How Serious is Xi Jinping’s Corruption Campaign?

The revelations by the Washington, DC-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists over massive wealth accrued offshore by relatives of top Chinese officials raise interesting questions for President Xi Jinping’s year-old anti-corruption campaign, in which he famously promised to go after “tigers” as well as “flies,” and how serious it really is.

So far, hundreds of lower-level cadres – the flies – have been arrested or disciplined. But the ICIJ report names scores of untouched people operating at the very highest circles of the government, including relatives of at least five current or former members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the country's most powerful decision-making body. That is putting enormous pressure on the president’s cleanup campaign to show results.

At least 15 of the richest members of the National People’s Congress and executives of state-owned companies are shown to have accounts, in both Chinese and English-language forms. The files include specific details of companies owned by Xi’s brother-in-law and the son of former Premier Wen Jiabao and many others.

The ICIJ and the Global Financial Integrity Ngo estimated that US$1 trillion to US$4 trillion in untraced assets have left the China since 2000, and perhaps a good deal more in the form of completely illegal activities including sex trafficking, drugs and smuggling.

When asked about the sensational revelations, however, a Foreign Ministry spokesman merely said the reports were “hardly convincing” and simply hinted that ulterior motives might be involved. They also blocked any and all Chinese websites seeking to report the details.

It should be pointed out that overseas accounts aren’t necessarily illegal. But as one China-watcher, “The Interpreter,” points out, “the revelations add to the increasing scrutiny of the accumulation of vast wealth by China's powerful and well-connected elite.”

To be sure, top officials nailed in the new administration’s anti-corruption campaign include Bo Xilai, the former governor and Communist Party chief of Chongqing province, who had been in line for appointment to the national Standing Committee, now serving a life sentence. Others are Jiang Jiemin, head of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) of the State Council and deputy secretary of the SASAC committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), and Liu Zhijun, who spearheaded the country's high-speed rail boom.

There have also been widespread news reports that Zhou Yongkang – once called Jiang Zemin’s Karl Rove – as well as a member of the Communist Party Standing Committee and the country's chief of security and intelligence until his retirement last November, could well be prosecuted.

But a lukewarm response that so many people – at least 22,000 China and Hong Kong-based names – might have overseas accounts raises questions about the real motives of the anti-corruption campaign, and whether it is directed at getting rid of rivals and putting on a show with the arrests and disciplining of the rank and file cadres.

Certainly Wang Qishan, appointed as secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, is considered an enforcer in the mold of Zhu Rongji, who was considered not only incorruptible but the strongest anti-corruption figure of his generation. And, say China-watchers, the Foreign Ministry response is somewhat typical. When presented with new and explosive revelations, the reaction is usually to remain noncommittal. It doesn’t mean there isn’t a frantic effort behind the scenes to see what the situation actually is.

More cynical observers, however, see the arrests of the high-ranking officials as a move by Xi to consolidate his own power and purge rivals. Zhou Yongkang, rumored to be under house arrest, was reported through much of last year to be a rival. Certainly, he hails from the faction of the party controlled by former President Jiang Zemin. Jiang Jiemen, the former SACAC boss, has long been closely identified with Zhou

Others simply made themselves targets of opportunity. Bo Xilai, a retro Maoist, was brought down by a sensational murder of a British national by Bo’s wife. The railway boss Liu Zhijun was arrested after an embarrassing crash of two high-speed trains brought to light massive corruption and inefficiency in what was considered a pillar Chinese industry and the pride of the nation.

Every new Chinese government starts out with an anti-corruption campaign. Certainly, this one looks a lot more convincing than the previous one orchestrated by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen, who in recent weeks has been undergoing a rehabilitation of sorts in the press, only to face the new revelations of his family’s involvement in moving money offshore. Sales of maotai, the blindingly powerful booze served at party functions and banquets, have fallen through the floor. At party conclaves last year, the cadres were careful to hide their expensive wristwatches and to arrive at the events in official cars rather than the Porsches, Ferraris and Rolls-Royces that many of them own and found it prudent to keep them out of sight.