At this moment, Chinese President Xi Jinping has one overriding priority: a successful 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which is expected to be held later this year.
That meeting will pick the next generation of leadership for China, and many anticipate will enshrine Xi in the pantheon of Chinese leaders, perhaps even extending his tenure as party chief beyond 2022, when he would normally retire.
A successful Congress depends on several factors. One of them is a smoothly functioning economy that continues to improve the living standards of a majority of Chinese. Also critical is the absence of shocks, either internal or external, to confirm that the current leadership retains a firm grip on China and its neighborhood; North Korea tops that list of concerns. Third is the unity of the party, which in turn depends on Xi’s demonstrated strength and support among leading cadres.
Central to that last concern is the ongoing anti-corruption campaign, which Xi launched upon taking office in 2012 and has served as a pillar of his presidency. Xi, along with other top officials, recognized that corruption was a cancer at the core of the party and failure to tackle this problem would ultimately undermine the legitimacy of CCP rule. Xi pledged to root out “tigers and flies,” both senior and minor officials who had enriched themselves and their families; as of 2016, the party had arrested or convicted over 100 high-ranking officials, and more than 100,000 others have been indicted for corruption.
While the campaign is supported by ordinary Chinese, there is also the belief, frequently validated, that the program is as much an effort to root out political opposition to Xi as clean up the party. The early arrests of former Politburo member Zhou Yongkang and his ally Bo Xilai, a former minister of commerce and Communist Party secretary of Chongqing, both of whom were thought to oppose Xi’s climb to power, are validation of that thesis.
In that context, accusations of high-level corruption by Guo Wengui, a real estate billionaire who has fled the country, are the last thing that Xi and his allies want to see at this time. Guo has charged that relatives of He Guoqiang, a former member of the Politboro Standing Committee, used their power and influence to squeeze him out of a business deal; specifically Guo alleges that He’s son, working through proxies, prevented Guo from taking control of a company called Founder Securities. The implication of the charges is that Xi is indifferent to corruption among his allies; only his enemies or opponents are subjected to the anti-corruption campaign. Guo has provided no evidence of corruption, but independent research by Chinese and Westerns sources has revealed ties between He’s family and various companies that would seem to validate the charges.
After the deal collapsed, Guo left China. Among his many residences, he is a member of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. The prospect of proximity to the U.S. president may worry Beijing, but more immediately the concern is the increasingly visible presence Guo has assumed in mass media and on the internet. Guo has leveled charges against He in interviews on Chinese-language websites in the United States as well on the Voice of America. That interview was cut off after an hour, just as Guo was beginning to discuss the allegations, prompting speculation that Beijing pressured the VOA to suspend the broadcast, a charge the VOA has denied.
China named Guo in an Interpol “red notice” or arrest warrant that was issued just before the VOA interview. The warrant is based on allegations that Guo bribed a senior intelligence official, Ma Jian, to help him conclude a Beijing real estate deal: Ma provided Guo with the means to blackmail a city official who was blocking the deal. A video has also been released on websites sympathetic to the Chinese government in which Ma confesses to abusing his power on Guo’s behalf. In addition, two officials at Beijing Pangu Investment, another company that Guo controls, have been arrested in charges of corruption and forging evidence.
Guo has said that he will not be intimidated and is reportedly ready to name more top Chinese officials as corrupt. The problem for Beijing is that it faces a dilemma. It must do all it can to eliminate him as a threat, but doing so validates charges that the anti-corruption campaign is as much a tool to eliminate political opposition as it is an effort to clean up the CCP. The party is likely to opt for aggressive action, nonetheless: Cynicism among the public is far less damaging than acknowledging corruption among the country’s top leadership.