The current anti-corruption campaign underway in China is the real deal. What first appeared to be a convenient way to eliminate political opponents when President Xi took power in late 2012 has morphed into a campaign than no one could have imagined.
In 18 months, nearly a quarter million officials and others have been held in detention or formerly charged with corruption. Some 70 have died or committed suicide.
The head of the Central Commission for Discipline and Inspection, the body investigating allegations of crimes or wrongdoings committed by party members, is now one of the most powerful men in China. His favorite television show is the American drama House of Cards.
The anti-corruption purge has had some unintended consequences. The number of people joining the Chinese Communist Party has fallen for the first time in a decade. Last year, just 2.4 million people joined the world’s largest political party. That is a full quarter fewer than in 2012. Total membership was 86.7 million at the end of 2013.
For most Chinese, party membership was always coveted because it typically came with a government job with good benefits and was a prerequisite for rising through the government ranks. Equally important, it created the opportunity to take bribes. Corruption is endemic among public officials in China. According to Global Financial Integrity, a nonprofit group that traces illicit flows of capital, $1.06 trillion left China between 2002 and 2011 despite tough currency controls.
The anti-corruption net has also snagged some big fish. Zhou Yongkang, the former head of the secret police, is the most senior party member to face corruption charges in the history of the People’s Republic of China.
Besides launching corruption investigations into hundreds of thousands of officials, President Xi has slashed official budgets and benefits since he took power in late 2012. As a consequence, the benefits of party membership have greatly diminished, but the risks have increased.
Whether this campaign diminishes corruption throughout the Middle Kingdom over the long run remains to be seen. But with corruption firmly rooted in the mainland’s political culture, don’t expect miracles anytime soon.