China’s ruling Communist Party says it has investigated almost five million members for possible corruption over the last decade, with formal criminal cases brought against 553.
Whether that will curb a widening economic slowdown and restore faith in the authoritarian system remains unclear.
The party has 96 million members and has long run its own internal system of keeping cadres in line through a mix of offering privileges and threatening severe punishment for taking bribes, selling offices or otherwise abusing authority.
At a briefing Monday on the sidelines of the party’s national congress held every five years, the deputy secretary of the party’s committee for discipline and inspection, Xiao Pei, said 207,000 party officials in total had been handed some form of punishment in the 10 years since party leader Xi Jinping took power.
Now seeking a third term as head of the party, government and military, Mr Xi has made fighting corruption a hallmark of his administration.
Mr Xiao said most of those caught by anti-graft investigators were long-term offenders and just 11% of those punished had committed their first offence in the past five years.
“The spread of graft has been resolutely contained,” Mr Xiao said, adding that “directed policies and high pressure” had persuaded 80,000 party members to voluntarily admit to violations over the past five years.
The anti-corruption campaign, one of Mr Xi’s key policies, has been largely popular with the public and has conveniently enabled him to sideline potential rivals.
A former justice minister and a former deputy public security minister received suspended death sentences last month after being convicted on various charges of bribe-taking and other abuses of office.
Chinese courts are beholden to the party and have a near 100% conviction rate. After being investigated internally and expelled from the party, even high government and military officials can expect lengthy prison terms, although death sentences have become somewhat rarer in high-profile cases.
Mr Xi, 69, reaffirmed the party’s total control of Chinese politics, economy and society in a speech on Sunday at the opening session of the party congress.
“The next five years will be crucial,” the Chinese President said in a televised speech to some 2,000 delegates in the cavernous Great Hall of the People.
He repeatedly invoked his slogan of the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, which includes reviving the party’s role as economic and social leader in a throwback to what Mr Xi regards as a golden age after it took power in 1949.
The congress will install leaders for the next five years. Mr Xi is expected to break with tradition and award himself a third five-year term as party general secretary and promote allies who share his ideals.
Mr Xi has his own experience with the capriciousness of party justice.
His father, Xi Zhongxun, was a former vice premier and guerrilla commander in the civil war that brought Mao Zedong’s Communists to power in 1949.
Just years later, the senior Mr Xi was placed under detention as Mao turned on his former comrades, and Xi Jinping was driven from his home during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, which banished intellectuals to the countryside and subjected many to public humiliation and brutal beatings in the name of class struggle.
Mr Xi later attended Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University and rose steadily through the bureaucracy in the provinces, rising to party secretary – the top position – in China’s biggest city and financial hub of Shanghai in 2007, after his predecessor fell in a corruption scandal.
He has taken control of economic and military matters and had his name enshrined in the party constitution alongside Mao by adding a reference to his ideology.
“Xi Jinping Thought” emphasises reviving the party’s mission as China’s political, economic, social and cultural leader and its central role in achieving the goal of “national rejuvenation,” the restoration of the country to a position of prominence in the world.
The President has pushed a more assertive foreign policy and swept aside concerns over an economy that has been hard hit by pandemic restrictions and a government crackdown on spiralling real estate debt.
The economy appears set to grow by only about half of the official target of 5.5% this year, while unemployment is rising among recent college graduates to levels not seen before.
Despite the drag on the economy, the government has stuck with the policy known as “zero-Covid,” which mandates lockdowns, travel restrictions and near-daily testing. The approach earlier was seen as a success as Covid-19 ravaged other parts of the world.
While dissatisfaction simmers, particularly as life returns to normal in other parts of the world, most people do not dare to speak out and Mr Xi has indicated no upcoming changes on health policy and other major issues.