- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 20, 2019

BEIJINGXi Jinping began asserting his authority before he formally assumed the presidency, putting the fight against official corruption at the heart of his rise to power.

Now widely seen as China’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping, Mr. Xi two months before taking office in March 2013 delivered a pivotal speech. The address, delivered to the Chinese Communist Party’s disciplinary body and touted heavily on state-run media, took aim at a pervasive scourge in Chinese society that was widely seen as sapping the Communist Party’s authority: corruption.

The future president vowed to take aim at “tigers and flies” — corrupt officials — regardless of status. The government will be “resolutely investigating law-breaking cases of leading officials and also earnestly resolving the unhealthy tendencies and corruption problems which happen all around people,” he promised.

SEE ALSO: China ‘Great Firewall’ protects Communist Party politically, economically

“The style in which you work is no small matter,” Mr. Xi told party officials at the time, “and if we don’t redress unhealthy tendencies and allow them to develop, it will be like putting up a wall between our party and the people.”

Mr. Xi’s jeremiad was met with no small amount of cynicism. Skeptics suggested that the supposed anti-corruption campaign was really a cover for a Machiavellian leader to depose his enemies and reward his allies. Among those swept up in the crackdown: a onetime Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang and two top military generals, Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong.

But the cynics were in for a surprise: Six years into his tenure, Mr. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has proved, for many officials, all too real — and surprisingly durable.

Caged tigers

Before Mr. Xi’s ascension, jobs in state-run companies represented some of the most coveted — and lucrative — jobs in China. With pressure to turn a profit minimal to non-existent, managers, bureaucrats and local officials found it easy to skim off profits, often parking the money overseas. Executives at state-run companies — typically members in good standing of the Communist Party — often extorted bribes of either cash or luxury goods from businessmen seeking lucrative government contracts, too. And officials brazenly treated themselves to lavish lifestyles on the public till, including boozy banquets and luxury automobiles.

A recent visit to Beijing reveals just how much things have changed, and how Mr. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has seeped into the new Chinese way of business.

One official at a state-run construction company, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, noted that a number of once-routine perks have been banned, including first-class air travel and pricey restaurant meals. Business meetings, even with important figures, now are held in the company canteen.

The old ways die hard, with a number of inspired entrepreneurs finding a business niche catering to officials and executives who like to enjoy their graft more discreetly.

Expensive evenings at karaoke bars used to be par for the course for business executives unwinding after a long day at the office. They still happen occasionally, but now surreptitiously. New businesses have even emerged to facilitate these now-clandestine evenings.

Chinese official business is now ruled by the “fapiao,” the official itemized sales receipt that is registered with the local tax bureau. The Xi government aggressively uses these invoices to track tax payments and expose tax cheats. Now, for a fee, there are businesses that will convert a fapiao from a boozy night at a KTV club into a fapiao showing “important” work purchases.

For all the prominence Mr. Xi has given to the issue, outside monitors say progress has been slow since 2013. Transparency International, which published a widely cited global ranking of “perceptions” of corruption, in 2018 gave China a below-average score of 39 out of 100 — the same score it had in 2012.

But the Xi government is keeping up the pressure.

The government has taken steps to block corrupt officials from hiding their money overseas. At one construction company, the bosses were forced to surrender their passports and are now allowed to leave the country only if they get official permission.

The crackdown has even altered the very look of Beijing. Near the National Agricultural Exhibition Center in the northwest of the city, there once stood a string of expensive restaurants catering to high-end patrons by serving up lavish Chinese delicacies. They’re all gone now.

“They shut because of the anti-corruption campaign,” says a 36-year-old taxi driver who identifies himself as Wang.

Officials were ordered by the government to keep their meals to “four dishes and one soup,” rather than the multicourse banquets, replete with dozens of toasts, to which they had grown accustomed. Officials in some provinces were reportedly barred from eating at five-star hotels, leading to a comical rush among luxury hostelries to lose a star in their travel guide ratings.

Even relatively clean businesses have been forced to close or move because they were wrapped up in the corruption crackdown. One popular pizza place, owned jointly by expatriate Europeans and their Chinese partners, was given a month to vacate its space because the building it was operating in was owned by the military. Officials were accepting rent for a space that wasn’t theirs to let out.

Foreign brands peddling a variety of goods including cognac and luxury watches have suffered because of the campaign. After years of piling on new locations, Louis Vuitton is now closing stores in China. Imports of Swiss watches collapsed in the years after Mr. Xi’s fateful address.

The tough new directives have been matched by legal action. More than 100,000 people, including scores of top officials, have been arrested on corruption-related offenses, some even sentenced to death.

And the anti-corruption drive was no passing fad: Six years into Mr. Xi’s presidency, analysts and business leaders here say, it has not abated. The Communist Party-owned tabloid Global Times announced this month that “China’s financial anti-corruption drive [has entered] a new era,” with government watchdogs reportedly training their sights on China’s state-owned banks.

Late last month, a former executive at the China Development Bank was purged from the ruling party for “severe discipline violations.”

Mr. Xi’s speech as a recognition that, for all the country’s economic success of the past three decades, corruption, particularly among local officials, seriously undermined the authority of the Communist Party.

Despite heavy official censorship rules, the Xi government allowed the wide release of a 2016 film, “I am Not Madame Bovary,” that dramatized the inherent unfairness of corrupt local cadres. And the construction company employee says that, regardless of the negative impact the campaign has had on him personally, he believes it has made Mr. Xi broadly popular with the Chinese public.

Swatted flies

The pervasive social control and emphasis on discipline that characterize the Xi era extend far beyond policing the habits of the roughly 90 million Communist Party members. Rights groups say Mr. Xi’s government is building a system that will extensively monitor the behavior of all 1.4 billion Chinese.

The so-called “Social Credit System,” announced in 2014 and expected to be completed next year, will essentially function as a dossier on each Chinese citizen. Like private credit scores, the Social Credit System will continually monitor and rank individuals based on their behavior.

Bad behavior — say, getting a speeding ticket or engaging in “disorderly behavior” — will lower one’s score. A bad score will have real-world consequences: Even while the system is still in beta mode, more than 17 million Chinese citizens were stopped from buying plane tickets last year, and another 5.5 million were barred from buying high-speed rail tickets. The reason? Their social credit score was too low.

Technologically savvy surveillance is pervasive in Beijing. When entering a train station or even Tiananmen Square, an ostensibly public place, Chinese citizens must scan their national ID cards, which are linked to facial recognition software to prevent people from using others’ cards.

Financial transactions also can come under the eye of the government.

Until a few years ago, China was essentially a cash economy. Now, most people use apps such as WeChat or Alipay. WeChat is owned by Tencent, a Chinese internet giant whose founder and chairman is a party member and member of China’s National Congress. Alipay, meanwhile, is a subsidiary of Alibaba, another Chinese internet giant, whose founder Jack Ma is also a party member.

A female 35-year-old hotel worker named Zhang shrugs when asked about these privacy concerns. Mobile payments are just “so convenient,” she said.

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