July 23, 2014 12:32 pm

Why China’s hunt for tigers and flies is bound to fail

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The anti-corruption campaign appears to have taken on the characteristics of a Maoist purge
Director and anchor of China Central Televison (CCTV) Rui Chenggang©Getty

CCTV anchor Rui Chenggang

In his crackdown on corruption, Xi Jinping, China’s president, promised to take down lofty officials as well as lowly bureaucrats, “tigers” as well as “flies”. In detaining Rui Chenggang, the flashy, self-confident star anchor of state-owned CCTV, however, the Chinese authorities have gone for a strutting peacock.

Mr Rui was apprehended last week shortly before he was due to appear on his show, Economic News, whose 10m viewers matched his personal army of followers on the Twitter-like Weibo. In a slightly surreal echo of the 2010 Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo, when an empty chair was placed on stage to draw attention to Liu Xiaobo’s enforced absence, Mr Rui’s seat and microphone were left conspicuously on the television set.

On the face of it Mr Rui is an unlikely victim. Few people so embody the patriotic swagger of a new, seemingly confident China as the 36-year-old television personality. It was he who organised a successful online campaign to dislodge Starbucks from the Forbidden City because its “unrefined food culture” was an affront to Chinese tradition. It was he who, in a question to Barack Obama, the US president, claimed to speak for “all of Asia”. And it was he who mocked former US ambassador Gary Locke for flying economy class, asking him whether it was because the US owed China so much money.

That Mr Rui, a poster boy for China’s new status, has been swallowed up, shows how far Mr Xi’s campaign has spread. Mr Rui was a close associate of another senior CCTV figure arrested on suspicion of taking bribes in what appears to be an assault on the entire organisation. Mr Rui was also the co-founder of a public relations business that he sold to Edelman of the US, and in which he retained a stake even while the firm was doing business with CCTV.

In truth, Mr Rui is a sideshow. Mr Xi’s anti-corruption drive has gone far deeper and lasted far longer than anyone could have imagined. Among the big beasts ensnared is former state security chief Zhou Yongkang, so powerful and so well connected he is sometimes referred to as the Dick Cheney of China. Xu Caihou, a general who served as vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission that Mr Xi now heads, is another downed heavyweight. He has been stripped of his Communist party membership and will be prosecuted for allegedly distributing military promotions in return for bribes. As the dominoes fall, you have to wonder who is next.

The purge is reaching all parts of society. Lowly party cadres are terrified of hosting banquets or wearing fancy watches lest they be accused of impropriety. Foreign food companies, including McDonald’s and KFC, have been accused of using rotten meat. (More a case of maggots than flies?) And GlaxoSmithKline is being investigated over allegations that it bribed doctors and officials in pursuit of higher sales. Some of China’s biggest state-owned enterprises have also been targeted, including the cash-cow China National Petroleum Corporation, once headed by Mr Zhou.

Allegations point the finger of suspicion not only at the previous leadership, but also at the current one

In one sense, the anti-corruption drive is commendable. Many developing countries in Asia, from India to Indonesia, are riddled with graft. Almost alone, Beijing is doing something about it. Undoubtedly Mr Xi is using it to fell political opponents and to consolidate his power by showing who is boss. But the zeal of the campaign suggests there is more to it than that. China’s new president appears to have concluded that corruption is eating away at the very legitimacy of Communist party rule. A re-education campaign has been mounted that, in the words of Xinhua, the official news agency, seeks to reinforce cadres’ “political, ideological and emotional identity in socialism with Chinese characteristics” – and presumably lessen their attachment to Gucci bags and Château Lafite wine.

Yet if the aim really is to purge China of corruption, the campaign is bound to fail. The reasons are twofold. First is the manner by which the battle is being fought. With no independent judiciary, the exercise amounts to trial by the Communist party, not trial by law. Many of those whisked into detention may well be guilty. Since trials are often cursory – or even secret – and since judges answer to the party, we will never know for sure. Nor will the Chinese public. However successful, ultimately the exercise can only be seen as arbitrary and politically driven.

The second problem is related. The campaign appears to have taken on the frightening characteristics of a Maoist purge, with ever more people, industries and government agencies sucked into its vortex. Yet one can almost be certain there are limits. Some people are immune. After all, allegations of unfathomable fortunes go right to the top. These point the finger of suspicion not only at the previous leadership, but also at the current one. So where does the whole thing stop? One presumes Mr Xi will at some stage have to call a halt. The unthinkable alternative would be that, as in 18th-century France, the revolution ends up devouring its own.

david.pilling@ft.com

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