Corruption and the China Leadership Transition

The Chinese Communist Party sends a strong message on Bo Xilai, signaling that consensus has been reached in the nick of time before the once-a-decade changing of the guard takes place later this year.

Former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai attends the closing session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing's Great Hall of the People. It was announced today that Bo has been expelled from the Communist Party as a result of the scandals surrounding him and his wife. (AP/Ng Han Guan)
Former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai attends the closing session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing's Great Hall of the People. It was announced today that Bo has been expelled from the Communist Party as a result of the scandals surrounding him and his wife. (AP/Ng Han Guan)

This is the first in a six-part series highlighting the research and recommendations of a recent Center for American Progress report, “China’s Real Leadership Question.” The report explains the major players and factors in China’s upcoming political transition and describes the numerous challenges the country faces during the transition and well into the future.

Today in Beijing the Chinese Communist Party’s 25-member Politburo sealed the fate of scandal-embroiled former Chongqing Party Chief Bo Xilai. The Politburo expelled Bo from the Chinese Communist Party and publicly accused him of multiple major offenses ranging from bribe-taking to “improper sexual relationships with a number of women.” When the party leadership publicizes that degree of criticism against one of their own, that is a clear and unrevokable message that a cadre is going down. All that remains is Bo’s official judicial trial, which likely will not unfold until after the Party Congress meeting that we now know will likely commence on November 8. In Beijing, however, the party is the real judge and jury, and the party has officially spoken. Things do not look good for Mr. Bo.

Party leaders have been signaling their plans for Bo over the past month. Earlier this month at the trial of Wang Lijun—Bo Xilai’s notorious police chief and right-hand man—Chinese state media suggested that Bo himself had known of his wife’s murder of a British businessman, thus further implicating Bo in the crime. That news came on the heels of Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, being sentenced to what experts expect to be life in prison. This multifaceted scandal has dominated the news in China for almost the entire year, and party leaders are moving quickly to wrap it up before the new leadership takes the helm at the big November meeting.

Corruption scandals are certainly nothing new in China, but this particular series of events left the Communist Party leaders particularly divided and flatfooted at a particularly sensitive time. What’s more, the Bo scandal—with its hints of serious domestic political intrigue—occurred amid a new communications era sweeping China, thanks to the country’s increasingly boisterous microbloggers and the general public’s demand for more information about how their country is run.

This column explains the significance of the Bo scandal and the general presence of corruption through China’s recent history, while demonstrating how the party generally handles these incidents and why party leaders will recognize the need to demonstrate a united front to prevent this scandal from doing any further damage.

Corruption scandals and cadre ousters not uncommon in Chinese Communist Party politics

Without a doubt, the ongoing Bo scandal definitely has some unique elements to it. In terms of sheer tabloid drama, this particular case really has no comparison in modern Chinese history. Previous high-ranking members of the party have been murdered, purged, or isolated indefinitely under house arrest during previous political transitions, but the difference in Bo’s case is in the way the case is unfolding, the characters involved, and the new media environment in which it is all being reported—an environment where scandalous details are hard to keep quiet.

In short, the current and future party leadership is engaged in the purge of one of its own, while for the first time having to answer to an aware Chinese public about the reasons why it’s happening.

It is important, however, to remember that the Bo scandal is certainly not the first major corruption scandal to rock the Chinese Communist Party since Deng Xiaoping led the nation into the modern economic era. It is virtually impossible now to climb the party ranks and stay completely clean because China’s authoritarian political system encourages corruption at every level. That means corruption scandals are inevitable, and the party knows how to deal with them.

When scandals emerge, party leaders have two key priorities: keep the party together and keep most Chinese citizens convinced that the current system is still working fairly well and is still a better bet than pushing for democracy and risking political turmoil. Toward that end, party leaders go to great lengths today to convince Chinese citizens that corruption scandals are isolated incidents caused by a few bad eggs rather than a systemic problem with single-party rule. Corruption scandal response, therefore, is all about damage control, and the party’s handling of these cases follows a predictable pattern.

Their first step is to determine who will take the fall. Those cadres caught up in a scandal will be framed as those few bad eggs wholly responsible for the problem. Party leaders will pin all of the blame on them and take action against those cadres to appease the public. In 2007, for example, party leaders responded to a series of food and drug safety scandals by ousting and executing the head of the State Food and Drug Administration, Zheng Xiaoyu. Indeed, harsh remedies, including capital punishment, are not uncommon when the party needs to make an example of one of its own.

