China's Renewed Campaign for Stability

China's Third Plenary Session of the 13th Communist Party Central Committee, the country's main decision-making body, will convene in early November, carrying a great deal of symbolic weight in a country where anniversaries and omens are watched closely.

It was before the Third Plenary Session of the 11th CPC meeting in 1976 that demands grew for a repudiation of Mao Zedong's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four, led by Jiang Qing, Mao's widow, who were arrested. Deng himself, Mao's chief rival, was officially rehabilitated a year later.

With a new plenary session approaching, the focus is expected to be on Premier Li Keqiang's revolutionary economic program. But at the same time, the party faces increasing challenges from both within and without, to its efforts to maintain stability, and with new infighting aimed at various factions. When a newly rehabilitated Deng launched reform in the late 1970s, he insisted that without stability nothing could be achieved, and proved it by ordering troops to crack down on pro-democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen in 1989, staining the party and the government to this day. Nonetheless, afterward, Deng said the bloody crackdown would prove worthwhile if it could buy stability for next 20 years. It has done.

Now the 20 years have passed. Outside the party, public discontent with one-party rule is growing because official corruption is running wild along with abuse of power and injustice. At the same time, the means of criticism available to the public through social media have proliferated to hundreds of millions of people. As a result, maintaining stability has become a very costly task for the CCP, with "mass group incidents" growing from 8,700 in 1993 to an estimated 180,000 in 2010, according to Chinese sociology professor Sun Liping.

Mass incidents are defined broadly as "planned or impromptu gathering that forms because of internal contradictions" and can include public speeches or demonstrations, physical clashes, public airings of grievances, and other group behaviors that are seen as disrupting social stability. They are not regarded as vitally threatening to the Communist Party because they are usually aimed at local officials and there is no connecting tissue on a nationwide basis. But the costs are enormous and they give the party a black eye.

Inside the party, a neo-leftist faction wants to pull China back to Mao-era socialism with disgraced Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai their spiritual leader. Bo on Sunday was sentenced to life in prison, a sentence much harsher than had been expected, on charges of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power although the common wisdom was that Bo, with his demands to return to Maoist economics and politics had cost him the support of the country's top leaders, who were frightened by his antics in demanding that low-level cadres and ordinary Communist Party members be dragooned into revolutionary song festivals and that officials go to the countryside and plant trees.

It was thus lucky for the leadership when in February of 2012 Bo's former aide and top policeman made a run for a US consulate with evidence that Bo's wife had participated in the murder of a British businessman, Neil Haywood. Prosecutors have been at pains to describe Bo's crimes as ones involving corruption, televising the evidence so that the public can see the proof of his criminality. But with Bo's downfall, his faction is still big enough that someone as yet unnamed may rise take his place.

Other vested interest groups have been formed within the party and government who will resist any new reform launched by the power center if it hurts their interests. To rein in officials, Xi and Li have launched a two-front war. One is a house-cleaning campaign to kick "substandard" members out of the party, and the other is to step up the crackdown on official corruption. The housecleaning campaign is just at its initial stages, with all party members required to receive ideological education to boost their awareness of their duties.

The enhanced crackdown on corruption since the no-nonsense Wang Qishan took charge of the party's Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI), China's top anti-graft watchdog, at the party's 18th National Congress in November, 2012, has so far netted six ministerial-level officials. When Wang was named to the position, big things were expected of him. He was an integral figure in the crackdown on corruption in the mid-1990s by former Premier Zhu Rongji.

The recently uncovered collective corruption in PetroChina is a landmark case, both for the unprecedented height it has reached up into the party's leadership to nail corruption and also because insiders in China say it is aimed at smashing another faction. Until this time, the CCP has always insisted that corruption is isolated and an individual phenomenon. With the PetroChina case, has been forced to openly admit there is collective corruption.

So far, those detained in this case, including Jiang Jiemin, former PetroChina boss and minister in charge of the State-owned Assets Supervision and. Administration Commission (SASAC), are said to be proteeges of Zhou Yongkang, retired member of the CCP's Politburo Standing Committee who has been called retired leader Jiang Zemin's "Karl Rove," a reference to former US President George W. Bush's Svengali-like political strategist.

There are reports that the smashing of the "PetroChina gang" is aimed at Zhou. If Zhou eventually is implicated and put under investigation, this will also be of landmark significance. It would show Xi's determination to catch not only flies but tigers. For there is an unwritten rule in the CCP that Politburo Standing Committee members, incumbent or retired, are immune to any disciplinary and legal punishment. Zhou would be the highest ranking official to be brought down since the Gang of Four.

Ordered by Wang Qishan, the CCDI has recently set up an official website inviting the public to tip off corrupt officials, surely a deterrent. In fact, many big corruption cases Wang is dealing with now are exposed on the Internet first.

The enhanced crackdown on corruption in the party, government and state-owned enterprises is of great help to make China's business environment fairer and more open, in favor of market access and competition by private investors.

Needless to say, the military and law enforcement forces are essential for the CCP in maintaining stability. Since he took the office as Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), Xi Jinping has paid inspection tour to many units of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and People's Armed Police (PAP).

Everywhere he went, he stressed that the gun must be loyal to the party and under the party's command. Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu, a Politburo member overseeing the country's law enforcement, has also repeatedly pledged that all law enforcement forces must be loyal to the Party.

Thus, to the new CCP leadership headed by President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, economic progress goes hand in hand to cleaning out corruption. They are determined to deepen reform and opening up, seeing this is the only way to sustain economic development and hence justify the legitimacy of the one-party rule of the CCP.

It is widely expected that in the third session, more radical reform policy principles based on the ideal of "big market, small government" will be endorsed. Government red tape will be further cut to let market forces have a bigger say. Officials' power over economic affairs will be reduced, which definitely will hurt their interests. Therefore, to rein in official is a must to pave the way for advancing reform as well as easing growing public discontent.

If Xi Jinping can succeed in cleaning the party to rein in officials, China's further reform and opening up can be expected, and hence the country's economic development. It is a big job and one that could fail. Xi and Li are up against some seriously entrenched interests, many of whom have made themselves rich, or powerful, or both.

(Written for Asia Sentinel by REORIENT China Securities Ltd of Hong Kong.)