China's ruling Communist Party is pledging tighter discipline than ever for its 88 million members and no let up in a four-year anti-corruption campaign that has seen more than 1 million officials investigated for graft.
The party's self-supervision, since it doesn't allow much independent oversight, is the focus of the party's most important meeting of the year this week. The four-day conclave will lay the groundwork for an expected second and final term for President Xi Jinping, following a congress of party delegates next fall.
The anti-corruption drive has boosted Xi's popularity among the graft-weary populace. It has also cast a chill over some sectors of the economy — luxury goods, restaurants — that benefited from the wheeling and dealing of businessmen and officials.
But Xi's administration has admitted that deeper structural reforms will be needed to address the root causes of corruption, and those measures have not yet taken shape. Corruption remains rampant in daily life, such as the state-dominated health and education sectors, where citizens have to pay bribes to get access to top schools and hospitals.
Absent from the discussion is the fact that much of the anti-corruption campaign so far has been aimed at eliminating covert factions operating inside the party, which experts fear could threaten China's stability.
"These issues could, in the future, be one of regime survival," warns Boston University political scientist Joe Fewsmith.
He argues that this is how Chinese Communist Party leaders rise to power — by eliminating rival factions. Chairman Mao Zedong did it some seven decades ago, and Xi appears to be doing it now.
He says these winner-take-all feuds break out "because you don't really have a mechanism to sort out who legitimately rules."
It's not a subject China's leaders like to talk about in public. The phrase and the idea of factions is taboo to a party that proclaims its own unity and altruism. Official literature refers to "gangs" and "cliques," not factions.
China's anti-corruption campaign "has nothing to do with a power struggle," Xi insisted in a speech in Seattle last year. "In this case, there is no House of Cards."
Xi was referring, of course, to the TV drama in which actor Kevin Spacey plays Frank Underwood, a conniving politician with an arsenal of dirty tricks.
Xi may deny that there's a power struggle, but experts and state media often describe the anti-graft drive as a fierce political struggle.
Zhuang Deshui, who follows the anti-corruption issue at Beijing University, says that high-ranking officials netted in the anti-graft drive did indeed pocket large chunks of the nation's wealth.
But "more importantly," he says, "they were trying to seize control of state power."
High-profile figures go down
The highest of these officials to fall so far are ex-security czar Zhou Yongkang, and ex-presidential aide Ling Jihua. Both were convicted on criminal corruption charges, not political offenses.
"There are many details of this that we don't know," adds Fewsmith, "but they are clearly being accused here by Xi of engaging in factional activity to contest some part of the party's leadership."
Both men commanded large factions which controlled parts of the government and owed personal allegiance to these two men, not the party or the state.
Zhou installed confidantes throughout the security apparatus, and in Sichuan province, where he worked as an official.
"This is why Xi Jinping had to rebuild the security system" after taking office in 2012, notes Zhuang Deshui.
State media have reported that anti-graft officials were still mopping up the remains of these two factions within the bureaucracy this year.
In an indication of the importance of factions as a target of the anti-graft drive, Zhuang estimates that nearly half of the roughly 160 officials at the Cabinet level or above netted so far in the campaign had ties to these two factions.
A long history
Factions are not allowed in the Communist Party, but they have nevertheless been a prominent feature of Chinese politics in the modern age, and for centuries before that.
For example, statesman and essayist Ouyang Xiu counseled the Renzong Emperor of the Song Dynasty that political factions have existed all along, and what's important is distinguishing between good and bad ones.
"In general," Ouyang wrote in the year 1044 AD, "gentlemen form factions on the basis of shared moral principles. Men of lesser character form them on the basis of profit."
In recent decades, some have advocated legalizing factions within the Communist Party. After all, they argue, party members should be allowed to group themselves based on ideas and policies. But unfortunately, says Beijing University's Zhuang Deshui, that's not the case.
"It would be better if these factions had common goals and ideologies," he says. "What concerns us is that they're only after power for its own sake."
