The Power of Xi (Part 5)

Last time, we chronicled the rise of China’s current leader, Xi Jinping. As one of the most powerful people in the world, Mr. Xi’s actions have far reaching effects on domestic China and the global community. This week, we will delve into just two of those issues and discuss how each has helped strengthen Xi Jinping’s grasp on power.

Let’s start with the contained anti-corruption campaign. Since 2013, Mr. Xi has been engaged in a far-reaching anti-corruption campaign throughout China, which technically includes Hong Kong and Macau. Anti-corruption campaigns aren’t necessarily special occurrences. Dating back Mao’s Three-Anti/Five-Anti Campaign of the early 1950s, anti-corruption campaigns have been a perennial fixture of Chinese politics. Of course, many of these campaigns serve a dual purpose. On one hand, there is a crackdown on corruption, which builds goodwill with the public and party loyal; on the other hand, there’s the benefit of directing the anti-corruption campaign, which gives pretense for removing political opponents.

It isn’t new to use such campaigns as a political tool, but the length and scope sets Mr. Xi’s campaign apart from his predecessor’s campaigns.  Before embarking on the current campaign in 2013, most anti-corruption campaigns were relatively short, with most only being active for approximately one to three years. Additionally, such campaigns were often components of larger reform movements and weren’t an end unto themselves. Further, past campaigns didn’t cast as wide a net when cracking down.

Under the current campaign, Xi Jinping has vowed to go after “tigers and flies,” or low- and high-level officials. This just means that Mr. Xi is trying to crack down on corruption at all levels of government. On top of going after corrupt officials, the campaign targets private citizens that engage in corruption. To date, Mr. Xi’s campaign has caught the most individuals, as well as netting the highest-ranking officials.

On its face, Mr. Xi’s campaign has been a success. The public is largely in support of it, it appears to be somewhat effective, and many of those being implicated are Mr. Xi’s opponents. What could be so bad about all that? (Assuming you are in a position to benefit from those outcomes.) For starters, there are reports that corruption is becoming more sophisticated and expensive. One reported example is an American card shark (someone who cheats at poker) being paid to lose against specific opponents.

Aside from precipitating a renaissance of corruption innovation, the campaign is becoming more widely perceived as a political purge. Again, this in itself isn’t unusual. What makes it unusual is that Mr. Xi’s campaign has begun to interfere with rising stars in the party, specifically those viewed as the next generation of party leaders. Another issue, stemming from the unusual length of the campaign, is the increasing perception that corruption levels are continuing to rise.

Despite the structural issues his campaign has been creating, Mr. Xi has generally benefited from the heightened scrutiny on subordinate party members, as well as the additional powers he has been given to help fight corruption.

While he continues to grow his domestic power base, Mr. Xi has taken the initiative to expand his international clout. A flashpoint in this expansion has been China’s actions in the South China Sea. Although the name implies otherwise, the South China Sea has numerous ongoing territorial disputes between China and countries with claims in the sea.

Territorial disputes over the islands and reefs in the South China Sea have been going on for millennia. The primary reason behind the current dispute is the global importance of the sea as a valuable maritime shipping lane. If one country were to completely control this region, it could create havoc in the global economy.

Following the end of World War II, the United Nations rewrote or edited a large number of existing international treaties to effectively integrate them into the new UN system. In the 1980s, the UN worked to more clearly define maritime territorial claims, as well as create a framework for future claims to be made or disputed.

In an effort to better secure its stated claim (also known as the Nine-Dash Line), China has ‘built’ numerous islands to serve as military bases. Realistically, this has been more an expanding of existing islands than actually building islands from scratch. This means that over the last 20 years, sand bars, reefs, and small research stations have been expanded to support full naval bases, military airstrips, and static defenses. Since taking office, Mr. Xi has redoubled efforts to secure a better foothold in the region.

China’s rapidly expanded military presence in the region has increasingly lead to skirmishes with neighboring countries in the archipelago, as well as with countries globally. In early 2001, a mid-air collision between a US reconnaissance plane and one of the intercepting Chinese fighters was incorporated into China’s narrative of national humiliation as a setback to its efforts to overcome its century of instability. 

Between 2005 and 2015, tensions in the region were exceptionally high due to a heightened number of disputes. In one of the more violent incidents, a Chinese frigate fired upon Philippine fishing boats operating near the disputed Jackson atoll. Chinese vessel ordered the fishing boats to leave, but fired on them after one fishing boat had difficulty removing its anchor.

For Mr. Xi, the heightened tensions in the South China Sea allow him to fully exercise the powers he has accumulated. But beyond that, the tensions allow Mr. Xi to expand his sphere of power globally. Thanks to the global importance of this region, China’s expansions mean they are a regional fixture rather than one of the various actors. Simply put, if you do something in the South China Sea, even in international waters, you won’t be able to ignore China; by extension, this means not being able to ignore Xi Jinping.

So what does Mr. Xi gain from using his power in these two instances? In the case of his anti-corruption campaign, Mr. Xi has been able to firmly entrench himself as moral guide of the party. Additionally, the campaign gives Mr. Xi pretense to dismantle meddlesome factions within the Communist Party. Overall, while the party is generally being hampered by the campaign’s increasing public perceptions of corruption, Mr. Xi personally benefits from his appearance as the stalwart force for good, selflessly cleansing the party.

Discerning what Xi Jinping personally gains from tension in the South China Sea is more complicated. Unlike Mr. Xi in the anti-corruption campaign, China is not acting as a shining example of moral fortitude. In fact, whereas Mr. Xi is the selfless patriot fighting corruption, China’s actions in the South China Sea are akin to the cynical politicking of a jaded public figure. But there is a relative gain. Out of context, it is difficult to see, but relative to other global powers’ actions in the region, China’s gains are more easily discerned.

Next time, in the final article of my China series, we will look at the context of China’s actions in the South China Sea and its relative gains. In addition, we will try to understand how a series of events in US politics has reshaped the political dynamics of a region 8,000 miles away.


“China building 'great wall of sand' in South China Sea,” BBC News, 1 April 2015. Web. Accessed: 6 August 2017.

“Former party boss of China's Chongqing under investigation,” Reuters, 24 July 2017. Web. Accessed: 6 August 2017.

Jamandre, Tessa, “PH protests China’s ‘9-dash line’ Spratlys claim,” Malaya, 19 April 2011. Web. Accessed: 6 August 2017.

“Robber Barons, Beware,” The Economist, 22 October 2015. Web. Accessed: 6 August 2017.

Spence, Jonathan D. The search for modern china. 3rd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013).

Tiezzi, Shannon, “China: Yes, We Sent Ships to Jackson Atoll in Spratlys,” The Diplomat, 3 March 2016. Web. Accessed: 6 August 2017.

“US Navy: Beijing creating a 'great wall of sand' in South China Sea,” The Guardian, 31 March 2015. Web. Accessed: 6 August 2017.


Wikipedia contributors, "Timeline of the South China Sea dispute," Wikipedia, 2 July 2016. Web. Accessed: 6 August 2017. (Used as a rough timeline of incidents in the South China Sea)

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