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'Great man' Xi Jinping undertakes great gamble in Zhou Yongkang's ouster, wider purge

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Chinese President Xi Jinping speaking in Shanghai in May.

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaking in Shanghai in May. Photo: AFP

Beijing: The notion that corruption has been rotting the Communist Party from within – and threatening its very existence – is not altogether new.

From the start of his decade-long term as premier, Wen Jiabao warned it was the greatest problem, hurting the party’s credibility with the common man.

But when he stepped down in 2012, change had not come, and he was left with “many regrets”. “I sincerely hope the people will forgive me,” he told reporters at his last National People’s Congress as premier.

Former Chinese security chief Zhou Yongkang has been brought down in Chinese President Xi Jinping's corruption purge.

Former Chinese security chief Zhou Yongkang has been brought down in Chinese President Xi Jinping's corruption purge. Photo: EyePress News

Xi Jinping’s elevation to the party’s leadership came with yet more populist promises to fight corruption. The question of whether he could deliver was  emphatically answered this week.

In felling the ‘‘tiger’’ that was Zhou Yongkang, Xi has ousted more than a political nemesis. He has dismantled a corporation, a network of patronage that Zhou built   extending through the state’s vast security apparatus and the nation’s oil and gas industry, enriching his family to the tune of billions of dollars.

“Xi Jinping is a game-changer, because in the past thirty-something years the [incumbent] leaders tend to have lived in the shadow of retired officials, the party elders,” says Bo Zhiyue, an expert in Chinese elite politics at the National University of Singapore. “Because of his personality, Xi appears to be stronger.”

Many watching this anti-corruption campaign unfold see it chiefly as a political fight between warring factions in the party.   But Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has other purposes, including establishing himself as a political strongman and furthering reforms, says Deng Yuwen, a political analyst and former deputy editor of Study Times, the Central Party School’s authoritative journal.

“In recent years, reform has been obstructed by vested interest groups and official corruption,” says Deng, in a commentary published in the Wall Street Journal. “The goal of centralising power is to remove such barriers. Zhou’s case can, accordingly, be seen as a test of whether Xi is fully in charge.”

In his first 20 months in office, the number of officials investigated and disciplined by the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, headed by Wang Qishan, have numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and claimed the scalps of at least 36 figure of vice-ministerial rank or higher. It has touched on every provincial government and powerful state-owned monopolies; in oil and gas, the financial sector, education, healthcare and the media.

Xi has also moved to clean out the military, expelling  former vice-chairman Xu Caihou, who stands accused of accepting bribes in return for promotions through the army ranks.

Political insiders suggest Xi has a strong desire to leave behind a legacy comparable to that of Deng Xiaoping. The son of a revolutionary hero, observers see Xi as wanting to lead the country in a matter befitting his “princeling” status.

Some liberal-minded princelings have been left disillusioned by the collateral damage wrought by Xi’s accumulation of power, which has meant silencing dissent from intellectuals, rights activists, lawyers and journalists, as well as a hardening approach to unrest in Xinjiang.

But absolute control is also seen as necessary to push through the economic reforms needed to prevent the Chinese economy from stalling.

Willy Lam, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation and a Chinese politics expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong says that in his now-famous December 2012 internal talk on the factors behind the demise of the Soviet Union, Xi laid the blame on “traitors” such as Mikhail Gorbachev, who in allowing  greater freedom only accelerated the empire’s dissolution. “When the Soviet Party was about to collapse, there was not one person who was man enough to turn back the tide,” Xi is said to have told colleagues.

Lam says Xi seems to “have fallen for a romanticised belief in ‘Great Man Theory’, or the non-Marxist view that history is made and unmade by a handful of geniuses’’.

“While Xi has impressed friends and foes alike with his super-confident, highly-charged style of leadership, the new number one has yet to demonstrate his ability to learn from the fiascos created by overconfident leaders in the party’s 93-year history,” Lam says.

In striking fear into the party apparatus, the anti-corruption campaign has also risked crippling  decision-making, leaving officials  wondering if they could be next.

The numbers queuing up to join the world’s biggest political party has also fallen for the first time in a decade. Last year’s figure of 2.4million joining the Communist Party was 25 per cent lower than 2012, bringing total membership to 86.7million.   

“Even a former member of the [Politburo] standing committee has been brought down, who else is exempt? Lots of corrupt officials are feeling scared now,” says Lin Zhe, an anti-corruption expert at the Central Party School. “There will be more officials whose arrest will stun people. I am very confident of it.”

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