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The flagship austerity drive of the Chinese Communist party’s anti-corruption campaign disciplined nearly 20 per cent fewer officials in the first quarter of 2017, suggesting authorities are taking a softer approach to graft ahead of a period of major change for the party’s leadership.

Monthly data released by the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection show that cadres disciplined under President Xi Jinping’s “Eight-Point Code” austerity drive fell 19 per cent in the three months ended March 31 compared to a year prior.

That drop comes ahead of the 19th party congress this autumn, when as many as five members of the Politburo’s elite seven-member Standing Committee could be replaced and political cohesion will be at a premium for those seeking to consolidate power – Mr Xi included.

March’s year-on-year drop of 4 per cent, to 2,598 officials disciplined, is less severe than February’s 10 per cent fall. But it also marks the third consecutive month of contraction for the drive – the longest stretch on record – and a full half year without annualised growth.

In month-on-month terms, the number of disciplined officials rose last month for the first time since December. But while the party has taken pains to depict the severity of its latest crackdown as unprecedented, disciplinary measures are typically far from harsh.

In his annual work report for 2016, Wang Qishan, head of the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and Mr Xi’s right-hand man, acknowledged for the first time that three-quarters of those sanctioned last year received only “light discipline”.

Annual data on more severe punishment of corrupt officials – barring the possibility of a widespread decrease in graft in the absence of major systemic reform – likewise suggest the campaign has entered a markedly less stringent phase. Mr Wang’s annual work report also revealed that China’s courts had prosecuted fewer officials for corruption for the first time in five years.

Even at their peak, such transfers represented a tiny sliver of total Communist party members working in China’s civil service. But with the Chinese president’s drive against graft now more than four years old, the draw-down in prosecutions — the only form of punishment guaranteed to have serious consequences — is being accompanied by an institutional push, reflected in plans for a new national anti-corruption commission set to launch next year.

Experts remain uncertain on the likely impact of the new commission, however, since all of its top leaders will hail from the same party discipline commission that currently oversees most anti-corruption work nationwide.

And in relentlessly highlighting its disciplining of local cadres, the central leadership of the party may also have done more harm than good to its own image.

A study published last year showed that the higher the number of reported graft cases in a prefecture, the more people in the area perceive the central government in Beijing as being more corrupt than their local government, “as they perceive the centre’s failure of management to have led to such a state of affairs”.

Such perceptions may not be aided by a resurgence in sales of luxury items like high-quality baijiu (grain liquor) which, prior to the corruption crackdown, had been one of the top go-to gifts for supplicants seeking to grease the wheels of China’s corrupt bureaucracy. On Tuesday Chinese alcohol brand Kweichow Moutai saw its stock shoot up as much as 2.5 per cent after it revealed net profits jumped 25 per cent in the first quarter.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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