Xi’s Anti-Corruption Campaign Continues, But Its Motives Remain Misunderstood

Anti-Corruption Campaign
Xi Jinping at COP21

By Christopher Carothers

Xi’s Anti-Corruption Campaign

At a Politburo meeting of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in early December, Chinese leader Xi Jinping signaled that his sweeping, now decade-long anti-corruption campaign would continue in his third term. This campaign—Xi’s signature domestic policy after coming to power in 2012—has continued to expand its scope in recent years even as more attention has turned to China’s struggles with Covid-19 since 2020. Yet despite a mountain of outside analyses, the motives behind this critical policy are still often misunderstood. In this short piece, I draw on my published research to explain why it is a mistake to see the campaign primarily as a vehicle for Xi’s consolidation of personal power and how understanding the broader political context in which Xi launched the campaign reveals a more substantial and ambitious agenda.

Since the campaign began to generate global headlines, many commentators have focused on how it has helped Xi consolidate power, especially by investigating potential political rivals for bribery, embezzlement, and other wrongdoing. The campaign’s early years featured hundreds of investigations into “big tigers” (high-level party, government, or military officials) accused of corruption, yet avoided Xi’s family and closest allies. These investigations demonstrated Xi’s growing power both because of their wide reach throughout the party establishment and because they broke party norms, such as immunity for members of the Politburo Standing Committee. Commentators rightly noted that purging so many elites decreased resistance to Xi’s accumulation of new titles and leadership positions throughout his first term and also allowed Xi to put many of his loyalists in key positions.

More Than a Power Play

However, as other analysts have pointed out, the campaign is also far more than a simple power play. First, the scope of the campaign is remarkable. Over the last decade, more than 4.7 million officials and party members at all levels have been investigated and disciplined for corruption or related economic crimes. Second, the length of the campaign is unprecedented in CCP history. The anti-corruption campaigns announced by Xi’s immediate predecessors all fizzled out after a year or so, including those launched in 1993, 1995, 2005, and 2009. If Xi’s goal were only power consolidation—which he has long since achieved—the campaign would have been brought to a close.

So, third and most importantly, the campaign has produced substantial anti-corruption rulemaking and institution-building. Alongside wide-reaching anti-corruption enforcement, the Xi administration has enacted numerous new laws, party codes, and regulations against specific types of wrongdoing. It has also invested in strengthening anti-corruption bodies and monitoring mechanisms—the most significant of these being the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the National Supervision Commission (which encompasses but is also larger than the CCDI), and the lesser-known Inspection System (巡视制度).

The Superficiality of Authoritarian Corruption Control

The campaign’s scope, length, and institution-building all separate it from the more typical pattern of autocrats using anti-corruption campaigns to purge rivals or simply put on a charade of cleaning house. Many if not most modern autocrats come to power promising that they will clean up corruption and other abuses of power, but unaccountable leaders typically have few incentives to challenge informal systems that benefit powerholders at the expense of the public. As a result, most authoritarian corruption control is superficial.

For example, in November 2017, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) shocked the Kingdom by detaining hundreds of elites, including eleven princes, other members of the royal family, dozens of high-ranking current and former officials, and scores of prominent businesspeople. The government portrayed this as an anti-corruption measure; many of those detained were charged with corruption by a newly formed anti-corruption committee headed by MBS. However, unlike Xi’s campaign in China, MBS’s crackdown was clearly a power play with corruption control as a fig leaf. Most of those detained were soon released, there was no pretense that anti-corruption standards would be enforced throughout the government, and there was little to no institutional follow-through, such as anti-corruption codes that could deter or punish future wrongdoing. In January 2019, the anti-corruption committee announced that it had “concluded its task” and disbanded.

What are Xi’s Goals?

If not personal power consolidation, then what has been the primary goal of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign? Why did Xi make curbing corruption such a priority when so many autocrats embrace corruption and prosecute only their rivals’ wrongdoing? To answer these questions, we need to recall that Xi became China’s leader at a time when many CCP members felt that the party was headed towards a crisis. By the late 2000s, both elite and public voices were criticizing President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao’s “weak” leadership and citing a range of policy failures, including on corruption control, environmental protection, and inequality.

The party had pulled back on its direct control of many parts of the state and the economy, and Chinese citizens were enjoying greater freedoms of speech and association, including on the Internet, than ever before. Rather than reduce social pressure, however, this political liberalization had opened the door to growing public discontent over a range of issues and a dramatic increase in small and medium-sized protests across China. Xi and other party leaders saw this combination of policy failings and party weakness in a liberalizing environment as highly dangerous, not least because it matched a common CCP narrative about why the Soviet Union collapsed.

Xi’s Response

Xi’s response to this looming crisis was to make it his administration’s mission to “rejuvenate” the Chinese party-state—to strengthen the organization and discipline of the party and to reassert the party’s leadership over state institutions, the economy, and society more generally. As Xi has explained his vision: “Party, state, military, civilian life, and education. North, south, east, west, and at the center. The party leads everything” (党政军民学,东西南北中,党是领导一切的). This authoritarian reaction, in part a return to pre-reform era CCP strategies of governance, was supported by many within the party establishment, boosting support for Xi early in his first term.

Critical to achieving this party-state rejuvenation, Xi and others believed, was curbing corruption. Xi has consistently argued that only by curbing corruption can the party prevent the “doom of the party and the state,” and that corruption control’s many benefits to the nation will flow primarily through its salubrious effects on the CCP. Everything the party is and does—its organization, discipline, governing capacity, social control, and so on—can be undermined by party members engaging in corruption.

To Strengthen the Party-State

Understood in this context, it is clear that the primary goal of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has been to strengthen the party-state in order to prevent a crisis of the regime. Typically, autocrats can tolerate corruption impairing their state’s functioning as long as the spoils keep flowing to them and their cronies. However, as political scientists have noted, there are certain types of systemic crises—such as a foreign military threat, a large economic downturn, or a breakdown of compliance with the regime’s policies on its core interests—that can motivate state-building in both democratic and authoritarian contexts.

The systemic nature of the threat facing the Xi administration, with its combination of governance failings, party retreat from leadership, and public discontent in an increasingly liberal environment, demanded not just more repression or a reshuffling of the elite but also a serious state-building (or in this case party-state building) response, at the center of which was curbing corruption. My argument is not that Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is not “political”—the campaign is very much a strategy to keep Xi and his allies in power. However, the overarching political objective is making the entire CCP regime more durable by strengthening the party-state apparatus, rather than purging rivals and consolidating Xi’s personal power vis-à-vis other regime elites. The campaign’s continuation today signals that that goal has not been fully achieved and that Xi continues to see a powerful and controlling party as his best chance to win the future.

About the Author

Dr. Christopher Carothers is a political scientist conducting research on authoritarian politics with a regional focus on China and greater East Asia. He is the author of Corruption Control in Authoritarian Regimes: Lessons from East Asia (Cambridge University Press 2022) and has published widely in both academic and policy journals. Dr. Carothers received his PhD in Government from Harvard University in 2019 and is currently an associated scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Contemporary China.

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