While on a visit in China, I have learned the habit of regularly checking the news for announcements of yet another corruption investigation by the government.
Until recently, corruption involving Party or government officials had been treated as a politically explosive scandal, which the government preferred the public not to see. But now the authorities are not only actively initiating, but also deliberately publicising, their investigations.
The sight of Party/government and military officials, or managers of central state-owned enterprises being investigated no longer surprises the public. In fact, each new investigation seems to merely confirm what people have always suspected, and many eagerly await and speculate on the next big name to fall.
Since ascending to the top leadership in 2012, Xi Jinping has orchestrated a sustained anti-corruption campaign to catch “tigers and flies”; namely to clean up both minor officials, the flies, and also some top leaders, who usually turn out to be political rivals of Xi.
In 2014 the campaign, perhaps more appropriately understood as a purge, led to more than 50,000 investigations for which about 100,000 cadres were disciplined.
According to media accounts, officials are seized by police without any prior notice (sometimes directly from their office or in the middle of a meeting) to ensure that they cannot run away or move their assets.
And there is no sign of things slowing down in 2015.
Not surprisingly, it is the big names that draw most of the attention. This includes, most prominently: the former head of state security Zhou Yongkang (who was recently charged after a lengthy investigation); a former vice-chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission, Xu Caihou (who died of cancer just prior to his trial); and Ling Jihua, a former adviser to Hu Jintao. These are well-known names in China.
This initially surprised many. Xi has broken the consensus of not pursuing retired leaders, especially such high-level leaders, as well as the consensus for collective leadership, by so bluntly consolidating his own power base.
The scale of the purge is simply unprecedented since the end of the Cultural Revolution, a comparison readily made by many commentators.
The purge has certainly achieved some success in restoring legitimacy, and has made Xi Jinping a popular leader for many. But for others, this constant stream of investigations only adds to their cynicism about the entire political system.
It will be critical to watch the potential destabilising effects of the purges on the Communist Party and its bureaucracy. This is because it is often not a matter of who is corrupt (few can claim otherwise about themselves) but whom you are allied with.
Outward signs of tension will be hard to detect, given the opaque nature of Chinese politics. But there is already speculation on whether, having consolidated power to such an extent, Xi may decide to stretch his time in office from the agreed 10 years to longer. This will make many nervous.
Days before the International Women’s Day, ten feminist activists were detained by police (and five remain detained to this day).
Their crime? Planning a national campaign against sexual harassment on public transport by handing out leaflets and putting stickers on buses and subways.
These activists were previously involved in campaigns against domestic violence and for more public toilets for women — both hardly controversial.
The reason for their detention can only be their very public advocacy and fear of their potential ability to mobilise the public.
More than anything, it demonstrates how nervous the government is towards any public dissent and advocacy.
This episode takes place against the backdrop of heightened control over civil society. In the past few years, dozens of political activists, lawyers and NGO workers have been harassed and detained. The crackdown has intensified under the new leadership. News about them is heavily censored, so very few people are aware of the purge of civil society.
Another recent example helps further illustrate the nervousness of the government. In February this year, an environmental documentary highlighting air pollution and produced by a former state television journalist became widely popular on social media in only a matter of days.
The Minister for Environmental Protection mentioned the documentary in a press conference, and praised and thanked the journalist who made it. Days later, video-hosting websites were ordered to censor the documentary, now completely gone.
As well as offering a glimpse into the contradictory interests and pressures within China’s state bureaucracies, it is a classic example of the paradox of a government trying to be adaptive and responsive to popular pressure but with an exaggerated fear of populism not under its control.
The government certainly has had a lot on its plate: social unrest has stayed at an alarming level over the last decade.
The number of labour strikes has continued to record an increase across 2014 and the first quarter of 2015. Each year, tens of thousands of workers are staging strikes for better protection, higher salaries and appropriate redundancy payments. A shoe factory strike in early 2014 was among the largest in China.
Ethnic tensions in Tibet and Xinjiang have not ceased, and in a few instances have spilled over into major Chinese cities in attacks against civilians. And Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution in late 2014 — which demanded more democracy in the city-state’s electoral processes — posed a serious, although not immediately threatening problem for the government.
These developments put China in a potentially very volatile situation. It is thus not hard to see why the government is so nervous over mainstream advocacy like anti-sexual harassment, or even simply an environmental documentary. But its preemptive response can backfire by blocking (calls for) moderate reforms.
The New Normal
I was in Beijing during the annual “Two Conferences”, the National People’s Congress and People’s Political Consultative Conference, which are notable as stage-managed events and because they draw the participation of more millionaires than the US Congress.
Amid the tight security and continuous media reporting was the government’s emphasis on the idea of “New Normal”.
The idea of China entering a “New Normal” is supposed to give doctrinal cover to China’s slowing economy, a new normal (i.e. slower) annual GDP growth of 7 per cent, by shifting the focus on to the balance and quality of growth rather than its quantity.
This is desirable enough except the government cannot wish away its economic problems and their likely social consequences.
The twin engines of economic growth in the 2000s, arguably the fastest growth period in Chinese history, were export processing and fixed asset investment – which fuelled real estate speculation and accumulated massive local government debt, in addition to resulting in massive labour protests and – have gradually flamed out, and the government is yet to find a new engine to put in their place.
The Global Financial Crisis that erupted in 2008 did not push China into recession, but it burst the illusion that China can maintain its 10 percent plus growth rate into the future.
Having built its legitimacy on delivering growth as manifest in steadily rising wages and living standards, the government fears the social consequences of a slowdown.
This is all the more reason for the government to restrict civil society and the development of social movements, so that no one can take advantage of potential political opportunities.
As I was about to leave China, the death of Lee Kuan Yew dominated the news with very positive coverage in the state media. Remembered as a moderniser of a backward city-state, Lee brought prosperity and discipline to Singapore.
Clearly, the Chinese government very much sees its own political project reflected in the success of Lee’s Singapore. The combination of the suppression of dissidents and paternalistic authoritarianism is a model very much practiced by the Chinese government.
But China is not Singapore. For one thing, the complexity of China’s social structure, the unevenness of its development, and the level of social polarisation and discontent, are on a much larger scale.
It is the wish of the government to enter a “new normal” that is easy to govern. But the reality may suggest otherwise. China is entering a much more uncertain, unpredictable and volatile political and social situation, in which the government finds itself increasingly unable to manage crisis as it once successfully did.
But it is worth saying that while the current conjuncture may offer opportunities for social movements from below, the heightened repressive political environment is seriously constraining their development. And absent of such organised movement, a more volatile China will not necessarily benefit the majority of the population.