News that a former police chief fraudulently acquired 192 houses in the Chinese city of Lufeng has led to the latest in a series of outcries against official corruption in China. Under Hu Jintao’s leadership, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has taken a very public stand against party corruption, aware as they are of its dangers if left unchecked.
Several government and regional officials have even been executed over the past few years because of corruption. Nevertheless, cronyism, nepotism and opportunism persist within the party hierarchy despite historical warnings against rampant corruption.
The CCP came to power largely as a result of the perceived corruption amongst the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) rulers that preceded it. A remnant of the warlord era, the KMT operated without the rule of law and acted as a self-serving elite to the detriment of China’s historically-downtrodden peasantry. In such a political and economic climate, where the many were openly subordinated to the few, the appeal of communism was strong. After a bitter civil war, the KMT leadership was forced to cede government and flee to Taiwan where it has remained ever since.
Corruption has existed at the highest level of state throughout Chinese history and continued after the KMT overthrow. During the early years of CCP rule, the effective use of propaganda, coupled with a continuous appeal to class struggle through which the country’s citizens turned on one another (see the Cultural Revolution), conveniently hid the continued excesses of the powerful. Mao and his political elite led a life anathema to their teachings and re-directed national resources and productivity to their own and their families’ benefit.
The return to a relatively stable China in the 1980s suddenly revealed the corrupt practices of the CCP leadership to an increasingly-aware populace. Opening up the economy, Deng Xiaoping’s reforms provided a greater opportunity for corruption as party officials greased their pockets with kickbacks from manipulated contract awards to their colleagues in industry. Additionally, the convenient placement of party relatives on planning boards or in construction jobs helped nepotism to flourish. Indeed, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests were partly borne out of the increasing weariness to corruption amongst the emerging middle class.
Corruption prosecutions in the Hu era have satisfied some, accompanied as they have been by glitzy showtrials and intense media scrutiny. However, such prosecutions often have an underlying political motive. Scrutiny and judgement are only passed upon those deemed troublesome or irrelevant to the party hierarchy. Being a relative, or clique member, of one of the top brass brings virtual immunity. Bo Xilai, a potential trouble-stirrer and Hu opponent experienced this phenomenon first hand.
The problem for the CCP is balancing. It needs to keep its party members in line to avoid resentment building up amongst the population, particularly those finding evermore sophisticated ways of bypassing the government’s social media barriers. At the same time, party loyalty must be seen to have its rewards. Discontentment within the party is equally, if not more dangerous, to the CCP rulers than popular unrest. It is for this reason that officials in backwater provinces can escape the watchful eye of Beijing and lord it over their districts in an almost dictatorial fashion. It is for this reason that massive construction and infrastructural projects are awarded to party-affiliated firms and donors, even if quality is sacrificed in the process.
The CCP has learnt from the history of the KMT. Blatant corruption cannot persist in a country numbering well over a billion people. It requires a subtle process of give and take, whereby cronyism persists for the good of party stability whilst overambitious corruptors are made to pay the penalty for ruining party image.
Whilst Hu Jintao was mildly successful in preserving this delicate equilibrium, the rise of social media, even in China, threatens to make the task a lot harder for his successor Xi Jinping. Without it, the story of the police chief with 192 houses would probably never have been revealed. Party and officials alike need to beware.