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For China’s Xi, purging corruption a means to install loyalists

President maneuvering reformists, aides into China's political elite

by Benjamin Kang Lim and Megha Rajagopalan

Reuters

Chinese President Xi Jinping plans to use a purge of high-ranking officials suspected of corruption to instal people close to him and reform-minded bureaucrats into critical positions across the Communist Party, the government and the military, sources say.

Xi believes that eliminating corrupt officials and those resisting change will allow him to consolidate his grip on power and implement difficult economic, judicial and military reforms that he sees as vital to perpetuate one-party rule in China, said the seven sources, who all have ties to the leadership.

“The anti-corruption (drive) is a means to an end. The goal is to promote his own men and like-minded officials to key positions to push through reforms,” said one of the sources.

In the most far-reaching example of his intentions, Xi plans to promote about 200 progressive officials from the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang, where he served as party boss from 2002 to 2007, to senior positions across China’s ruling elite in the years ahead, two of them said.

The seven sources sought anonymity to avoid repercussions for discussing secretive elite politics.

Tackling endemic corruption is considered vital by Xi in restoring public faith in the Communist Party, given a number of high-profile corruption scandals in recent years, according to other sources, but the president also views it as an opportunity to revamp the country’s ruling class.

The biggest investigation Xi has ordered so far revolves around retired domestic security czar Zhou Yongkang, who is under virtual house arrest. More than 300 of Zhou’s allies, proteges, staffers and relatives have been taken into custody or questioned since late last year as part of China’s biggest graft scandal in around six decades, it was reported on March 30.

The Chinese government has yet to make any formal statement about Zhou, who retired in late 2012 from the Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of power in China, or the case against him. It was not possible to contact Zhou, his family, associates or staffers for comment. Nor is it clear if any of them have lawyers.

Another source who met Xi in private this year quoted him as saying that implementing reforms had been “very difficult” due to opposition from state-owned enterprises, along with influential party elders and their children, known as “princelings.”

State-owned firms and princelings enjoy many corporate privileges and virtually monopolize certain sectors, which is at odds with China’s efforts to steer its economy away from a reliance on heavy industry and investment to one driven more by consumption and innovation.

On the judicial front, the 60-year-old Xi has overseen reforms that limit the ability of the party to interfere in most court cases — apart from politically sensitive ones — but more still needs to be done to deal with frequent miscarriages of justice that outrage the public, legal experts say.

While Xi appears set on driving reform on many fronts, human rights activists have said major political change is on his agenda. For example, authorities have increased controls over the media and prominent bloggers in the past year.

Political tightrope

Since taking the reins of the Communist Party in November 2012 and becoming president the following March, Xi has often warned that corruption threatens the party’s survival.

Many party, government and military officials have since been living in fear, according to the seven sources close to the leadership.

About 10 officials who held a rank equivalent to at least vice minister are under investigation as part of the Zhou probe alone, sources have previously said. Among them are former top officials at state energy giant PetroChina and its parent, China National Petroleum Corp., who were linked to Zhou when he worked in the oil industry.

Underscoring the challenge, more than 30 percent of party, government and military officials were found to be involved in some form of corruption, according to a previously unpublished internal party survey carried out in 2013, said one of the sources. The source, who has seen a copy, did not say how the survey arrived at its conclusions.

While Xi is walking a political tightrope, the sources said, he is not meeting much resistance to the crackdown from party elders or others who might fear they could be next. But there is a limit to how many senior figures he can purge.

“The government would be paralyzed if Xi went after all the corrupt officials,” said a source who has regular access to the president.

Military not immune

The anti-corruption campaign has also spilled over into the 2.3-million-strong People’s Liberation Army.

Sources said last month that Gen. Xu Caihou, 70, who retired as vice chairman of the Central Military Commission last year and from the Politburo Standing Committee in 2012, was under virtual house arrest while helping in the investigation of another high-ranking military official, Lt. Gen. Gu Junshan.

Gu, a former PLA deputy logistics chief, has been charged with corruption, official state media reported March 31. The charges included accepting bribes to promote hundreds of officers, according to separate sources.

Xu was one of Gu’s main supporters in his rise through the ranks and hence has found himself implicated for ignoring, or at the very least failing to report, his protege’s alleged misdeeds.

Under further instructions from Xi, the military also has clamped down on the selling of positions, the illegal occupation of military housing and even the doling out of PLA vehicle number plates.

However, Xi is unlikely to punish all the officers who bought promotions, the sources stressed, adding he would use this as leverage to strong-arm them into agreeing to more reforms.

Xi also has not decided whether to prosecute former security czar Zhou or Xu, who is being treated for bladder cancer, the sources said.

“It shows that he can get to just about anybody if he can bring down a guy like (Zhou),” said David Zweig, an expert on Chinese politics at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “It tells officials that if he’s making reforms that they may not like so much, then they better get on board.”

Recruiting close to home

In looking for people he can trust, Xi will also tap reform-minded officials from his alma mater — Tsinghua University in Beijing — and other provinces, one of the seven sources said.

But his key recruiting ground will be Zhejiang, south of Shanghai, where he cut his teeth as party boss from 2002-2007. The province is seen as ideologically progressive and has long been at the forefront of economic reforms thanks to a concentration of private businesses that helped turn China into the world’s factory.

Besides promoting officials from Zhejiang to the Communist Party’s ranks, the central government and the military, Xi, who hails from the northwestern province of Shaanxi, plans to send them to other provinces as well.

Zhejiang party chief Xia Baolong, a Xi ally, is the leading candidate to take the challenging job of running the restive region of Xinjiang this year or next, and then possibly becoming a member of the decision-making Politburo Standing Committee in 2017, according to some of the sources.

One of Xi’s closest aides, Zhong Shaojun, a native of Zhejiang, is likely to be further promoted in the People’s Liberation Army following a late start to his military career, said two sources who have ties to the military. In an unusual move, Xi made Zhong, a civilian for most of his career, a senior colonel last year when he appointed him deputy director of the General Office of the Central Military Commission.

That effectively made Zhong his point man with the powerful military. The general office sets agendas for meetings and trips to military facilities around China for Xi and the top brass. The commission is the military’s top decision-making body.

Zhong, 45, is likely to be promoted to major general this year or in 2015, the sources said.

Following precedent

Using corruption to topple rivals is not an uncommon tactic in China.

Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, went after two members of the Politburo Standing Committee: Shanghai party boss Chen Liangyu in 2006 and, more notably, Chongqing party chief and political princeling Bo Xilai in 2012; and Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin, purged former Politburo member Chen Xitong for corruption in 1995.

Some sources say the need to eradicate any lingering influence of Bo, one of the most charismatic but divisive Chinese politicians of his generation, was one reason Xi moved to place Zhou, the former domestic security chief and a key ally of Bo, under investigation.

Bo, a member of the politburo from 2007 through 2012, was jailed for life last September on charges of corruption and abuse of power following the murder of a British businessman.

Yet “there’s a risk of a backlash from elders if they believe the anti-graft campaign has gone too far,” cautioned Bo Zhiyue, an expert on China’s political elite at the National University of Singapore. “The issue for Xi is how to manage the whole campaign to make sure he himself remains secure.”