Corruption cleanups are always designed to take out just enough key people to remove internal threats and assuage the public. If they go too far by exposing and removing too many cadres (and thus publicly airing too much dirty laundry), then that could send a message to the party’s rank and file that their leaders are not looking out for them. It could also send a message to the Chinese public that the entire system is problematic.

Once party leaders decide which cadres to axe (either literally or figuratively), they use the state-run media as a propaganda machine to pin everything on those cadres and present the case to the public as a done deal. Media control is critical for cauterizing these scandals to keep the political damage from spreading. Once top leaders decide how the scandal will be presented and how it will end, all media outlets must present that version of the facts. Any media attempts to independently investigate corruption scandals and present an alternate version of the facts are severely punished. Most journalists and editors know better than to even try.

These official media announcements also demonstrate to the public that party leadership has reached an internal consensus on how to handle a particular case. What is currently very interesting in the Bo scandal is that so many months went by without hearing much on this case from the leadership or the state press. That suggests top leaders were struggling to come to consensus on exactly who will be taken out (other than Bo himself) and what the various punishments would be.

Corruption on the railways

Though the Bo scandal has been dominating the headlines, there have been a number of other recent corruption cases—two of them involving high-ranking railway officials—making waves in the past year.

  • Liu Zhijun was the railway minister but was expelled from the party for corruption, after making off with a reported $155 million in bribes.
  • Zhang Shuguang was deputy chief engineer at the Ministry of Railways before being detained on suspicion of corruption. He is rumored to have $2.8 billion in his overseas accounts.
  • Five other Ministry of Railways figures are also under investigation.

Along with the details of these cases becoming public, a microblogger who goes by the name “Huaguoshan Zongshuji” has been combing through photos of Chinese officials wearing watches and publishing the listed price of the watches, generating even more public outcry. The new minister of railways, Sheng Guangzu, was recently spotted wearing a nearly-$65,000 watch, which hasn’t helped quell public dissatisfaction with the ministry’s propensity for bribery and corruption, especially as the country continues to make plans to expand it’s high speed rail system.

Party leaders absolutely had to do so before the upcoming 18th Party Congress commences in November. If they had not, that would have signaled to the Chinese people that the leadership is seriously fractured and will encourage China’s social discontents to voice their complaints more boldly—most likely via sustained mass protests. That is something the party must avoid at all costs if it wishes to remain in power.

From a strictly administrative standpoint, the Bo scandal has a precedent. Bo Xilai was a Politburo member and a provincial-level party secretary, but so was former Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu when the national Party Secretary Hu Jintao purged him in 2006. What complicates things with Bo is the fact that he has a revolutionary pedigree. He’s the son of Bo Yibo, a Mao-era revolutionary leader who survived the Cultural Revolution to become one of the “Eight Immortals,” the eight powerful officials in Deng Xiaoping’s inner circle. Bo Xilai was also expected to ascend to the Politburo Standing Committee this fall, and that puts him very close to China’s top echelon. If the party paints him in too dirty of a light, then it may be hard for the leadership as a whole to remain clean in the eyes of the Chinese public.

Bo Xilai was also a media darling—a new phenomenon in China—and his “give everyone a slice of the cake” rhetoric was a big hit among Chinese peasants and poor city dwellers who feel they have been left out of China’s postreform economic success. That makes it even trickier to tar and feather him in the Chinese state press because any strikes against Bo could easily make his opponents look like antipopulist elitists. In the modern authoritarian China, this actually now matters.

From that perspective, the murder allegations against Bo Xilai’s wife were a political godsend for Current Party Secretary Hu Jintao and his allies. Bo had always been like the cat with nine lives—tenacious, connected, and extremely hard to get rid of. In 2007 Hu Jintao demoted Bo from commerce secretary—a high-profile national leadership position—to the party secretary of Chongqing, a backwater municipality in Western China. Instead of viewing the Chongqing post as a path to retirement, however, Bo Xilai turned it into a national political platform. He rolled out people-oriented development policies, launched a “smashing black” campaign to take out organized crime rings, and encouraged local citizens to dress up in red outfits and sing “red songs” that harkened back to a more egalitarian era.

China’s urban and rural poor were captivated by the images of Chongqing citizens singing en masse and apparently being lifted into a better life by Bo Xilai. But many wealthy elites and liberals were horrified by Bo’s glorification of the Mao era. Hu Jintao and his allies were equally horrified. Hu repeatedly snubbed Bo by refusing to take an inspection tour to Chongqing and refusing to show up for a red songs competition Bo staged in Beijing. Bo Xilai had other friends in the central leadership, however, and those leaders saw his growing popularity among the disenfranchised as a major political asset.

