Who will have the world’s hardest job in 2013? There are many candidates for that role, but my nominee would be Vice Premier Wang Qishan, who has just been given the near-impossible assignment of combating corruption in China.
China-watchers see Wang as a crucial player in the new Chinese government headed by Xi Jinping. It will fall to Wang, as the new head of the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline, to crack the whip and stop the thievery before it devours China.
Wang’s nickname in Chinese is “chief of the fire brigade,” earned in earlier stints during the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the SARS epidemic in 2003.
Wang met with President Barack Obama at the White House on Dec. 20. He was in America officially for trade talks, as head of the U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade. He was the first representative of Xi’s new Politburo to meet with Obama.
Wang’s mission is to address China’s greatest vulnerability. There are 80 million party members in China, competing for about 40,000 important local positions. China experts say these jobs are now routinely bought and sold, often for huge sums, with the winners soliciting graft from subordinates and local businesses.
The corruption isn’t limited to politics. Top military positions are also obtained by bribes, with the winners harvesting millions in graft. U.S. experts say that a one-star general can expect to receive up to $10 million in gifts and special deals; a four-star regional commander can make $50 million or more.
This out-of-control corruption frightens China’s new leaders, who know the public is increasingly angry about dirty dealings by public officials. But Xi and many of his fellow rulers are known as “princelings,” because their families have grown rich from their closeness to power. They want to clean out the stable without burning it down.
Xi delivered a sharp warning in November, in his first speech as party chief. “If corruption becomes increasingly serious, it will inevitably doom the party and the state,” he said. He spoke about “grave violations of disciplinary rules” and cases that have been “extremely malign in nature and utterly destructive politically, shocking people to the core.”
The new leader used a Chinese proverb to underline his point that the system is rotting from within. “Worms come only after matter decays,” Xi said.
The most notorious corruption case was the sacking in March of the high-flying Bo Xilai, the party chief in Chongqing. But China experts say that similar graft and abuse exist in every province and district of China. Bo’s wife has been convicted for her role in the murder of a British businessman, but Bo’s case is still unresolved — an illustration of how delicate it will be for the ruling elite to control a system from which they have benefited.
Among the first decisions announced by the new leadership was to put Wang in charge of party discipline. In early December, the Politburo announced new rules limiting spending on travel and entertainment by party officials, and Xi illustrated the theme by traveling to Guangdong on Dec. 7 with an intentional lack of official motorcades and fanfare. But those were puny, symbolic steps, given the scope of the problem.
A hint of the purges that may lie ahead was Wang’s decision in early December to investigate the deputy party chief in Sichuan province for allegedly buying and selling party positions. Wang himself is seen as uncorrupted, partly because he doesn’t have any children, who often operate as family bribe-takers. “If Xi has the inclination and power to unleash Wang, it could be transformative,” says Christopher Johnson, a former CIA official who’s the top China scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Wang’s role as party disciplinarian was highlighted for me by Randal Phillips, a former CIA official in Beijing who now heads the China office of the Mintz Group, a New York-based consulting firm that helps western and Chinese businesses with investigative tasks. Phillips says he advises U.S. companies in China to make clear from the outset that they won’t pay bribes, and to hedge their bets in picking Chinese partners and patrons, given the political jockeying that’s taking place.
What risk does Wang, the party hatchet man, see if the regime fails to discipline corruption in its ranks? Perhaps he fears a revolution. A Chinese publication noted on Dec. 24 that he has been urging officials to read Alexis de Tocqueville’s “The Old Regime and the Revolution,” evidently as a warning of how a regime can destroy itself from within.
David Ignatius is a columnist for The Washington Post. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.