Maybe there is no conspiracy

China sacked the head (party chief) of its largest municipality(*), amid corruption investigations. As usual, rumours are afloat that it is related to certain political struggle between ex-party-boss Jiang's Shanghai Gang and new boss Hu Jintao's Youth League Gang. (update WaPo)

Most of all so-called China observers (even BBC, and NYT**) are eager to speculate, except very few rational minds

  • 郎咸平说,“我是不希望把反腐的事情跟各地领导班子换届的关系扯到一起。我不认为他们有必然关系,我认为反腐就是反腐倡廉,对于腐败官员要有严刑峻法的方式严加处理。但是,不要把这两个事扯在一起。我认为反腐跟政治斗争不应该扯在一起。这是两回事。所以我今天所强调的中央政府的反腐的力道必须加大。”
  • Lang Xianping said, "I do not hope to see the anti-corruption matters to be linked to the sucession of the [CCP] leadership matters. I do not think there is necessary connection between the two.

Conspiracy theories are interesting. There are media values in them. Conspiracy theories are also easy to fabricate. All one needs is some 'confidential source' which may not even exist, and an audience who refuse to accept the simple (but often factual) explanation. "Look, how can the CCP have any intention to do anything morally right?"

When Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong was caught, the same conspiracy emerged. It was said the Jiang's Shanghai Gang used corruption as an excuse to oust the Beijing Gang. Back then, I have my own little conspiracy theory as well:

  • Chen was so corrupted in 1989 that he feared that he would be caught once the student movement in 1989 succeeded. He then plotted and misled Deng Xiaoping and engineered that tragedy in June that year. This is, of course, not the full story. But if we look at history, the overwhelming examples of anti-democracy suppression, from Marcos to Ceausescu, have been plotted by corrupted officials. Because the corruptors are those who fear the consequence of a transparent system the most.

What I believe to be more likely, is that the CCP leadership has realized by now that it is impossible to continue the economic reform without tackling the corruption problem. Because corruption leads to unfair competition and discourages business innovation. A more sophisticated economic system, as China is developing into gradually, requires a fair system and infrastructure. Corruption hinders such development. As most people can now agree, the first priority of CCP is economic development (some said it is the only way to continue the 'legitimacy' of its rule). It is only logical that they are focusing on anti-corruption now. The motivation for anti-corruption can be very simple, i.e., economic.

Aside from the above discussion. I do not care if Hu Jintao (or Wen Jiabao) is a black cat or a white cat, if he has caught the corrupted mice, he is a good cat, at least at this particular job.

P.S. more in the comment section.

* in China's bureaucratic system, head of province and the 4 municipalities, together with the Ministries, are one rank below Deputy Prime Minister. Shanghai is one of the most important province/municipalities, making Chen Liangyu among the top of the promotion list among these provincial chiefs. i.e. Chen is only 2 steps from the Premier Wen and Party Boss Hu.

** NYT is even worse. Joseph Kahn reported, "It is exceedingly rare in China for members of the ruling Politburo to face legal trouble, even when the authorities have evidence of corrupt activities by them or people close to them. Mr. Hu almost certainly would not have approved of the action unless he considered Mr. Chen an obstacle to his political control or his policy agenda." 1) It is rare because it is hard to collect evidence 2) How about "Mr. Hu almost certainly would not have approved of the action unless he considered there is sufficient evidence for the charge"? 3) It is also rare because the more senior the criminal is, the more careful (and harder it is) the investigation needs to be.



Anonymous said...

The reason people often attribute political motives to corruption cases is that the entire system is corrupt. When corruption is endemic to the system, anyone could be charged with corruption. So then you have to look at who is charged and who isn't -- and why. This obviously leads to speculation. It isn't a question of the CCP's motives: fighting corruption is almost always a positive, no matter the color of the cat. However, when officials are selectively charged with corruption, while other, even more corrupt officials are not charged, then you need to look deeper at how fighting corruption can also be used as a political weapon against opponents.

You might say that Hu was merely "waiting for sufficient evidence" to be gathered, but really, I think this pretends that the legal system itself is somehow separate from the party -- and we all know it isn't. The party controls the legal system and uses it as a weapon against opponents. How many cases in China's legal system are based on NO evidence whatsoever? (I'm not saying all are -- especially in criminal cases, etc.) But nothing is more political than corruption cases.