Everything came crashing down when internal investigations (reportedly launched by Bo Xilai’s enemies in Beijing) unearthed a murder and sent his police chief running to the U.S. consulate with a handful of scandalous documents in February 2012. That gave the Hu Jintao camp enough political maneuvering room to turn Bo Xilai’s red song campaigns against him and paint him as a crazed leftist who was trying to drag the country back to the Cultural Revolution era and wipe out decades of reform. Party leaders removed Bo from his official positions, but they did not announce at the time what they were actually charging him with or what further punishments he would receive. That part is trickier because it impacts not only Bo Xilai himself but also a whole host of his allies—many of whom such as former Party Secretary Jiang Zemin are extremely influential.

Some analysts believed that the judicial proceedings against Bo Xilai’s wife Gu Kailai signaled that an agreement had also been reached on how to handle the corruption allegations against her husband. The Chinese state press claims that when her trial commenced, Gu Kailai confessed to the murder charges, accepted responsibility for inflicting harm on the Chinese Communist Party, and promised to “accept and calmly face any sentence.” Those statements certainly suggest she is keeping up her side of a bargain, but that bargain may only include protection for her son—not leniency for her husband.

As for Wang Lijun, Bo’s right-hand man, on September 24 he was found guilty of defection, abuse of power, taking bribes, and bending the law for personal gain, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison, according to a state media report. That report said both prosecutors and Wang’s defense asked the court for leniency because Wang had cooperated on the investigations of the transgressions of others, which means Wang may have helped the inquiries into Bo’s role either in the murder or other corruption issues or both. The party’s strong condemnation against Bo Xilai suggests that may be the case.

At the end of the day, party elites know they must stick together

This case is no doubt triggering a huge amount of internal debate. At the end of the day, however, China’s top party leaders know that they must either stand together, or they will all fall together. Elite splits—if they become public—would almost certainly lead to a decline of party power and a loosening in social control, which could send people out into the streets in mass protests, just as the last elite split did in 1989. The lessons of Tiananmen provide a strong incentive for all factions within the party to make whatever concessions they must for the group to reach consensus.

Chinese leaders knew they could not fail to deal with the Bo scandal before the 18th Party Congress. That would have signaled to the Chinese public and to the lower party and government administrative ranks that the top leadership is divided and therefore weak. Protesters would have seen the failure as a signal that now is the perfect time to take to the streets in mass protests to push for change on contentious political issues such as environmental pollution and rural land expropriation. Lower-level officials would have seen that as a signal that now is the time to push back on policies they do not like. That would have made governance even harder for the next round of party leaders and further reduce popular support for single-party rule.

Signaling a lack of consensus at the top also would have sparked absolute panic through Chinese financial markets and further destabilize the economy. A healthy contingent of China’s wealthy elite was already panicking over the possibility that Bo Xilai would ascend to the Politburo Standing Committee and push for a return to antimarket socialism, however improbable. His ouster assuaged those fears somewhat, but it also painted Beijing in a politically instable light. Chinese elites reacted to that instability by moving even more capital abroad and frantically applying for foreign immigration visas at even higher rates than before. If it had begun to look like the party was cracking up, these fears would have only escalated, and Chinese markets would have suffered.

The party is still strong enough to deal harshly with any cadres who break discipline. Anyone considering such a move need not look any farther than Bo Xilai himself. His red song campaign and brazen play for a central leadership position broke one of the party’s most important rules: Always present a united front and keep personal career ambitions and internal divisions out of the public eye. Once he broke that rule, Bo gave his critics within the party major ammunition to go after him, which launched the internal investigations that led to his downfall.

Overall, at this point, the forces holding the party together are still much stronger than the forces pulling it apart. If things become extremely fractious at the top—if Beijing is wracked by another epic corruption scandal, for example, or if the economy tanks, and current leaders are unable to turn things around—then that might create new openings for elite splits of the Tiananmen variety.

At the moment, however, China has not reached anywhere near that kind of crisis point. Until it does, it will still be in everyone’s best interest within the upper echelons of the party to reach a consensus and stand together. Based on what we are hearing today, it looks like they have again managed to do just that on one of the hardest issues they have faced to date.

To read the full report, “China’s Real Leadership Question,” click here.

Melanie Hart is a Policy Analyst for Chinese Energy and Climate Policy at the Center for American Progress. Alex Lach is an Assistant Editor at the Center.

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© 2015 | Kristina Sherk Photography |

Melanie Hart

Senior Fellow; Director, China Policy

Alex Lach

Assistant Editor