Beijing's Corruption Purge May Serve Political Ends

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When China's President Hu Jintao appeared last weekend on a flag-bedecked dais alongside his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, and called for national unity, many Chinese instead heard evidence of discord.

In a country where tussles among the political elite occur far from public view, speeches by government leaders, editorials in official newspapers and even the order in which politicians enter a room are scrutinized for clues they might offer about who's winning and who's losing in the power struggles. Such augury has been on the rise since last month's announcement that Shanghai's Communist Party Secretary Chen Liangyu — a protg of Jiang — had been dismissed from his post for allegedly misusing hundreds of millions of dollars from the city's pension fund. Chen's removal and the detentions that have, in its wake, ensnared other power-brokers believed to be allies of Jiang, have fueled theories that that President Hu and his predecessor are engaged in a factional power struggle. Thus when Jiang and Hu appeared together last weekend to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the Communists' historic Long March, many speculated that they were making a show of solidarity to mask factional conflict.

Proponents of this view ask why, if the primary goal of Hu's corruption probe — reported to now include investigation of Beijing officials — is to end corruption, why not make the entire process transparent? Why not allow the Chinese media to investigate Chen's crimes and write about them? Why not allow a court in Shanghai to try him, instead of conducting the whole process under a cloak of secrecy? Why try to fight corruption using the same opaque apparatus that allows it to flourish in the first place? The secrecy surrounding the whole operation fuels speculation over whether Hu is cleaning his house of graft, or sweeping out political rivals.

One plausible answer is that he's doing a little of both.

There's no question that corruption is the single greatest problem facing the country, and possibly also the greatest threat to the legitimacy of the Communist Party's unchallenged rule. It is certainly in the interests of the Party leader to at least appear to be tackling it within his own ranks. And he doesn't seem inclined to get that job done through political liberalization, empowering the courts or unleashing the media. Instead, Hu appears to favor a mixture of moral suasion (he's launched internal reeducation campaigns for party cadres), and the punishment of a few to scare the many. Of course, in a system where corruption is endemic, it's a fair bet he has a wide range of potential targets on which to showcase his resolve. And if scapegoats are needed, it's certainly to his advantage to choose individuals loyal to his predecessor who may hold positions in which he'd like put his own allies — particularly in preparation for the horse-trading ahead of next year's Party Congress when the leadership is expected to be reshuffled.

The extent of the corruption purge thus far may mean Hu has overpowered Jiang Zemin and his allies. But it could also mean that the two leaders have reached a truce, a negotiated a consensus between factions whose differences may have been more about personal loyalties than they are about political philosophy.

Observers expect many more tantalizing clues in the months ahead about what might be happening behind closed doors, but no definitive answer. For now, China's leaders are still too good at keeping secrets.