Chinese President Xi Jinping has at last made good on his promise to weed out corruption in the Communist Party, silencing critics who saw his anti-corruption campaign as an internal purge of his political enemies.

While you may titter at Chinese spinmeisters’ Soviet-era heavy-handedness, which seems almost quaint these days, every serious politician in the world could learn from the deftly delivered one-two knock-out punch that Xi landed this week.

First up was the official announcement of the worst-kept secret in Beijing: the first official investigation of member of the elite star chamber that runs China, the Politburo Standing Committee. This dubious honour has been bestowed upon Zhou Yongkang, China’s legal and security chief  from 2007-2012. This comes just a week after Xi expelled a former vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, Xu Caihou , from the Communist Party for corruption.

The expected Zhou expulsion/conviction alone will seal Xi’s place in history, of which he is acutely aware, being the scion of Xi Zhongxun, the most famous of all the Communist revolutionary generals.

Xi’s second big move was a major reform of hukou, the restrictive system that means only residents with official registration in the areas in which they live can access basic services like education, health and public housing — severely disadvantaging 200 million more or so domestic migrants and creating an urban underclass.

Zhou cut his teeth as an oil technician and rigger, and by the age of just 44 he was appointed chief of the China National Petroleum Corporation. The energy industry is notoriously corrupt, and he vaulted, as only the very best connected state owned enterprise chiefs do, effortlessly into politics. Bright and with the outsized ambitions of a farm kid determined to make good, he was made Land and Resources Minister before becoming Party Secretary of oil-rich Sichuan — the perfect synthesis of his energy and political “interests”. He then ascended to the dizzy heights of the Politburo Standing Committee.

This added real power — control of China’s brutal secret police, its cowed prosecutors and a court system filled with judges without legal degrees — to his staggering wealth. Imagine, say, Alan Bond being appointed Australia’s attorney-general and minister for justice, with final say over the appointment of every police officer, prosecutor and judge in the country, and who has  final say in the verdict in every case before the courts. The importance of Zhou being dragged from out of the shadowy world of house arrest is impossible to underestimate, and the shockwaves are now reverberating through the party’s 80 million-odd members.

Xi is sending a very clear sign that anybody at all could fall victim to the Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Yet the question remains: where does he stop? A report yesterday suggested that the famous Shanghai clique, around former Communist Party general secretary Jiang Zemin, is in the CCDI’s sights. If that is really the case, will it go after Jiang himself? That would seem a bridge too far, and taking down a leader would reduce the party’s legitimacy — particularly as Jiang famously backed Xi into the top job ahead of his No. 2 Premier Li Keqiang, who was former paramount leader Hu Jintao’s choice.

Xi has taken a big risk here, opening something of a Pandora’s box — not so much with Zhou per se, but the expectation that other very senior people may also be taken down. And the banning of banquets, gifts and the perks of the country’s bureaucracy has helped soften retail and hospitality sales as well as offshore luxury houses such as LVMH and top-tier car marques — economically, the anti-corruption drive has proven negative for both China and the world. Adding to this, the stripping of perks that can amount to fortunes has suddenly rendered government jobs not so attractive; with China’s best and brightest now shifting course for private enterprise, bolstering this sector is another priority for Xi. For a state-run country like China, to weaken the capabilities of its cohort future leaders appears to a recipe for trouble down the track.

Is it possible Xi may force the pain of this campaign to local level, where corruption is even worse, relatively speaking.

But it’s not the short-term payoff that Xi is after, and perhaps he remembers that the last thing left, after everything had flown out of Pandora’s box, was hope. He will need it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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