An unprecedented attack on corruption at the top of the Chinese Communist Party is now underway. Suddenly, following a spate of trials, arrests and investigations, it seems as if even the most senior leaders in the Communist Party are vulnerable.
Moreover, U.S. and other foreign firms doing business in China are on their guard as investigations of their relationships to top officials also appear to be moving into high gear. Most recently, for example, Chinese police announced that they are investigating British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline for alleged bribery and tax violations.
Corruption is rampant in the Chinese Communist Party. The new leadership has vowed to attack this plague and in January of this year the then new Chinese Central Committee General-Secretary, Xi Jinping, who in the spring added the key title of President, declared: "We must have the resolution to fight every corrupt phenomenon, punish every corrupt official and constantly eradicate the soil which breeds corruption, so as to earn people's trust with actual results."
Many investigations and arrests of senior officials have been seen this year, but none have been as prominent as three situations that combine to underscore just how exceptionally important this anti-graft campaign is:
First, charges of corruption were prominent in the recent trial of former top political leader Bo Xilai, the former governor and Communist Party chief of Chongqing province, who had been in line for appointment to the national Standing Committee.
Second, on September 3, Xinhua -- the official Chinese news agency -- reported that Jiang Jiemin, head of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) of the State Council and deputy secretary of the SASAC committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), "has been removed from office because of suspected serious disciplinary violations." Jiang wielded far-reaching power over a vast array of government enterprises.
Third -- and most importantly -- Chinese government officials have made no effort to curb news reports that Zhou Yongkang is under investigation for corruption. Zhou had been a member of the top Communist Party Standing Committee and the country's chief of security and intelligence until his retirement last November. At the time he ranked at the ninth most important member of the Chinese government and the Communist Party.
It is quite possible that President Xi is encouraging the investigations and arrests of high-level officials in order to consolidate his own power and purge the Communist Party of potential rivals. Jiang Jiemen's career has long been closely associated with the mounting power that Zhou Yongkang enjoyed, so the news about both of them led, for example, to BBC News analyst Celia Hatton in Beijing to report that "rumors indicate that Mr Zhou continues to act as a rival to Xi Jinping.
It is not yet clear whether Zhou will be arrested and charged with any crimes. Nor is there any announcement from officials that Jiang will be prosecuted, even though it is likely that a number of officials who have reported to him over the years, including executives at China's National Petroleum Corporation, could face the heat.
Many senior officials in China today may well have good reason to be nervous as they see the current investigations into Zhou and Jiang proceed. To be sure, many top officials in China have not depended on their official salaries alone given the lavish lifestyles of the families of many of them and the vast wealth of prominent Chinese businessmen with close ties to senior officials. Many officials, indeed, may now be asking: who's next?
So far, some skepticism about President Xi's anti-corruption campaign is in order. Despite the rising number of increasingly prominent individuals under scrutiny, the Chinese leadership has not yet proposed convincing institutional reforms to make the Party's leaders more accountable and their activities more transparent.
In the U.S., for example, we seek full financial disclosure from all members of the Congress and the senior levels of the Administration. Now, how about President Xi and his colleagues starting to provide some details on their own wealth and how they obtained it?