inefficiencies and corruption pretty much baked into the cake, which weaken the ability of the state to respond to difficult problems. So Xi is reconcentrating power ahead of the oncoming storm. There is no sign that he is as likely to abuse it on a Maoist scale, but his success undermines the fragile protections against a recurrence of one person dictatorship in a one party system.It’s a calculated risk, like the rest of Xi’s agenda, and nobody really knows how it will turn out.