Xi ‘firmly in charge’ as rivals fall in China anti-graft campaign

Name after name, senior politician after senior politician.

Courts in China have handed down a series of high-profile corruption-related convictions in recent weeks in a final push against corruption and political disloyalty by Chinese President Xi Jinping ahead of the party’s once-every-five-years congress.

The intensity of Xi’s campaign is almost unmatched in the country’s history: fighting corruption has been a priority since Xi was anointed the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, the leader of China’s ruling party, in 2012, and there has been no let-up as he heads for an unprecedented third term in office.

Sun Lijun, a former vice minister for public security, was given a “suspended” death sentence on September 23 – after he pleaded guilty to accepting bribes, using his political power in exchange for personal favours, and illegally possessing firearms, among other charges. In China, provisional death sentences can be commuted to a life term depending on the convict’s behaviour in the first two years after the verdict.

Sun’s conviction marks the possible end of an intensified anti-corruption campaign that targeted Sun’s “political clique”. It involved high-ranking officials such as Fu Zhenghua, former minister of justice, Wang Like, the former head of the political and legal affairs in eastern Jiangsu province, and three former police chiefs. Liu Yanping, the former chief of the disciplinary inspection commission, has also been indicted on corruption charges.

As Xi prepares for the twice-a-decade congress, which starts on October 16, the position of the man whose appointment was heralded by a headline-grabbing murder-corruption scandal involving his main adversary Bo Xilai, is stronger than ever.

“The recently announced prison sentences indicate that Xi is tying up loose ends before the party congress,” Bruce Dickson, a professor at George Washington University whose research and teaching focus on China’s political dynamics, told Al Jazeera. “For those who have speculated there is opposition to Xi’s leadership, these sentences make it clear he is firmly in charge.”

Xi Jinping is cementing his position as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong [File: Thomas Peter/Reuters]

Corruption not unusual in China

According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), which ranks countries based on perceived levels of public sector corruption, China scored 45 out of 100 in 2021, the average for the Asia Pacific region.

Transparency said China’s score had improved by nine points since 2014 “in line with President Xi Jinping’s strong anti-corruption rhetoric”, noting that Xi had “reinforced top down controls and clamped down on some of the most brazen forms of corruption”.

From 2014 to 2021, nearly 10,000 people who were suspected of corruption and fled abroad to avoid prosecution were brought back to China, and more than 20 billion yuan (about $2.9bn) of their illicit gains were retrieved, according to Xinhua, China’s state news agency.

Since Xi ascended to the presidency and rolled out his anti-corruption campaign, at least 4.4 million people have been investigated in graft-related cases, according to Zero Tolerance – a documentary on the party’s anti-corruption efforts, sponsored by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), China’s top corruption investigation body.

All party members and government officials are fair game for inspection: the phrase “tigers and flies,” hailed by Xi, refers to the highest-ranking government officials, the lowliest civil servants, and anyone in between.

Sun is far from the only top official to be caught in the crackdown.

Zhou Yongkang, for example, a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest level of government leadership, was sentenced to life in prison in 2014. He was the first person in such a senior position to be investigated for corruption.

Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, walks past other Chinese leaders from left, Zhou Yong Kang, China's Communist Party head of Political and Legislative affairs committee, Vice Premier Li Keqiang and propaganda chief Li Changchun in the Great Hall of the People. Zhou was later found guilty of corruption too
The spectacular fall from grace of Bo Xilai (walking) in 2012 has been followed by a crackdown on corruption that has also seen Zhou Yongkang (left), a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, jailed [File: Ng Han Guan/AP Photo]

But the relentless crackdown has also raised questions about Xi’s motivations.

While some believe that Xi’s personal investment in the issue stems from a genuine desire to tackle the problem of corruption, others argue the president is simply using it as a pretext to cement his authority over the party, removing those seen as disloyal or as potential rivals.

“The anti-corruption drive, despite its promising rhetoric, is about rescuing the party and restoring public faith more than eradicating corruption,” said Samson Yuen, programme director in Government and International Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. “After all, corruption has been intertwined in complex ways with China’s economic development.”

‘Nothing but good’

Some Chinese citizens told Al Jazeera they supported Xi’s crackdown on corruption.

One Beijing resident, who preferred to be addressed only by his family name, Xu, said that at the beginning he was sceptical. “New broom sweeps clean: of course, we all thought he was just saying these things (cracking down on corruption) and wasn’t going to follow through,” he said.

Now, he describes Xi’s clampdown on corruption as “necessary” and “nothing but good”.

“I remember back in the days, corrupt officials were everywhere, and nothing got done by the government,” Xu said. “But ever since Xi Dada (an endearing form of address for the Chinese president) became the leader, corruption cannot stand a chance in China any more.”

Public approval has helped ease the way for Xi’s third term as president, which required an amendment to the constitution.

Zhao Shengzhao, a resident of Chongqing, the former stronghold of disgraced Bo, said that she would not mind Xi remaining in the top position for a further five years.

“If someone is this good at getting rid of corruption, then why do we need another person to replace him?” she asked.

A similar narrative has been carefully tailored in state propaganda. From party education to social media, the Communist Party has been arguing that unless corruption is tackled, economic inequality will remain, and that Xi is the only person who is up to the task.

But 10 years after Xi first became president, corruption remains rampant and many wonder how much longer the president can continue with the campaign.

“The continued revelation of corruption reflects how widespread the problem is, how difficult it is to fully root it out, and how determined Xi is to use this mechanism to solidify his control over the CCP,” said George Washington University’s Dickson.

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