Earlier this month, a former Communist Party secretary in southwest China was sentenced to death for taking bribes of nearly $38 million. But despite the size of the theft and severity of the sentence, the case could easily end up a mere footnote in one of President Xi Jinping’s signature initiatives since he took office four years ago: his anticorruption campaign.
The highly aggressive effort has ensnared more than a million party officials since its launch in 2013. The official in the southwestern province of Yunnan, Bai Enpei – who is likely ultimately to serve a life sentence – was simply the latest in a long list of high-ranking targets, or “tigers,” to be taken down. More than 100 others have felt the wrath of the state as well, according to a government report released last week.
It is clear, however, that President Xi, who has established himself as China’s most dominant leader in decades, intends to further tighten party discipline and crack down on graft. On Monday, more than 300 top party officials convened in Beijing for the start of the four-day policy meeting, or plenum, that will establish more stringent guidelines for members and toughen enforcement.
Xi has wielded the anticorruption banner, many critics have argued, to push aside political rivals and stifle internal party dissent. But his focus on cleaning up a party rife with abuse has also been portrayed as a life-and-death struggle for the survival of China’s Communist Party.
“Xi Jinping has set out over the last four years to restore what he thinks the party should be, a highly disciplined party with certain ideals and convictions,” says Joseph Fewsmith, a professor at Boston University who specializes in elite Chinese politics. “He’s trying to make it into a party that will respond to Beijing’s dictates, especially to his own.”
Xi sharply reaffirmed his expectations for party cadres in a speech he gave Friday in Beijing. “They should be loyal to the party, share the party's concerns, and shoulder responsibilities with the party,” he said.
The Central Committee’s closed-door plenum this week will test how far the president can push his demand for unwavering loyalty into the party’s upper echelons as well as its rank-and-file. The committee is expected to issue new rules at the plenum's close that are designed to promote “strict party governance,” according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
Shoring up support
The meeting will also give Xi the opportunity to shore up support before the 19th Party Congress, which will meet in late 2017 to endorse a new lineup for the party’s top body, the Politburo Standing Committee. Five of the seven members of the committee are expected to retire at the congress – assuming the unofficial retirement age of 68 holds – allowing Xi to choose their replacements ahead of his second five-year term as national leader.
Zhuang Deshui, deputy director of the Clean Government Center at Peking University, calls Xi's anticorruption campaign “unprecedented.” He echoes the leadership’s underlying fear of China going the way of the Soviet Union.
“It had to be done,” Prof. Zhuang says. “Otherwise, the party and the country would face the danger of coming to an end.”
Analysts warn that Xi’s dominance has alienated some party members and exacerbated rivalries between him and his political opponents. Huang Jing, an expert on Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore, says the plenum is a chance to boost not only loyalty to the party, but loyalty to Xi as its undisputed leader.
“The message is very clear,” Prof. Huang says about the decision to make party discipline the focus of this week’s meeting. “It tells you how strong he is, how confident he is, and his capability to keep the situation under control.”
Populist appeal – and a TV series
Xi’s anticorruption campaign has played a central role in cementing his hold on power – and it remains widely popular among the Chinese public, according to the results of a survey released by the Pew Research Center earlier this month. Forty-nine percent of the respondents said corrupt officials were a big problem, and 64 percent said they believed the situation would improve over the next five years.
State television has aired a documentary series over the past week to celebrate the campaign’s success and stir up support for it ahead of the plenum. The eight-episode series, called “Always on the Road,” features stories about some of China’s most notorious “tigers.” Footage shows furniture and tea collected by Mr. Bai, the official from Yunnan, and gifts of jewelry given to his wife – along with an interview in which he expresses his remorse for accepting millions of dollars in bribes.
On Weibo, a popular Chinese microblog service, viewers have responded to the series by lamenting how far the anticorruption campaign still has to go. But in a sign of the sensitivity that surrounds the issue, the official state-run television news account banned comments on its own posts about it.
“Although this cheers people greatly, I still cannot help but feel indignant,” wrote one Weibo user who has watched every episode. “When I was growing up, I heard, saw, and talked about the corruption of the local government officials in my hometown. Now those people are still at large … the exposed ones are just one drop in the ocean.”