Few people in the West think of China as a kleptocracy, or at least not in the same sense as Vladimir Putin’s Russia. This is perhaps because the scale and nature of China’s global engagement are of an entirely different order. But systemic corruption has also shaped China’s domestic governance, and as Beijing pushes for worldwide influence, it increasingly exports corrupt practices to other countries through programs like the Belt and Road Initiative.
One person who holds no illusions about the scale of corruption and kleptocracy in China, however, is Xi Jinping. Shortly after becoming general secretary of the Communist Party in 2012, he announced a major initiative to investigate both “tigers and flies”—meaning officials at all levels—and to tackle once and for all the pervasive graft that increasingly hampered the party’s ability to govern effectively.
Few could have predicted then the ruthless determination with which Xi would pursue this lofty commitment. Nearly a decade later, Communist Party leaders claim to have investigated nearly 5 million members—formally prosecuting 553 and “punishing” around 207,000.
The anti-corruption campaign, as it is known, reshaped China’s political landscape and became a hallmark policy of Xi’s premiership. Yet beyond news reports on the fall of prominent individuals, few outside of academic circles in the West understand it. This has allowed the following narratives about its purpose and methods to take hold. Some possess elements of truth, but most only reinforce spurious party claims to legitimacy and good governance.
Myth 1: Xi is the first Chinese leader to take corruption seriously.
Mao Zedong was the first modern Chinese leader to explicitly target “corruption” within the Communist Party and among the capitalist classes. His campaigns of the early 1950s soon became brutal political purges that foreshadowed the horrors of the Cultural Revolution.
The economic and administrative reforms that began in 1978 transformed China’s economy, but they also created abundant new opportunities for bribery, embezzlement, and fraud. In particular, the reforms incentivized collusion between cadres charged with boosting growth and the budding entrepreneurial class. As Yuen Yuen Ang explains in her book China’s Gilded Age, this high-level cronyism spurred spectacular short-term growth but created skewed incentives and concealed massive financial risk-taking—with implications that only become clear during periods of economic crisis.
Anti-corruption efforts during the 1990s and 2000s failed to keep pace with this unique form of graft-fueled growth. In his outgoing address, Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao warned that rampant corruption had become an existential threat to the party.
This set the stage for Xi to elevate anti-corruption efforts as a core party priority. He was impeccably placed to do so, having assiduously avoided the graft scandals that commonly accrue during Chinese politicians’ rise to prominence.
The sheer scale of Xi’s subsequent anti-corruption campaign speaks for itself. It therefore ought to be a straightforward assertion that he has done more to address the problem than any other leader since Mao. But the situation is more complicated than that, if only because the term corruption can mean something quite different in the context of Xi’s Communist Party.
Myth 2: The anti-corruption campaign is (or isn’t) just a power grab by Xi.
Most governments have some kind of anti-corruption enforcement agency, or at least independent investigators and prosecutors who specialize in public corruption. But a powerful Communist Party body known as the Central Committee for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) instead leads China’s anti-corruption campaign. The CCDI investigates and issues verdicts on potential corruption cases before matters go to the courts (which are also branches of the Communist Party).
For the CCDI, corruption encompasses a far broader range of activities than what the term usually refers to in the West. The anti-corruption campaign is more like a “party discipline drive” in which the party often punishes ideological deviance and managerial incompetence equally alongside conventional acquisitive crimes.
Therefore, observers often cannot know whether China is prosecuting someone because of genuine corruption, or whether corruption charges are supplementary to the more substantive crime of having infringed party discipline—a term that, uncoincidentally, has become increasingly synonymous with fealty to Xi and his political agenda.
In a system where nearly all senior public officials have engaged in corrupt practices at some point, everyone becomes a potential target for an anti-corruption campaign. It is the perfect tool for controlling the party, and Xi has managed this through selective enforcement by removing rivals from key positions and then filling them with political allies.
Xi was sincere when he said the campaign was necessary to improve governance, and the campaign has undoubtedly purged many genuinely corrupt officials. It has also probably deterred would-be grifters by instilling a culture of fear throughout the party’s sprawling bureaucracy. So far, so good, at least within the warped standards of the party. But its parallel purpose has always been to purge Xi’s political rivals and consolidate his grip on power.
Myth 3: Chinese overwhelmingly support the anti-corruption campaign.
Opinion polls tend to show that most Chinese enthusiastically back Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. According to Transparency International, for example, perceptions of official corruption among the public have improved markedly since 2014. But as with most issues in China, it is difficult to assess what that really means in a country that suppresses any information critical of the regime, allowing the party to shape political narratives for its own ends.
