By Anthony J. Laurence

Hu Jintao’s former top aide, Ling Jihua, is now facing trial in Tianjin on charges of corruption, bribe-taking and other treasonous activity. The trial came just a day after Xi formulated his economic reform package in a 20,000-character speech taking up two entire pages in the South China Morning Post.

While the two stories appear to be unrelated, the connection between the anti-corruption campaign and Xi’s economic reform policy becomes glaringly obvious if you set aside the day’s daily headlines. Before examining how Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is designed to force through his economic reform, let’s revisit Ling for a brief moment and look at his connections within the CCP and how this relates to Xi’s broader economic plans.

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Ling was, by many accounts, a close cadre to the disgraced Jiang Jiamen, former head of the power SOE overseer the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission. It has even been reported that Zhou Yongkang, former Politburo Standing Committee member, helped launder money to Jiang to send along to Ling to provide as hush money to the families of the two women killed by Ling’s son in a car accident. Although this connection is questionable, the occurrence is possible. It should also be noted that Zhou is serving a life sentence and Jiang just began serving a 16-year sentence. It is likely Ling will be jailed for more than a decade as well, as these show trials are merely precursors to the individual’s eventual jailing.

Ling Jihua

Mapping out the interpersonal connections of “tigers” targeted by the anti-corruption campaign demonstrates the perilous risks associated with modern Chinese politics. Ling’s associates are no exception. In total, five “tigers” associated with Ling have been arrested. While these figures won’t grab international headlines in the way the former aide to Hu Jintao has, the familial, provincial and national depth of these relationships signals the continuation of the guilt by association aspect this anti-corruption campaign has taken on. A few empirical studies have backed this claim up as well suggesting rivals to Xi’s clique have disproportionally been targeted by the campaign. Still, drawing lines between fallen corrupt figures in China’s state capitalist system is easy to do. Xi has provided observers with literally thousands of figures to draw lines between, exposing a network of corruption reaching across a wide range of individuals within the CCP.

Nonetheless, merely suggesting Xi is consolidating his power and cracking down on rival cliques does not tell the whole story of the anti-corruption campaign. Increased power may be in part an end in and of itself, but power accumulation could be a means to a different end as well.

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Photo: Kevin Dooley, via Flickr.

This is, in part, a facet of the anti-corruption campaign which Western academics refuse to point out, mainly because they’re in favour of neo-liberal reforms in China. Complimenting an authoritarian on a political crackdown for the purpose of policy implementation is bad form.

That being said, Xi suggested neo-liberal reform is not what is at stake. This also appears not to be the case when examining the already accomplished neo-liberal reforms Xi has achieved, including de-regulation of deposit interest rates, linkages between stock exchanges and a less manipulated Remnimbi. These are all free-market capitalist agenda items business leaders and blue-blooded capitalists have been very happy with.

It has been quite an accomplishment for Xi to have spent nearly all of his political capital on centralizing decision-making power into his hands through the “working small groups” in foreign affairs, security and economic policy. Furthermore, an empowered Xi results in a more aggressive China internationally, as has been seen in the strong-arming of British diplomats, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the lack of willingness to uphold the political deal in regard to Hong Kong and Xi’s unwavering resolve to recover the “lost territory” of Taiwan, which he has referred to as a “national tragedy”.

Xi Jinping.
Xi Jinping. File photo: CCTV screencap.

All this evidence bodes ill for the stability of East Asia, as weak states in dire economic straits tend to lash out internationally in order to gin up nationalism … as can be seen with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The anti-corruption campaign has allowed Xi to act in these empowered ways and it will only continue to do so in the future.

In anti-corruption trials within authoritarian regimes, there is always more than meets the eye. This is especially the case in the notoriously opaque PRC. While China remains a proverbial “black box” to a certain degree, reading between the lines shows what Xi’s ultimate goals are.

He has purposefully tied himself to the success of the anti-corruption campaign and, perhaps more importantly, the success of the economy through the formulation of the Decision on Major Issues Concerning Comprehensive and Far-Reaching Reforms, which outlines the various reform goals set out at the 18th Party Congress. All of this is not even to mention the transformation of the largely state capitalist macro-economic planning institution, the National Development and Reform Commission.

Its former head, Liu Tienan, was also jailed on charges of corruption. Liu, like many other ‘tigers’ associated with SOEs and state capitalist macro-economic institutions rounded up by the campaign, had an explicit interest in continuing the state capitalist status quo opposed to liberal economic reforms. This is not to say these officials weren’t actually corrupt, but rather there are political undertones in transforming the economy that make these targeted cases immensely convenient for Xi’s reform agenda.

Whether or not Xi will be able to pull this plan off is still up for debate. What is not however is the extraordinary impact Xi has had on the politics and economy of China both of which are inextricably tied to his success.

Anthony J. Laurence is studying an M.A. in International Relations at the Central European University. You can find more of his work on his portfolio site here.

Guest contributors for Hong Kong Free Press.