The more things change, the more they stay the same. Anyone who thinks that the evident fall of Zhou Yongkang, the powerful former security chief and erstwhile member of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the small group that effectively runs China, signals that the ruling Chinese Communist Party has taken steps towards fighting corruption in a systematic way -- or that President Xi Jinping wants and is able to build a transparent government -- fundamentally misunderstands Chinese politics.
Xi has said that his anti-corruption campaign, announced January 2013, would go after "flies and tigers," meaning that it would target corruption at all levels. Prime Minister Li Keqiang also declared on March 13 that there would be "zero tolerance for corrupt officials." They seem to be saying that before they took office, the party did not have a zero-tolerance policy -- only small time "flies" were targeted.
The "big tiger," of course, is Zhou. Beginning in late 2012 after he left office, many high-level officials connected to Zhou have been charged with corruption, such as the deputy party secretary of Sichuan province and the former head of China's largest petroleum company. Now many know about the investigation and house arrest of Zhou, even if the Chinese government has not officially acknowledged it.
It is indeed unusual to target a member of the PSC, even one no longer in power. In Chinese officialdom, there is a saying: "If you make it to bureau head [a mid-level ranking], you will be spared the death penalty. If you make it to the PSC, you will be spared any penalty." There is almost nothing a PSC member can't do. PSC members have the police, prosecutors, and courts in their pockets. They write the criminal laws, and even history.
From Mao Zedong, to Deng Xiaoping, and all the way to Xi, every generation of Chinese leaders has launched high-profile anti-corruption campaigns: Mao began his by having the officials Liu Qingshan and Zhang Zishan executed for corruption in 1952; Deng began a "party purification" campaign in 1986. Under President Jiang Zemin, then-Premier Zhu Rongji said he had prepared 100 coffins, "99 for corrupt officials, and one for myself."
To the party, anti-corruption campaigns are very useful because they are popular with the masses and can help take out political rivals. But because they allow winners in a political struggle to consolidate their gains, the end result of these anti-corruption campaigns is yet more corruption among those lucky enough to remain in the system. A provincial-level official would probably be ashamed if he didn't have millions of dollars' worth of illegal income and a couple of starlets as mistresses.
A race to the bottom has long meant that officials with real power have about as much luck keeping clean as porn stars do keeping their chastity.
A race to the bottom has long meant that officials with real power have about as much luck keeping clean as porn stars do keeping their chastity. The probability of corruption, and the amount involved, is directly correlated with an official's power; meanwhile, the probability of facing punishment, and the severity of the punishment, is inversely correlated to the power of the official's patrons. In other words, corruption has become institutionalized, but anti-corruption is far from systematic. The anti-corruption "successes" are therefore the result of political infighting, not the rule of law.
Without competition between political parties, real elections, checks and balances on power, judiciary independence, a free press, or a strong civil society, Chinese corruption will remain pervasive and systematic. Few corrupt officials are caught, a signaling function which invites yet more corruption. Foreign organizations like Bloomberg and the non-profit International Consortium of Investigative Journalists have exposed the assets of certain high-level officials and their families, but I believe those are but the tip of the iceberg.
The recent anti-corruption campaigns have little to do with modern political culture. Xu Zhiyong, the founder of the New Citizens Movement, which advocates constitutionalism in China, has pioneered a protest that focuses on publicizing the assets of government officials, a needed ray of sunlight that would make it harder for corrupt bureaucrats to hide their misdeeds. Some brave human rights defenders have walked onto the streets, held up signs, shouted out slogans, given public speeches, and sought out signatures to call for the establishment of a system that would publicize assets of officials. But in January Xu was sentenced to four years in prison, and dozens of his comrades-in-arms have been arrested. The anti-corruption campaigns are not real -- but the anti-anti-corruption campaigns are. The punishment meted out to corrupt officials has been meager, while that given to anti-corruption activists has been devastating.
The move against Zhou is probably part of a larger political game, but its outcome is certain. There might be fierce infighting among the families and patrons of high-level officials as their interests collide, but they can probably agree on two things: Maintain one-party rule, and crush human rights activists.