China’s uphill battle against corruption

China’s crackdown on corruption shows the ruling party is getting more serious about its anti-graft credentials. But for it to become a truly modern superpower, much more needs to be done.

Graph for China’s uphill battle against corruption

Cai Bin, center, former head of the urban management bureau in the Guangzhous Panyu district, nicknamed Uncle House for his large property holdings to 11, is seen standing trial for bribery at Haizhu District Peoples Court in Guangzhou, South Chinas Guangdong province. (AP photo)

When Chinese military police raided the palatial home of Lieutenant General Gu Junshan this week, they found enough ill-gotten goods to load up four military trucks. The goods included a large boat replica, a wash basin and a statue of Chairman Mao all made of solid gold, and hundreds of cases of Maotai, the poison of choice for Chinese elites.

The raid was carried out under the cover of night to avoid an unseemly sight for ordinary Chinese citizens who are already disenchanted with corruption epidemics in the country, according Caixin Media’s five-part investigative report on the scandal.

Gu’s palatial home, dubbed ‘The General Residence’ is modelled after the Forbidden Palace in Beijing and was designed by artists from the palace museum itself. Needless to say, the story has gone viral online.

Gu, a former deputy commander of the general logistics department of the People’s Liberation of Army, is one of the ‘tigers’ – codename for senior party officials that have been arrested in an ever widening crackdown on corruption.

The ruling party, which is besieged with corruption scandals at the highest level of the government including former premier Wen Jiabao and relatives of the current party chief Xi Jinping – has launched a campaign to crack down on corruption. 

The man leading the anti-corruption charge is Wang Qishan. He is widely regarded as a high-calibre and relatively clean senior official and has a seat at the most inner sanctum of the party – the standing committee of the politburo. 

Under his watch, 18 minister-level senior officials were arrested in 2013, including the former head of the state-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, which oversees the 119 largest companies in China. Others include a deputy minister for public security and a former head of the energy administration.

There is widespread speculation that Zhou Yongkang, the former security chief and a political ally of the now disgraced party leader Bo Xilai, is under virtual house arrest. Many of his protégés, including former executives from PetroChina and a former vice minister of public security, have been arrested. 

If the party were to crack down on Zhou, it would break the unspoken rule that current and former members of the standing committee of the politburo enjoy implicit immunity from prosecution.

How to handle the political and publicity fallouts from the possible indictment of a former member of the standing committee of the politburo will be a major test for Xi Jinping, who only ascended to power less than a year ago.

Xi has staked much of his personal reputation as well as the legitimacy of the ruling party on his war against corruption, which threatens to bring down the party.

Zhou’s prosecution would send a strong signal that the party is serious about anti-corruption and would help it win back some respect from a sceptical public about the government, which has been talking about an anti-graft campaign for as long as people can remember.

If Zhou were to be put in the dock, a transparent trial could do much to strengthen the rule of law in the country. The relatively open trial of former disgraced political star Bo Xilai offers hope that Zhou may get the same treatment.

However, the bigger question remains whether other former members of the politburo – such as ex- premier Wen, who has been tainted with an explosive New York Times story about his family’s alleged corruption – are immune from future probe?

It is one thing to take on a political ally of a disgraced ex-politician, but it’s an entirely different matter to probe a popular former premier. Unless Xi and Wang are willing to burn up a lot of political capital, it is perhaps a touch too fanciful to imagine them taking on a tiger the size of Wen.

However, China’s crackdown on corruption is making a lot of officials nervous and consumption of luxury goods is on the decline, including Maotai and Lafite from Chateau Rothschild. There are promising signs that Beijing is getting more serious about its anti-graft credentials.

Beijing must rein in corruption for it to become a modern and responsible superpower and it needs to look no further than across the Taiwan straits for inspiration. Former Taiwanese president Chen Shuibian is serving a lengthy jail sentence behind bars for corruption.

Follow Peter Cai on Twitter: @peteryuancai

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