THE CORRUPT CCP. The New York Times reports that the party boss of Shanghai was detained in an anti-corruption probe last week, the first such major detention since 1995. The Times suggests that the move was intended to solidify Hu Jintao's power base, and to intimidate leftover supporters of retired leader Jiang Zemin. The Western narrative of corruption in China tends to follow several themes; corruption is bad for economic growth, it's really bad at the lowest levels of the bureaucracy, it's gotten worse as reforms have pressed forward, and it threatens the Chinese Communist Party's hold on power. Minxin Pei gives an example of this kind of narrative in China's Trapped Transition (reviewed here), but I've always had my doubts.

The idea that the Chinese government is shot through with corruption at every level represents both a problem and an opportunity for the CCP. On the one hand, corruption can pose a genuine danger to economic growth (although perhaps not as large a danger as Western analysts believe), and can undermine confidence in the state. On the other hand, the idea of corruption gives the leadership a tool for both attacking rival factions and for keeping the provinces in line. If President Hu and his inner circle can describe their political foes as the sources of corruption, then corruption becomes a strength for the leadership, rather than a weakness. Similarly, if local and provincial officials can be threatened with prosecution on the grounds of corruption, the center gains strength inside the Party and popularity with the general populace. Given that the "anti-corruption crusader" image resounds both with the self-description of the Party in the twentieth century and with older Chinese narratives regarding the importance of an honest and efficient bureaucracy, I would be surprised if the brain trust of the CCP weren't doing some serious strategic thinking about both the reality and the political impact of corruption in China. Which is all just to say that the problem of corruption in China is much more complicated than it appears at first glance.

--Robert Farley