Not since the Cultural Revolution has China seen the ouster of an official as high-ranking as Xu Caihou, formerly one of the nation’s top military authorities, who was booted from the ruling Communist Party on Monday amid accusations of graft.
Some China-watchers have heralded the Xu allegations — which, according to Chinese state media, range from using his authority to promote allies to accepting bribes — as a sign that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-graft campaign won’t stop at local and lower-level officials. Xu was also part of China's 25-member Politburo, the country’s central decision-making authority and the heart of the Chinese Communist Party’s rule. Xu’s indictment seems to send a clear message: No one is untouchable.
“When you see a high-level party official being taken to the barnyard, so to speak, it shows that for Xi, there are no sacred cows,” said Arthur Dong, a professor at Columbia University and expert on China’s economy.
And with bribery costing China 10 percent of its GDP annually, according to an estimate by independent Shanghai-based economist Andy Xie Guozhong, the onus is on the Chinese government to weed out the kind of graft that some say is weakening the country’s economy and sparking popular resentment against China’s ruling class.
But others suggest that Xu — like other former darlings of the Communist Party who’ve been swept up in Xi’s campaign — was charged with graft only as a “pretext” to sideline him and consolidate the recently elected Chinese president’s power base.
“There is not a single person whose hands are entirely clean” in the Chinese government, said Gao Wenqian, senior policy adviser with the international advocacy group Human Rights in China.
“This has nothing to do with uprooting corruption,” Gao said, adding that as in the Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong’s perceived adversaries were charged with subverting the revolution, the current “anti-corruption campaign is a but a pretext” for Xi’s political endeavors.
During the Cultural Revolution, a decade of political chaos beginning in 1966, many in the ruling class were unseated and often killed. Xi’s own father Xi Zhongxun, one of the founding members of the People’s Republic, was one of many party members “purged” during that time, and it wasn't until 1978 that he was reinstated to the party. Ousted leaders stood accused of corruption and espousing bourgeois, counterrevolutionary values.
The now-ousted Xu rose in the ranks in the early 1990s, when Jiang Zeming — former president who some consider to be one of Xi’s adversaries — oversaw the Central Military Commission.
Xu was also an outspoken advocate of former Communist Party rising star Bo Xilai, another official who was swept up in Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. Many believe that Xi and Bo were also political adversaries.
“Right now, we haven't seen any political ally of Xi Jinping be targeted in the anti-corruption campaign,” said Gordon Chang, a China analyst and author of "The Coming Collapse of China."
Chang believes there are “faint echoes of the Cultural Revolution” in the fact that Xi may be ousting his adversaries under an overarching ideological ruse, as Gao, Human Rights in China, argues. In Mao’s generation, that pretext was weeding out allegedly counterrevolutionary elements working against the proletariat. In Xi’s generation, according to China analysts like Chang, it is fighting widespread graft in the public sector.
“Of course, we don't have Red Guards in the street or the complete take down of society,” Chang added, referring to the paramilitary youth empowered by Mao to enact his political program. “We see an emphasis on ideological purity. We see the mass-line campaigns of Maoism, Marxism. It's there.”
In May 2012, Premier Wen Jiabao recognized that the Cultural Revolution was a “historic tragedy” after numerous attempts by Chinese administrations to downplay what was a push for the government and society at large to essentially cannibalize itself.
“If you look at the zany politics of Mao Zedong, I think you begin to understand Xi Jinping,” Chang said.
Like the Cultural Revolution before, Xi’s anti-graft campaign has targeted ostensible signs of decadence, like watches and mooncakes, as symbols of corruption.
Chang and Gao warn against the dangers of Xi’s anti-graft campaign spiraling out of control, but are quick to note the differences between China today and nearly half a century ago.
“The difference is very clear. Mao Zedong included the people in his anti-corruption effort,” said Gao, observing that several government watchdogs have been detained and tried for charges including subverting national authority when they tried to call out graft outside of the government’s highly measured campaign.
Still, if Xi is indeed targeting his political adversaries in an attempt to consolidate his own power base, he may be unsettling the people at the helm of the nation’s leadership as China faces potential rough waters ahead.
“Xi Jinping, like Mao Zedong, is increasing the cost of losing political struggles,” Chang said.