China cracks down on the 'extravagant style' of officials

High-end restaurants in top cities have seen their revenues drop by 20 percent from a year ago, perhaps from curbs on official perks.

Wang Zhao/Reuters
Chinese President Xi Jinping attends a joint declaration ceremony with South Korea at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 27. At the end of an unusual three-day meeting of the all-powerful Politburo of the ruling Communist Party last week, President Xi was strikingly blunt in his admonition of his most senior colleagues.

Seven months after he took office pledging to crack down on official corruption, Chinese President Xi Jinping has impressed even some skeptics by sticking to his guns.

At the end of an unusual three-day meeting of the all-powerful Politburo of the ruling Communist Party last week, President Xi was strikingly blunt in his admonition of his most senior colleagues. 

The men at the very top of the party must “strictly abide by party discipline” and “strictly manage their relatives and their staff and refrain from abusing power,” he told the 25 member Politburo. He expected them, he said, “to play an exemplary role.” 

The meeting, given blanket coverage in the official Chinese press, has made its mark. “There have been anticorruption campaigns before and at first I doubted whether this one would last,” says Ren Jianming, deputy head of the Chinese branch of Transparency International, an anticorruption watchdog. “But it seems that they are strengthening the campaign and that is a good sign.”

Doubts persist, though, whether Xi can succeed in the absence of political reforms to make the Chinese political system less prone to corruption, for example by freeing the law courts from Communist Party tutelage, or allowing a freer press.

“Without solving fundamental political and institutional problems, such as the lack of checks and balances or constraints on power, we cannot solve the problem of corruption,” argues Jiang Dehai, a law professor at the East China University of Politics and Law in Shanghai.

“I’ve seen no moves during the campaign so far to address the fundamental problems,” Professor Jiang adds.

Strategy to prolong grip on power 

Nor do many observers here expect any such moves; the Communist Party’s new leaders have shown no propensity to relax their grip on power and official media have, in fact, recently been excoriating “constitutionalists” who would like to see the ruling party abide by the rule of law.

Indeed, officials are being careful to keep the anticorruption campaign itself an internal Communist Party led affair, and to stop citizen activists from taking things too far. Ten anti-corruption activists were arrested in May when they called publicly for the publication of officials’ salaries and assets.

But Xi is clearly under no illusions about the gravity of the situation; in his very first speech to the Politburo last November he warned that corruption, which is endemic in China, threatened to “doom the party and the state.”

If China’s new leader has nailed his colors so firmly to the anticorruption mast, says Russell Leigh Moses, dean of the Beijing Center for Chinese Studies, it is because he sees the fight against official extravagance and dishonesty as a key to reforming the party in ways that will prolong its grip on power.

“This is not a campaign,” he says. “This is a strategy.”

Lavish banquets and normal perks

It has already had its effects. The leadership is targeting not only influence peddling, the sale of jobs to the highest bidder, direct bribery, and other clear cut cases of corruption, but also what officials here call “bad working style.”

That working style includes the lavish banquets paid from the public purse that officials at all levels of government routinely regard as a normal perk; it includes the fancy cars without license plates whose drivers flout traffic rules with impunity; it includes unnecessary foreign trips ostensibly on official business – often taken with wives or girlfriends.

“The prevailing style of extravagance not only depraves officials and destroys their image but also undermines public trust” in the party and government, warned a commentary in the Communist Party’s official organ, the Peoples’ Daily, last week. “Nothing isolates the party from the masses more than extravagant style.”

The most obvious victims of the campaign against “hedonism” include the high-end restaurants that once catered to officials and to the businessmen trying to woo them. Such restaurants in Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu saw their revenues drop by 20 percent from a year earlier during the last Chinese New Year festivities according to figures from the China Cuisine Association, the catering industry body.

The campaign against extravagant “style” habits is likely to work better than just a simple head-on assault against corruption, says Mao Zhaohui, an anticorruption expert at Renmin University’s School of Public Administration in Beijing.

“If officials weigh their hedonism against their career prospects they’ll give up the hedonism if the two are in conflict,” he predicts; by changing the way they work, they won’t be so open to corrupt temptations.

'Tigers as well as flies’

At the same time, the past few months have seen the arrests of some senior Communist Party and government figures, in line with Xi’s promise that the anticorruption dragnet would catch “tigers as well as flies.” The latest to come under investigation, and to lose his job, was Liu Tenan, vice chairman of China’s economic planning agency, accused of “severe disciplinary violations,” according to the official Xinhua news agency. 

He is unlikely to be the last such victim; the Communist Party’s Discipline Inspection Committee has sent investigation teams fanning out across the country in recent weeks, and they are not expected to come back empty handed.

“The campaign is valuable because fighting corruption is better than not fighting it,” says Jiang. “There will be benefits because they will arrest some corrupt officials. But they won’t solve the fundamental problems that cause corruption.”

That may be right, Dr. Moses acknowledges. “But Xi is trying to see how far he can go, and his tenure thus far is looking like a very serious experiment.” 

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