Lord Acton did not think of today’s China when he famously remarked, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Democracies too are plagued by corruption, but totalitarian regimes and military dictatorships are generally the most corrupt ones. At the heart of China’s endemic corruption is the absolute power that the Party-State enjoys. The latest disclosures about corruption at the highest levels of government in China only confirm this yet again. Until his retirement in 2012, Zhou Yongkang was the head of the country’s internal security establishment and a member of the standing committee of the political bureau, its highest decision-making body. The official revelations about the seizure of his family’s assets — valued at Rs 87,000 crore — may well be the proverbial tip of the iceberg. But the scale of the scandal, said to be the biggest in communist China’s history, exposes the ugly face of the party elite as never before. An equally stunning recent corruption scandal involved Gu Junshan, until recently one of the seniormost generals of the People’s Liberation Army. There have been many other such cases at all levels of the government that are being probed and many more that remain unearthed.
However, the big question is why Xi Jinping, the new leader, has chosen to strike at some of the most powerful of the party elite. The superficial answer is that he is executing the new anti-corruption plan that he had announced late last year. Mr Xi is not the first leader to declare a war on corruption. There have been others before him who talked of tackling corruption among party and government functionaries. There is little doubt that Mr Xi’s campaign has much to do with the power struggle within the party. Like all communist parties, the Chinese party has a history of bloody battles among party factions, the most savage of them having been during the so-called Cultural Revolution. But the current campaign against corruption at high places has a deeper dimension. It reflects the fear that the Party-State may collapse under the weight of rampant and pervasive corruption. The campaign is thus a desperate attempt to protect and prolong the party’s rule. This is the biggest irony of Mr Xi’s avowed objective to clean up the system. For it is the one-party rule that is the root of not just corruption but also of all abuses of power in China.