In the year 2100 the world’s eighth-graders may come to read how Xi Jinping’s crusade against corruption spared humanity from the specter of living in the shadow of a malignant superpower.
During his first year as China’s big boss Xi has shown he has not merely the vision to decry the fever of corruption weakening Chinese society but also the guts to take on China’s real dragon — its massively corrupt officialdom, including the biggest racketeers of his own ruling party. The foremost target of Xi’s crusade appears to be Zhou Yongkang who is said to have been under a hush-hush investigation for corruption since late last year.
Zhou’s stature illustrates both the depth of China’s corruption problem and the magnitude of Xi’s courage in assuming the role of dragon-slayer. Prior to his retirement Zhou was one of the nine member of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee which acts as the ruling Communist party’s board of directors. More significantly, Zhou was head of the Central Political and Legislative Committee which oversees China’s formidable security apparatus which controls its courts, prosecutors, police, paramilitary and intelligence agencies.
Add to that Zhou’s deep personal ties with the most powerful of China’s old-line party bosses, including former party boss Jiang Zemin, and Xi’s willingness to take him on is remarkable. In terms of sheer guts, it would be comparable to, say, the late John F. Kennedy taking on legendary FBI founder/boss J. Edgar Hoover. Kennedy shied away from that challenge, as did his predecessors and successors, despite their conviction that Hoover was turning the FBI into a personal fiefdom dedicated to cowing political figures by spying on their personal lives.
“J. Edgar Hoover would give his right eye to take over, and all congressmen and senators are afraid of him,” Truman noted.
The same can be said of Zhou who for over a decade had access to the dirty laundry of every notable Chinese leader. Regardless of how little dirty laundry Xi may personally have generated, in taking on Zhou he’s taking on a mafia-style party network built on the exploitation of official influence for personal enrichment. Some even saw Xi as putting much more than his political career on the line. More than a few troublesome Communist party leaders have been brought down on trumped up charges and sent to labor camps or even executed.
Xi dares to mount his no-sacred-cow crusade partly because, as the son of a party hero and a gifted leader, Xi too has powerful connections. But mostly Xi just has the guts to act on his deep conviction that only by rooting out corruption can the Communist Party cling to power in the internet age when an official misdeed can trigger a popular uprising on a scale that can overwhelm even China’s gargantuan security apparatus.
In one of his first speeches as China’s new leader Xi invoked the need to “cage power”. At the time it was deemed mere rhetoric. But in the year since, he has been relentless in pushing the party’s disciplinary machinery, prosecutors and courts to be fearless in going after the “tigers as well as the flies.” He has personally taken charge of a commission to reform China’s national priorities. By his sheer will and determination Xi has begun to unwind the coil of corruption that remains one of the mainsprings of Chinese society.
If Xi continues in this vein throughout the next nine years of his likely two-term, 10-year tenure at the top, he will have turned himself into a latter-day Bao Zheng, the incorruptible 11th century official who became one of China’s favorite legends by taking his anti-corruption crusade even into the court of the Song emperor himself.
Why is Xi so bent on risking his decade in what is arguably the world’s most powerful political office — if not his freedom or even his life — by taking on a dragon whose reach is probably even deeper and more sinuous than even Xi may imagine? Because he knows that corruption is the one thing that can derail China’s rise to true superpower status.
China has been making swift progress toward many of the achievements that have made the US the world’s most admired nation during the past 90 years: a prosperous optimistic population, a powerful manufacturing sector, a military capable of projecting power overseas, impressive cities, a manned space program, good works around the world.
Of course, China remains a decade or more away from gaining control of its environmental woes, and its popular culture is largely derivative of the west. But the biggest impediment to winning the respect and admiration of the world is rampant corruption and over-reliance on police-state mechanisms to keep popular discontent from igniting into revolt. These are the weaknesses that prevent China from attracting and reclaiming the critical mass of creative and cultural talent needed to power its rise to the status of a superpower that sets the global agenda.
The Xi administration recently proposed Washington and Beijing form an exclusive organization of two nations — a G-2 — to join forces in tackling major global issues. An indication of the growth of China’s stature during Xi’s first year in office is Washington’s interest in the proposal.
If Xi succeeds with his anti-corruption drive during the coming decade, the world will come to see China’s one-party system as a much-needed stable counterpoint to the often unsettling convolutions of America’s two-party system. That would mark an inflection point in the historical shift of power from west to east.