Chinese President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign is the broadest and deepest effort to purge, reorganize and rectify the Communist Party leadership since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and the rise of Deng Xiaoping two years later. It has already probed more than 182,000 officials across numerous regions and at all levels of government. It has ensnared low-level cadres, mid-level functionaries and chiefs of major state-owned enterprises and ministries. It has deposed top military officials and even a former member of the hitherto immune Politburo Standing Committee, China's highest governing body. More than a year after its formal commencement and more than two years since its unofficial start with the downfall of Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, the campaign shows no sign of relenting.
It is becoming clear that this campaign is unlike anything seen under Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Both carried out anti-corruption drives during their first year in office and periodically throughout their tenures as a means to strengthen their position within the Party and bureaucracy and to remind the public, however impotently, that Beijing still cared about its well being. But that was housekeeping. This appears to be different: longer, stronger, more comprehensive and more effective.
With this in mind, we ask: What is the fundamental purpose of Xi's anti-corruption campaign? An attempt to answer this question will not tell us China's political future, but it will tell us something about Xi's strategy -- not only for consolidating his personal influence within the Party, government and military apparatuses, but also and more important, for managing the immense social, economic, political and international pressures that are likely to come to a head in China during his tenure. Getting to the heart of the anti-corruption campaign -- and therefore understanding its inner logic and direction -- provides insights on the organization and deployment of political power in China and how those things are changing as the Party attempts to remake itself into an entity capable of ushering China safely through the transformation and crises to come.
The Campaign Continues
The announcement July 29 of a formal investigation into retired Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang marked something of an end to the first major phase of Xi's anti-corruption campaign. By all accounts, Zhou was one of the most powerful men in China throughout the 2000s. During his tenure on the Standing Committee, Zhou controlled the country's domestic security apparatus, a pillar of the Chinese government's power. Prior to that, he had served as Party secretary of Sichuan province, an important inland industrial center and breadbasket with historically strong regionalist tendencies. And before Sichuan, Zhou chaired state-owned China National Petroleum Corp., the country's most powerful energy firm and the direct descendent of the Ministry of Petroleum. Zhou was known to sit at the apex of at least these three power bases, and his influence likely extended deep into many more, making him not only a formidable power broker but also, at least in the case of his oil industry ties, a major potential obstacle to reform. Certainly, Zhou and his vast networks of influence and patronage were not the sole targets of the Xi administration's crackdown, but he and his associates, including former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, widely seen as an early competitor of Xi, formed its central axis.
Now begins another phase. There are indications that it will center on the military. There are other signs that it will target Shanghai, the primary power base of Jiang Zemin and the locus of financial sector reform in China. Further neutralization of Zhou's allies in energy and public security will likely be necessary as well as the Xi administration seeks to accelerate market-oriented reforms in the oil and natural gas sectors and to reinforce its internal security footprint in peripheral regions like Xinjiang as well as the Han Core. But ultimately, it is unclear which individuals and networks will anchor the next phase. The possibilities are as numerous as the Xi administration's myriad near- and medium-term policy goals.
The question of who or what will be targeted next is subordinate to that of why. Not why, specifically, they will be targeted, but why the campaign must and will continue. This brings us back to our question regarding the fundamental purpose of the anti-corruption campaign. It may be impossible to divine, beyond mere speculation, its future on a tactical level -- that is, what will come in three, five or eight months' time. But the direction of the campaign so far, combined with other actions by Xi, such as the formation of a unified National Security Council chaired by Xi himself and his apparent wresting of the reins of economic and social reform from Premier Li Keqiang, suggest that some other and deeper shift is underway, one for which the anti-corruption campaign is at once a vehicle and a symptom. Stratfor believes this shift involves nothing less than an attempt to rework not only the way the Communist Party operates but also the foundations of its political legitimacy.
To understand why, we look first not at Xi and what he has done thus