Swatting flies, killing tigers

Can Xi's high-profile anti-corruption campaign really dent China's kleptocracy?

If one is to believe the official press of the Chinese government, it is easy to have the impression that the new leadership under Xi Jinping is getting serious about official corruption. Recently, Xi vowed that a new campaign against graft would "swat flies and kill tigers", using a colourful Chinese proverb that refers to punishing both junior and senior officials tainted by corruption.

In the two months since he assumed the top position in the Communist Party of China's hierarchy, Xi has indeed put dozens of venal officials behind bars. His anti-corruption trophies so far include a deputy provincial party boss in Sichuan and a dozen mid-level local officials, who may not exactly be "tigers" but are certainly more substantial than "flies". The real test for Xi is, of course, whether in the coming months (anti-corruption campaigns don't last years) his government will actually fell some real "tigers" — very high-ranking officials such as ministers, provincial governors and members of the party's central committee or even politburo.

For the average Chinese, campaigns against official greed have become too frequent to get excited about. Xi himself is certainly not the first one to venture out to hunt "tigers". His predecessors made the same pledges when they came into power, only to see their war on corruption fizzle out quickly. To be sure, anti-corruption campaigns in the past have typically started with much political fanfare and brought down a large number of venal officials. It was no coincidence that in the first year after a new leader came to power, the number of officials sent to jail for corruption would double but then fall in the second year. This indicates that a substantial part of an anti-corruption campaign is connected to settling political scores, not weeding out official miscreants. Incidentally, there was a significant increase in capital flight out of China last year as officials worried about getting caught in the impending anti-graft net sent their ill-gotten wealth abroad.

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