But experts say it would be an oversimplification to say that Xi Jinping is only interested in knocking out rivals and consolidating power.
Joe Fewsmith of Boston University adds that Xi wants to change his party's political culture, restoring the discipline and loyalty he believes the party commanded under Chairman Mao, and other revolutionaries, including Xi's own father, Xi Zhongxun. He served in a number of positions after the revolution, including vice premier, and head of the Communist Party's propaganda department.
Xi "does worry a lot about who's up and down. But, yes, he also worries about the party as an institution, and he's determined to revive those elements of the party which he associates with his father and the 1950s," says Fewsmith.
But Ren Jianming, who studies anti-corruption issues at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, says that besides strict party discipline, another approach is also needed: "To develop democracy within the party, allowing everyone to express their opinions and prescriptions through formal channels."
However, official news reports about this week's meeting make no mention of such an approach.
And with Xi's main rival factions quashed, it's not clear who the next big targets of the anti-corruption campaign will be.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
China's ruling Communist Party is holding its most important meeting of the year right now. They're trying to figure out how to tighten party discipline and fight corruption within the party. President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign has so far investigated over a million officials. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing, behind the campaign is a deeper political struggle.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: President Xi Jinping tried to explain his anti-graft campaign to an American audience last year on a trip to Seattle.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Through interpreter) This has nothing to do with power struggle. In this case, there's no "House Of Cards."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOUSE OF CARDS")
MOLLY PARKER: (As Jackie Sharp) What is this?
KEVIN SPACEY: (As Frank Underwood) My files on Webb and Buchwalter. Why don't you take a look?
KUHN: Xi was referring, of course, to the TV drama in which Kevin Spacey plays Frank Underwood, a conniving politician with an arsenal of dirty tricks. Xi might deny that there's a power struggle. But experts in state media often describe the anti-graft drive as a fierce political struggle. Beijing University anti-corruption expert Zhuang Deshui says that high-ranking officials netted in the anti-graft drive did indeed pocket vast amounts of the nation's wealth. But...
ZHUANG DESHUI: (Through interpreter) More importantly, they were trying to seize control of state power.
KUHN: The highest officials to fall so far are ex-security czar Zhou Yongkang and ex-presidential aide Ling Jihua. Both of them commanded large factions which controlled parts of the government and owed their personal allegiance to these two men, not the party or the state. Zhuang says that the four-year campaign has so far acquired 160 officials at the cabinet level or above. And nearly half of them have ties to these two factions.
JOE FEWSMITH: These issues could in the future be one of regime survival.
KUHN: Boston University political scientist Joe Fewsmith argues that this is how Chinese Communist Party leaders rise to power - by eliminating rival factions. He says they have these winner-take-all feuds because they have no other way to decide who should rule the country.
FEWSMITH: Certainly, China is the only major country in the world that worries about its legitimacy on sort of a day-to-day basis.
KUHN: Factions are not allowed in the Communist Party. But some folks think that they should be. After all, they argue, the party has more than 80 million members, and they should be allowed to group themselves based on ideas and policies. But unfortunately, says Beijing University's Zhuang Deshui, that's not the case.
ZHUANG: (Through interpreter) It would be better if these factions had common goals and ideologies. What concerns us is that they're only after power for its own sake.
KUHN: But experts say it would be an oversimplification to say that Xi Jinping is only interested in knocking out rivals and consolidating power. Joe Fewsmith adds that Xi wants to change his party's political culture, restoring the discipline and loyalty he believes the party commanded under Chairman Mao and other revolutionaries, including his own father.
FEWSMITH: He does worry a lot about who's up and who's down. But yes, he is also worried about the party as an institution. And he's determined to revive those elements of the party that he associates with his father in the 1950s.
KUHN: Party discipline will be the focus of this week's meeting. And that's likely to include preventing the rise of factions. This meeting is the last big one before a party congress next year, where delegates are expected to give Xi a second and final five-year term. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.