Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has embarked on a “final round of purges” ahead of a major Chinese Communist Party (CCP) National Congress, using his long-running anti-corruption campaign to cement his grasp on power, analysts said.
When he became leader a decade ago, Xi vowed to root out dishonest officials, both senior “tigers” and low-ranking “flies.”
More than 1.5 million officials have been punished since then, according to data from the party disciplinary body. China’s ranking on Transparency International’s corruption perception index has also improved.
However, critics said the campaign is also a thinly veiled political tool that has helped Xi eliminate his rivals — and the build up to this year’s congress has seen more heads roll. About 1,100 officials have been caught in the party dragnet since the beginning of this year, according to party data.
Among them are former Chinese deputy minister of public security Sun Lijun (孫力軍) and former Chinese minister of justice Fu Zhenghua (傅政華), who would spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
“This final round of purges, masquerading as an anti-corruption campaign, will ensure that Xi will have tighter if not absolute control over personnel and policy issues [at the Congress],” Chinese University of Hong Kong political analyst Willy Lam (林和立) said.
Xi is widely expected to secure a third term as party leader at the meeting, upending the succession norms in place since the 1990s.
“Despite all signs that his major goal of a third term is pretty much guaranteed, Xi is still paranoid about his control over appointments to key decisionmaking bodies within the party,” Lam added.
Once a trusted lieutenant of Xi, Sun oversaw security in Hong Kong during months of unrest in 2019 and was even sent to Wuhan at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, he reportedly fell from grace because of his political ambitions, and was officially accused of “seriously damaging the unity of the party.”
Sun confessed on national television in January to taking bribes worth US$14 million, hidden inside boxes of what appeared to be seafood.
“Sun Lijun’s case is linked to Xi’s absolute control of the security apparatus, which is indispensable for his political agenda,” Stimson Center China program director Yun Sun (孫韻) said.
“It also sends a stern message to anyone with dissenting views about Xi’s leadership,” Sun said.
CCP politics — despite the facade of unity — has always been deeply factional with different groups vying for influence.
“There are some who are anti-Xi but very pro-party. They don’t like where the party is heading under him,” said Alex Payette, chief executive of consultancy Cercius Group.
The congress presents an opportunity for Xi to reduce that threat by promoting close allies to positions on the Politburo’s seven-person standing committee, the apex of power.
Chinese politics expert at the National University of Singapore Wu Muluan (吳木鑾) said Xi has used the anti-corruption campaign to turn the CCP “from a collective dictatorship to a personalist dictatorship.”
He has already brought under his wing the three critical power centers of the party — the military, the propaganda machine and the internal security apparatus — by rooting out dissenting voices and replacing them with his proteges.
“Xi is cherry-picking people who have shown absolute loyalty to him for decades,” Wu said.
Surrounding himself with allies going into his next term has become even more important given the significant political headwinds Xi faces, including an ailing economy, deteriorating relations with the US and a strict “zero COVID-19” policy that has accelerated China’s inward turn from the world.
“The anti-corruption card is a potent tool for Xi to send a message to the still-considerable number of opponents in the upper echelon of the party,” analyst Lam said. “Any opposition could mean a jail term ... or at least ugly harassment by the anti-graft agencies such as 24-hour surveillance.”
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