A rare instance of public criticism occurred in 2014 when Zero Tolerance, a propaganda documentary on state television, sparked an unusual level of discussion on Chinese social media. Many commented that the punishments meted out to corrupt officials were in fact too light, leading them to question whether the party itself had a systemic problem.
While it is true that most Chinese people support the stated aims of the anti-corruption campaign, it is important to remember that the government denies them access to information that would allow them to assess the campaign’s effectiveness—or, indeed, to understand Xi’s ulterior motives.
Myth 4: Xi Jinping is (or isn’t) a kleptocrat like Vladimir Putin.
The term kleptocrat is problematic in that it tends to conjure images of Cold War–era Third World despots—or, more recently, flashy Russian oligarchs and their superyachts.
Xi oversees arguably the most sprawling kleptocratic system in the world, yet there is no evidence that he himself is a kleptocrat in this traditional sense. As noted above, he assiduously avoided implications in graft scandals or links to excess wealth and therefore developed a reputation for integrity as he rose within the party. His motivation is power and control, not wealth and luxury. Yet he recognized this impulse in others and saw how corruption is integral to the party system, so he developed a form of political patronage that involves turning a blind eye to supporters’ misdeeds and sparing them from purges.
The same cannot be said of his extended family, however, which was one of China’s foremost political clans even before Xi’s ascent to power and has profited handsomely from its increased connections. A 2012 Bloomberg investigation estimated the family’s (traceable) investments at $376 million, with $55 million in Hong Kong real estate and an 18 percent share in a $2 billion minerals company. The 2016 Panama Papers leaks also implicated Xi’s brother-in-law, along with many other Politburo family members. Despite this unwelcome publicity, which the Chinese government of course censored, they have—unsurprisingly—not received a nasty visit from the CCDI.
Myth 5: The anti-corruption campaign is an internal matter for China.
Foreign criticism invariably prompts diplomatic protests from Beijing that other countries are interfering in China’s internal affairs. But the Communist Party routinely interferes in other countries and, often under the guise of the anti-corruption campaign, has become the world’s leading proponent of transnational repression.
Operations Sky Net and Fox Hunt are extraterritorial elements of the anti-corruption campaign. As FBI Director Christopher Wray explained in a speech at Hudson Institute in 2020:
Fox Hunt is a sweeping bid by General Secretary Xi to target Chinese nationals whom he sees as threats and who live outside China, across the world. We’re talking about political rivals, dissidents, and critics seeking to expose China’s extensive human rights violations.
Hundreds of the Fox Hunt victims that they target live right here in the United States, and many are American citizens or green card holders. The Chinese government wants to force them to return to China, and China’s tactics to accomplish that are shocking.
This does not concern a few isolated cases. Official figures claiming that China has repatriated more than 10,000 victims since 2014 are likely just the tip of the iceberg, according to the nongovernmental organization Safeguard Defenders. These are vast operations that reportedly involve not only China’s police agencies but also intelligence and even military officials. Their methods range from intimidating victims into returning, including by threatening family members still in China, to outright kidnappings.
Recently, Safeguard Defenders also revealed that the Communist Party has opened more than 100 police stations around the world to this end, sometimes with the consent of the host country but often covertly.
The Communist Party’s anti-corruption campaign is—categorically—not an internal matter for China. Operations Sky Net and Fox Hunt are blatant and ongoing assaults on the rule of law in other countries, including the United States.
Myth 6: The anti-corruption campaign is a governance model for other countries.
The Communist Party has sought to present its governance system as a more stable and effective alternative to Western-style liberal democracy.
The speed and ruthlessness with which Xi has dealt with officials the party has accused of corruption must indeed be appealing not only to populations living under corrupt authoritarian regimes but also to those within democracies who feel that their institutions are no longer capable of holding the rich accountable.
As noted above, the anti-corruption campaign is both a genuine attempt to tackle pervasive graft and a vehicle for Xi to grab power. It has undoubtedly succeeded at the latter, but has it improved China’s governance? Looking at a country increasingly troubled by rising wealth inequality, economic headwinds, international tensions, and barbaric COVID-19 policies, it is hard to conclude that Xi’s premiership is headed in the right direction.
This is partly because Xi’s crusade has convinced Chinese officials that loyalty, rather than merit, is the key to both career advancement and survival. In such a paranoid environment, officials conceal their failures from superiors while the party tramples good ideas in favor of ideologically suitable ones and the bureaucracy stagnates.
Democracies sometimes appear more corrupt because they do not sweep corruption under the carpet but openly discuss it. In authoritarian societies like China, corruption is invariably worse, but it is controlled: the government openly uses it on the one hand, as a political tool to attack and discredit potential rivals, and secretly on the other, to sustain the patronage networks that prop up illegitimate regimes. In this sense, Xi is no better than any other petty tyrant. He just has more resources and a bigger stage.