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Does China’s latest corruption purge have any real teeth?

On 17th August 2014, Willen van Kemenade, an Al Jazeera’s foreign correspondent, published an interesting article on the Chinese anti-corruption campaign which has recently involved several important officials, including China’s former head of domestic security and state oil, chief Zhou Yongkang.

As van Kemenade highlighted in his article, “corruption in China is omnipresent, and it runs from top to bottom, or in Xi’s words, from “tiger to fly”. After the egalitarianism and violent political upheavals of the Mao era, former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping put China on a course to economic modernisation, dubbing it a “socialist market economy”. But this was just a euphemism for lawless state-controlled capitalism under an authoritarian one-party state. It produced 35 years of high economic growth without checks and balances, creating a free-for-all kleptocracy.

Several attempts to curb corruption have been made, but results have been minimal given the magnitude of the problem in China. There are signs which show that the wind may change as shown by recent investigations against several Chinese officials and foreign companies, including the UK’s largest drugmaker, GlaxoSmithKline Plc (GSK), and Danone, the world’s largest yogurt maker. But, how would Xi be able to deal with this serious issue?

Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao used to say: “If we don’t deal with corruption, China will be doomed, but if we deal with it too harshly, the Communist Party will be doomed.” As van Kemenade stressed “Xi obviously wants to save both China and the Communist Party.” Therefore, it is difficult to suggest a solution even in light of the fact that a liberal political reform is not on Xi’s agenda.

However, if a prompt response is not translated in a real reform of Chinese system, I could not disagree with van Kamenade who suggested that “China faces a potentially turbulent decade of transition, both politically and economically“. To this end, there are new indications which Xi does not need to underestimate. The most relevant is represented by the increasing level of new Chinese highly educated urban middle class, who is no longer compelled to old-style communist authoritarianism, and is likely to expect a decisive answer in relation to corruption.

Image – Security chief Zhou’s fall has proven that even top Chinese party officials can be subject to an inquiry [Reuters]


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