20 February 2019
Xi Jinping's top-down approach to eradicating corruption will prove futile. Photo: Bloomberg
Xi Jinping's top-down approach to eradicating corruption will prove futile. Photo: Bloomberg

‘Good King’ Xi alone can’t root out China corruption

Like President Obama said, Xi Jinping is probably the quickest leader of China to consolidate his power since Deng Xiaoping. Nobody would question the determination of Xi to eradicate corruption across the country. However, whether he is doing that for his own good or for the common good of his people still remains to be seen.

For now, let’s give Xi the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he cracks down on corruption not to eliminate his political opponents, but to rejuvenate the Communist Party and restore its credibility among the people. But even so, can we be optimistic about the future of China?

Xi probably bears the same mindset as those good and wise emperors in ancient China — let’s call it the “good king mentality”.

If we look back on the ancient history of China, we can always notice a striking pattern, in which emperors who founded a new dynasty were often intelligent and powerful leaders, and their first successors were always able to carry on with their legacies and keep the empire in good shape.

However, as time passed, their grandsons or great grandsons who succeeded the throne often turned out to be corrupt leaders or even tyrants and the once thriving empire began to fall apart.

Then suddenly, there were always competent princes who came to the throne amid chaos or even wars and managed to restore pride and order to the empire against the odds, until their sons or grandsons turned corrupt again.

Xi may be one of those emperors who came to power just in time to save their empires from collapsing, or perhaps he is really a good king, but there are several elements to make it more difficult for a modern-day good king in China to turn things around like their ancient counterparts did. These elements are:

1. Even a good king himself can’t bring about any fundamental change without the help of a team of loyal and righteous ministers. Any top-down approach to eradicating corruption in a mega-sized bureaucracy often proves futile because as orders are passed from one level down to another, their efficiency and effectiveness tend to deplete. As the old Chinese saying goes: The mountains are high, and the emperor is far away.

I believe the size of the current bureaucracy in China under the Chinese Communist Party is the largest in human history. It is a multi-layered and highly complicated entity in its own right and involves a lot of factions and vested interests, hence very difficult to change.

Unless Xi can prove that he is better than all those good emperors in ancient times, he would find it an uphill battle to combat corruption in his bureaucracy merely by relying on his “good king mentality”.

2. It is only a metaphor to describe Xi as the emperor and the communist party a dynasty. However, no matter how successful Xi is in consolidating his power, he still shares a similar background with his high-ranking party colleagues. In other words, he is at best the first among his equals.

Xi may be enjoying absolute positional authority but he may not have the kind of personal authority and charisma proportional to his office to help him remove all the resistance to his reform agenda.

Unless Xi can establish the kind of personal authority in his party like Mao Zedong did in the past, his plan to root out corruption in the bureaucracy is unlikely to succeed.

3. In the 21st century globalization era, the expectations and aspirations of the Chinese people have changed, so have their attitude towards authority. Is the “good king mentality” alone enough to fulfill the expectations of the general public in today’s China? As society continues to develop, the average Chinese citizen may not only expect the “good king mentality” and “performance legitimacy” from his leaders, but he will also demand real participation in the decision-making process and respect for civil rights.

Sustaining the “good king mentality” will be a major challenge facing Xi throughout his rule.

Let’s say he is able to overcome all the hardships and rejuvenate his party, but then comes the next big question: how can he ensure his successor can carry on his legacy and behave as a good leader as well?

In fact the “good king mentality” has its limitations. It is within the scope of “the rule of man”, or at best “the rule of a good man”, but its fundamental nature hasn’t changed at all. For China to be truly modernized, its leader must bring fundamental change to its social and political system by replacing “the rule of man” by “the rule of law”.

The policy proposed by Xi at the 4th Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee for “full implementation of rule according to law” was in fact nothing but a kind of “rule of law” under the framework of “the rule of man”. And it didn’t even touch on the fundamental issue of transforming the existing political system.

After all, in the absence of checks and balances, corruption and the abuse of executive power will remain a chronic disease in Chinese politics, and “good king mentality” alone can hardly change that.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan. 23.

Translation by Alan Lee

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong

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