“Chatting About China” —Harvard Professor Discusses Xi Jinping’s Anti-Corruption Campaign at FACES

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STANFORD, CALIFORNIA: The Forum for American/Chinese Exchange at Stanford (FACES) and the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia–Pacific Research Center at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI APARC) co-hosted a “Chatting About China” event with Yuhua Wang, Assistant Professor of Government at Harvard University. Held at Stanford’s historic Encina Hall, the event provided an intimate and relaxed environment for students to ask Professor Wang about his work and a variety of issues in China.

Wang’s research focuses on the emergence of state institutions, with a regional focus on China. He is the author of Tying the Autocrat’s Hands: The Rise of the Rule of Law in China, and he is currently working on a book-length project examining long-term state development in China.

President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign began in 2012 and is the largest campaign of its kind since the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China. Much debate surrounds the motivation behind the campaign, with some arguing that it is meant to further Xi’s political interests while others contend that it is a sincere effort to reduce corruption.

Wang stated that the empirical question regarding the campaign’s effectiveness is whether it can reduce not just corruption within the current system, but also corruption in the future. He identifies this as the fundamental problem of any campaign: it can be effective in the short-term, but have unclear long-term effects.

Students from across campus asked a variety of questions about the campaign’s current and future state, broader issues in China, and Wang’s research. Three key areas of concerns emerge regarding anti-corruption campaigns: the motives behind the campaign, the role of rule of law and the media, and public opinions of the government due to such campaigns.

Motives Behind Xi’s Campaign

On the motives behind the campaign, Wang said that Xi’s campaign is about succession. According to Wang, anti-corruption campaigns are a very common political strategy for attacking the enemy and consolidating power and has been used historically in China by new leaders. By abolishing term limits and not naming a successor, Xi was able to consolidate his power and use his anti-corruption campaign as leverage to maintain support.

“My working hypothesis is that the anti-corruption campaign is actually a collective and also intentional attempt by the 'royal' families to take over,” said Wang. “They want to take the power back from the meritocratically promoted leaders within the party.”

The Roles of the Courts and Media

  Professor Yuhua Wang speaks on Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign with FACES at Stanford’s Encina Hall.

Professor Yuhua Wang speaks on Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign with FACES at Stanford’s Encina Hall.

Several students asked about the role of the media and the courts in the campaign. Wang said that investigations begin with the party, are then publicized in the media, and finally are selectively handed to court, though this does not happen with most cases as the party often wants to protect its members. As a result, the courts are largely irrelevant, but the media plays a big role, according to Wang. He talked about how the level of detail in coverage of the corruption investigations is unprecedented with certain high-level party officials such as Bo Xilai, the former Minister of Commerce of the PRC and governor of Chongqing.

“[Because of this, the campaign] kind of backfires, because people realize that the party officials are more corrupt than they thought,” said Wang. “When people are exposed to the news on the media, they will actually decrease their support for the party because they are shocked by the amount of corruption in the government particularly on the higher level.”

Criticism of the Government Might Be Exaggerated

Regarding his research on politically sensitive topics, Wang talked about the obstacles he has faced, such as being unable to ask certain questions or know whether respondents are truthful. He also pointed out some interesting findings of false reporting of opinions, particularly among Chinese university students.

“The idea is that they might lie to you, they might overreport support of regime because they have a fear of [being watched by the party],” said Wang. “Recent study shows that it’s actually the opposite—that is when you do surveys with college students, they will over-report criticism [of the party] because they want to appear cool. For college students it’s cool to be critical, rather than nationalistic, because being critical shows that you are a real intellectual.”

After speaking with FACES in the morning, Wang delivered a lecture in the afternoon titled Why Xi Jinping’s Anti-Corruption Campaign Has Undermined Chinese Citizens’ Regime Support? about his research on China’s public reaction to the campaign. He presented his hypothesis that the anti-corruption campaign, usually a method of gaining public support, has in fact reduced support for the Communist Party and government by revealing the extent of corruption, although it may have increased support for Xi himself. The presentation was followed by a question and answer session with the audience.


Author: Emily Wan ‘22, FACES Department of Communications