What turns so many cadres bad in contemporary China? Busy purging a generation of corrupt officials from the Communist Party, Chinese President Xi Jinping may not have much time to worry about causes at the moment. This week he’s concerning himself with political fallout from the detention of Zhou Yongkang – China’s retired (and still-feared) security chief and formerly ninth-ranking member of the Politburo – for “serious discipline violations,” as the state newsmedia describes them.
So far, nobody knows the precise charges. But in Xi’s China, where corrupt officials are paraded through the media on a regular basis, it’s almost certain they will involve obscene amounts of money and abuses of power. The bigger question is what prompted Zhou’s corruption. Slowly, in Chinese newspapers and social media, that’s becoming the central issue in Xi’s massive anti-graft campaign.
Zhou, a man with a permanent, central casting scowl, should have embodied the Communist Party’s meritocratic ideal. He was born to modest circumstances and worked his way up through the powerful, state-owned oil and gas industry, where his talents were recognized and promoted to the alleged benefit of Party and state.
Three weeks ago, China witnessed the downfall and detention of another corrupted self-made man – the wildly popular television personality Rui Chenggang. Like Zhou, Rui came from modest circumstances and appears to have given in to temptation. (Unlike Zhou, he was popular among many young Chinese.) On July 13, shortly after his detention, a prominent academic asked of Rui: “What kind of soil cultivates evil and twists a young talent?” For most Chinese, accustomed to corruption in every corner of their life, the answers weren’t hard to find (though they were dismaying for those who had believed Rui was a patriot).
Zhou’s detention didn’t generate the same surprise or dismay, but it has encouraged similar questions about what lies at the root of China’s massive corruption problem. On Wednesday, Zhen Guangkui, an editor at the online edition of People’s Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Communist Party, took up the issue on his Sina Weibo account. Zhen refers to Zhou as a tiger – Xi Jinping’s favored term for high-ranking corrupt officials – and notes that Zhou’s corruption “is not his personal fault,” but is rather to be “blamed on his habitat.” That habitat, needless to say, was shaped by the Communist Party, and thus it’s necessary, Zhen argues, to strengthen “institutional construction and preventative education.”
Couched in the tiger metaphor, it’s easy to overlook Zhen’s suggestion that the Communist Party is systemically corrupt (his Weibo profile includes an “opinions are mine” disclaimer), and pass off his weak prescriptions to fix it. But Zhen is no anonymous microblogger, and his post – which until Thursday had remained uncensored – is a small but meaningful example of how China’s official voices are becoming more comfortable discussing the broad and entrenched nature of corruption in China.
To be sure, personalities – especially Zhou’s menacing one – remain at the heart of Xi’s anti-corruption purge. Still, the discourse is slowly shifting to examine the institutional impediments to preventing more such “tigers.” Over time, such posts may lay the rhetorical groundwork for Xi’s reform agenda and the rule of law which – according to a Tuesday report from Chinese state media – will be at the top of the agenda at key Communist Party meetings in October.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday the actual People’s Daily newspaper ran a much-touted editorial on Zhou that expressly reminded Party members that all power in China exists within “the cage” of party rules and state law. There is no “safe box” in which corrupt, high-ranking officials can obtain immunity.
That’s not a particularly attractive view of what it might mean to live under the rule of law in China, though the highly evocative image may give pause to some wavering officials. (Presumably, being caught will lead to another, even less attractive, cage.)
Will that be enough to curb such widespread corruption? Ultimately, Chinese officials, big and small, will take their cues from Xi, who has set for himself the contradictory task of serving as both strongman and as legal reformer. In doing so, he risks being viewed as a hypocrite and thereby offering inspiration – if not example – to corruptible cadres everywhere.
Adam Minter is an American writer based in Asia.