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The Purge
Xi's Party Purge Sets Sights on Shanghai

After the launch of an investigation into former secret police head Zhou Yongkang was announced yesterday, it seemed to some that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s extensive anti-corruption campaign had reached its climax. According to a story in today’s FT, however, that’s not true:

The most extensive anti-corruption campaign in modern Chinese history is about to be unleashed on Shanghai, the country’s commercial capital and the stronghold of former president Jiang Zemin.

Until now, China’s most populous city has been left largely unscathed in a campaign that has been the centrepiece policy of President Xi Jinping’s 20-month-old administration and has placed hundreds of thousands of officials under investigation.

However, a large task force from the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the body investigating allegations of crimes or wrongdoing committed by party members, has arrived in Shanghai and will remain there until the end of September.

In the old days, what Xi is doing would have been called a Party purge, and it is in the long tradition of Communist politics going back to Lenin. It is key to remember that everyone is guilty to some degree, so everyone is vulnerable. The decision about whom to prosecute and whom to leave alone is political, not legal. Historically, the purpose of this kind of purge has been to concentrate power in the hands of a dominant person or faction.

What we’ve already seen of Xi’s campaign makes it the biggest such event in China since the Cultural Revolution (at its core a typical purge, but with the added feature of rampaging mobs), and if the FT story is right, there is much more to come:

[B]y turning the anti-corruption campaign on Shanghai, Mr Xi is directly threatening the legacy of Mr Jiang, 87, who retains enormous influence in the Party despite not having held an official title since he retired from the presidency in 2003.

Of the seven members of the Politburo’s Standing Committee, the body that in effect rules China, four or five of are considered close to Mr Jiang, who appeared in public in Shanghai in late May with visiting Russian president Vladimir Putin, an unusual breach of protocol.

If Xi is really trying to liquidate Jiang’s power, he is set to become the most powerful man in China since Mao’s death.

In a way, this vindicates Bo Xilai. Bo saw that the weak governance-by-committee model into which China had shifted was inadequate to the tasks of the present day. He tried to set himself up as a new supreme ruler but was pulled down by his enemies before he could secure power. Xi is clearly a more effective operator, and he has calculated his moves much more carefully.

Party purges in communist history were often misunderstood in the West. People thought that the repression that accompanies purges made the Party less popular. But Xi understands the dynamics better; Crackdowns on “corruption” boost the popularity of the dominant faction. People know that their local leaders are crooked and greedy because they see it all the time. Seeing the center lead a crackdown inspires both hope and fear. The hope is that the center is really going to make things more efficient and even, maybe, honest. The fear is that you or your political network will be caught up in the purge. Both emotions lead to greater support for the purgers.

Shanghai is the richest and most dynamic city in China, so control over its political and patronage networks will give Xi and his allies an even more powerful position.

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