On March 9, Liu Jian, a former military officer and grandson of Zhu De, one of China’s most revered revolutionary-era generals, told a state-affiliated news website that Guo Boxiong, former vice chairman of the central military commission, was responsible for the sins of his son, Guo Zhenggang. Guo Zhenggang, also a general, has come under investigations for corruption. His father had held a senior post in the People’s Liberation Army under the Hu Jintao government and was appointed by Jiang Zemin, Hu’s predecessor. Guo Boxiong’s colleague Xu Caihou was brought down in the first wave of purges against the military late last year. Liu’s comments about Guo Boxiong were widely publicized and republished in the South China Morning Post.
Arrests for corruption have been going on in China for more than a year. Given the endemic nature of corruption in the Chinese system, with its interlocking political and business relations, it is likely that corruption charges could be brought against an enormous number of officials; they have already been brought against hundreds of thousands of people since mid-2013, and that is likely just a fraction of the number of officials who could be charged. Therefore, from our point of view, the corruption campaign is as much a purge as a cleanup. A purge differs in that it takes place for political reasons — to weaken the opposition, strengthen the position of the government or, most likely, both. That raises the interesting question of who Chinese President Xi Jinping sees as his enemy, and why he is worried enough about them to purge them.
In this context, Liu’s statement is interesting. A person whose primary claim to fame is descent from a national hero has been showcased saying that in a particular corruption case, the father must be held responsible for what the son did. Put differently, Liu, whose grandfather is by definition beyond reproach, is saying that in at least this case, the son’s corruption is the father’s responsibility. The Chinese government has chosen to showcase this statement, and it must therefore be taken seriously and its meaning unraveled.
That is not easy. China has become increasingly opaque, recalling the time when Mao Zedong’s whims would be revealed in poems on wall posters for the world to scratch its heads over. We will assume that this statement is not simply directed at Guo Boxiong, but is stated as a principle of the anti-corruption drive. Otherwise Guo could simply have been arrested without this fanfare. So our best guess is that a generalizable statement is being made, and that statement is not simply about fathers and sons but the older generation of leaders and the younger.
Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is both a genuine attempt to deal with corruption and an attempt to strengthen his position, the position of the Party throughout China, and Beijing’s position as the center of China. The charge could be made that prior presidents had been lax in this. Excessively interested in economic growth and prosperity, they had let the instruments of state control atrophy and, as one outcome, permitted corruption to flourish. More important, the weakening of state control has made managing China during its economic downturn singularly difficult. It is not only an economic problem, but also a social and political problem. Xi has been put in the difficult position of managing political and social forces with weakened and corrupted instruments. Hence, the anti-corruption movement is aligned with a purge.
But obviously, corruption is systemic, and so is the weakness of state power. From Xi’s point of view, it is necessary to address these issues but also to assign blame. That blame would rest with prior Chinese administrations. In laying the blame at their feet — at the feet of the elders — Xi both weakens their residual power and strengthens his own. Jiang, who preceded Hu as president, retains substantial power, as prior presidents in China frequently do. He also presided over China’s major post-1989 economic surge, making it his primary goal. He was the dominant political figure in China during the 1990s and early 2000s and retains significant influence. He is also, according to Forbes, worth $1.7 billion. He oversaw the period of economic climax and intensifying corruption. His own wealth, if Forbes is right, likely had complex origins.
The Chinese public seems enamored with Xi and his fight to try to purify China. In an economic downturn, targeting those who became wealthy, particularly politicians, is a logical process. Xi is obviously locking horns with Jiang over these campaigns that are taking down the former president’s supporters at an accelerating pace. If this campaign were to reach its logical conclusion, then Jiang also would be a likely target.
In retrospect. the past was simple. Build factories for export, take advantage of the very low incomes in the countryside, and grow 10-15% a year. Highly successful for a long time. But that no longer works. What’s next? It’s not at all simple, and so you have dramas such as the above. Five years ago we looked at a number of the issues involved in China’s coming transitions, and the answers are no clearer today. Here’s a couple of amazing statistics for you, while we’re talking about transitions. 100 years ago, 42% of Americans lived on farms; now it’s negligible. China today is about where America was 100 years ago with over 40% on farms; what will the next century bring?