Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has likened his nationwide corruption purge to hunting tigers and swatting flies, is sending Communist Party graft-busters after an even more annoying pest: mosquitoes.
The term has been used in state media reports to describe a new initiative targeting corruption in rural villages where petty cadres hold sway. While tigers lurk far away, such mosquitoes are usually “buzzing around the corner” and “sucking blood,” the official Xinhua News Agency wrote in a commentary published July 4.
The push against rural graft suggests a policy shift by Xi almost three years into a campaign that has brought down more than 100 senior officials, including top generals, a former top presidential aide and China’s retired security chief. With so many potential rivals locked away, Xi can afford to relieve some pressure on the political elite in Beijing to focus on his broader reform agenda.
“At some point, Xi Jinping needs to back away from hunting big political tigers,” said Andrew Wedeman, a politics professor at Georgia State University who specializes in China’s political economy and corruption. “Pressing continued attacks on individual members of the current and former leadership could, in my view, prove divisive and destabilizing.”
Xi will need the power he’s accumulated during the campaign to enact an economic plan to double gross domestic product by the end of the decade. China faces its slowest growth in 25 years and has deployed an array of state inventions to halt a stock collapse that’s shaken foreign confidence in Xi’s reforms.
The anti-graft campaign has weighed on the economy, shaving about 1 percentage point off GDP, according to a Bank of America Corp. analysis released in April last year, as officials shy away from gift-giving and displays of wealth.
That’s not to say Xi’s no longer caging tigers. Last Friday, the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection announced a probe into sitting Hebei provincial party chief Zhou Benshun, the latest former aide of disgraced security ex-chief Zhou Yongkang to fall. On Tuesday, the party dismissed Zhou Benshun from his posts.
But the numbers show high-profile prosecutions have slowed. The party investigated 102 senior party officials between Xi’s rise to power in November 2012 and the National People’s Congress in March, according to Xinhua, or about 3.5 a month. In the first six months of this year, such probes averaged 2.5 a month.
Meanwhile, the CCDI on July 18 described the push against local officials -- or “mosquito squashing” -- as the campaign’s grueling “last mile.” The country’s top prosecuting body declared its own drive against rural graft last week, saying the initiative would last two years, according to the party run People’s Daily.
“After going through the explosive first few years, the anti-graft drive has entered a steady phase,” said Zhuang Deshui, a Peking University governance professor. “While it keeps a certain rhythm in catching corrupt officials, the focus has shifted to eliminating the breeding grounds of corruption.”
Authorities haven’t explained how their mosquitoes differ from the flies targeted since the campaign’s earliest days. Rather, the new terminology emphasizes their capacity for harm.
Xi invoked the “broken windows theory” -- the concept associated with New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s 1990s crackdown on squeegee men -- while urging greater attention to petty graft. The party must both “make no exceptions for the powerful” and “not indulge minor offenses,” Xi told the ruling Politburo on June 26, according to Xinhua.
The party should implement rules and laws to ensure “officials dare not be corrupt, cannot be corrupt and do not want to be corrupt,” he said.
Authorities opened more than 12,600 cases involving low-level officials in the first half of the year, according to an articled posted on the CCDI website on Friday. “Flies are still all over the place and the task of swatting flies is still daunting and urgent,” it said.
Steve Tsang, who heads the University of Nottingham’s School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, said Xi must continue the campaign to keep potential opponents on the run.
“There is still significant resistance to Xi, though those who do not approve of what Xi is doing are biding their time,” Tsang said, likening the effort to riding a tiger. “Xi cannot stop or get off without getting bitten by the tiger. So, Xi will press on.”
It remains unclear whether the crackdowns have weakened China’s culture of corruption. While Xi has made it easier to demote inept officials and set up centers to teach cadres “clean governance,” he’s only strengthened a political system that depends on the party to police itself.
An article published by the CCDI days after Zhou Yongkang was sentenced to life in prison last month said the campaign was at “a critical point of transition.” If the party can’t produce a long-term cure, it will lose the people’s trust, it said.
“At best a campaign can bring to justice some of those who are corrupt and, by changing officials perceptions of risk, ‘control’ the level of corruption,” Wedeman said. “What remains to be seen, therefore, is whether Xi’s campaign has a lasting impact.”