Here’s looking at you, Beijing

China's ongoing leadership transition is framed by corruption controversies and the need for political reform

As the 18th Communist Party Congress in China continues, one important issue analysts have discussed is the question of political reform. For instance, there are certain expectations regarding intra-party democracy. The selection of the central committee by delegates at the Congress already has electoral features. The rumours are that, as early as this occasion, party elders might initiate elections, at least for some of the high leadership positions (for example, for one of the seven seats on the standing committee) — which is something unprecedented, and often dubbed unthinkable when discussing Chinese politics. Intra-party democracy, nonetheless, is not seen as a typical "pro-democracy" reform, but as a way to achieve intra-party stability and bring the Communist Party of China's (CPC) seniors closer to its constituency.

The question of self-discipline and self-policing is equally, if not more, important. With no mechanism of checks and balances and no contestants for their power, in the present constellation, good governance practices are solely dependent on the goodwill of CPC leaders and secured by the internal discipline mechanisms of the party. Maintaining the party's "purity" and combating the "plagues" that come with power have been the central tendencies of the CPC for decades. The most burning "plague" of all, of course, has been corruption.

Corruption in China refers to a whole set of practices related to the abuse of power — manifested in, but not limited to, nepotism, clientelism, personal vendettas against opponents undertaken by officials, decadent lifestyles, inappropriate displays of power, sexual harassment and so on. Due to the sheer size of China and the distance of the periphery from the centre, as well as the decentralisation of governance, corruption is more rampant in provincial governments and more sophisticated in Beijing, where the rules are tighter. In the age of social media, however, corruption becomes ever more visible to the eyes of the public and hence, is a more urgent problem to deal with.

The story of Chongqing's former party chief, Bo Xilai, has become the emblematic case of corruption spiralling out of control. Other cases of corruption among local officials, some of them leading to mass protests, have occurred elsewhere, the most important being in Wukan, Guangdong.

Central to the corruption phenomenon is the practice of utilising one's own position in the system for financial gains. The magnitude of the wealth made by the elite is always assumed to be scarily high, with the numbers discussed running to tens of millions of renminbi. Displays of wealth, such as possession of sports cars, socialising in upscale restaurants, wearing luxurious clothes and jewelry, are almost universally associated with corruption. And such displays are not rare in China anymore.

In the months prior to the Congress, rumours of "hidden riches" concerned the very top of the CPC leadership, as two respectable American media outlets came out with detailed reports on the fortunes made by the families of two of the most authoritative figures in Chinese politics. The rumours did not discuss the legality, but rather implicitly questioned the ethics of the fusion of political and financial power and tackled the lack of transparency at the top.

In June, Bloomberg published an article on the fortune made by Xi Jinping's relatives, which allegedly exceeds hundreds of millions of American dollars. The response from Beijing has been a complete dismissal of the issue and cutting online access to Bloomberg.

However, it was another scandal that had a stronger impact. In late October, The New York Times published a story on the wealth of the family of incumbent Premier Wen Jiabao, estimated to exceed $2.7 billion. Wen is one of the most dedicated and loudest pro-reform, anti-corruption voices among the seniors in the party. He has pushed for increased transparency and accountability when it comes to financial gains, and has been vocal on curbing officials' abuse of power. Earlier this year, during the National People's Congress, Wen discussed the Chongqing case, using it as a pretext to warn of potential relapse into another historical episode of misrule, or even another Cultural Revolution, if the party does not manage to get its act together and advance political reform. Now, it is Wen who is providing grist to the rumour mill.

Wen himself used this "moment of truth" as a chance to further show his reformist tendency. He personally requested the standing committee to put the case on their immediate agenda, a request that has allegedly been accepted. As such, it is rare that a report by a foreign media outlet of that sort has not simply been dismissed as a personal attack, but meticulously analysed by China's leaders. Moreover, as insider voices suggest, it is possible that Wen will use his own case to advance the idea of a mandatory public disclosure of family wealth by senior officials. Such a proposal will be a hard sell, but if seriously considered, might lead to important changes in the way Chinese politics works.

At the end of the day, however, it is all about legitimacy. Wen and perhaps the other senior leaders know that in a country with a growing gap between the rich and the poor, which at the same time is a society that tries to devise socialist order and "harmony", the marriage of wealth and power can cause disillusionment. On the first day of the Congress, the still incumbent general secretary, Hu Jintao, did not miss the opportunity to once again tackle corruption and label it a threat to the stability of the party. As Hu and Wen leave office, the eradication of corruption will remain the main task for the incoming leaders.

The writer is a researcher on Chinese politics, Sino-European affairs and nationalism at the Renmin University of China in Beijing

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