Anonymous said...

One example: some city and county governments have prohibitions on officials building housing or buying real estate within their areas of control. This is your classic example of an anti-corruption law. Yet, I know of cities in which every single official has broken this law. Then when power struggles erupt, one of these officials magically gets charged with breaking this law. After you see that happen about 1,000 times, you naturally stop taking corruption cases at face value. Of course, this doesn't mean that therefore all corruption case have to have some ulterior political motive, but they are probably the exception, wouldn't you say?

Sun Bin said...

I will agree that corruption is wide spread, really wide spread. But I do not buy the "entire system corruption" charge.

In the past, when the top officials were not touched, I believed in such theory. But when member of politburo were charged, there must be some genuine effort.

I do not think Hu/Wen are saints. Rather, I believe they have no choice but tackle the corruption problem, otherwise the economy will not grow (or even collapse).

my view in response to your comment
1) "selectively charged" -- I think it is more likely that it is 'select out', rather than 'select in'. i.e.those who have links to higher up were "selected out". In those cases fear of retribution and interest groups prevented thorough investigation. This is NOT what NYT is saying. NYT was very adamant for the 'select in' theory, i.e., if not for consolidating power, Hu will not do it. I think this is just absurd. We have seen many cases where justice was brought to people who do not have relation to the Shanghai Gang.

2) "sufficient evidence": i mean sufficient enough to convince his colleagues inside the politburo, or any apologists from Chen's camp. the requirement is a lot weaker than that in a western judicial system. But still, some evidence is needed (even for political persecution).

3) "ulterior motive": that certainly speeds up the investigation. But i do not honestly believe most of the cases (of non action) are due to incompetence and the interest-web. again, select out, not select in, refer to my (1)

p.s. what trouble me particularly is this theory of Youth League Gang. Hu is in his 60s already, everyone in his 60s has been through the Youth League system when they were young. so there is plenty of false evidence for such theory.

Sun Bin said...

Here is an example of particular lousy and seld-contradictory analysis (apple daily 9/25).

1) On the one hand, it alleged the replacement, Han Zheng, was of the League Gang (because of his age?). Near the end, it concluded Hu used Han to minmize shock (now Han becomes Shanghai Gang)
2) It counted the number of officials who are young and classified them as League gang, 100 of them at deputy-provincial level or higher. and used this (more likely normal ladder climbing) as evidence of intra-party struggle.

Anonymous said...

>>But I do not buy the "entire system corruption" charge.

Is it possible to rise in the party hierarchy without being corrupt? For example, can you become a provincial party boss by strictly following all of the laws? I don't think that is possible under the current system. Why can't you? The system is based on connections and there are so many practices that are technically illegal that are widely accepted. Why is that? Because the legal system ("rule of law") is not separate from and independent of party control. Plus, the legal environment and the laws are murky. It is hard to know which laws are actually being enforced. Plus, there are broader reasons for this that are the outgrowth of the past 100 years of Chinese history.

This does not mean that all party members or officials are therefore "bad." This is the common misinterpretation in the West. You need to look at the overall environment that they are operating in: the society (corruption goes far beyond the government in Chinese society), the legal environment, the historical situation. My point is that any official in China could be singled-out for corruption because no one strictly follows the law -- not because they are bad necessarily -- but because that is not how the system operates. The system has a different set of rules. An analogy: a cop could stand on any street corner in Shanghai and give a ticket to almost every car. The laws on the books regarding driving are not strictly followed because they are not strictly enforced. This doesn't mean all the drivers are bad -- it means there is "flexibility" built-in to the system when it comes to the law. This flexibility is not unique to China. All systems have differing degrees of flexibility in this sense. But the combination of factors in China's case makes corruption almost impossible to root out.

>>I do not think Hu/Wen are saints. Rather, I believe they have no choice but tackle the corruption problem, otherwise the economy will not grow (or even collapse).

I agree 100%. The party knows it has to end corruption or corruption will end the party. However, knowing this is not enough. Fighting corruption in the current system without changing the legal system -- without an independent judiciary with teeth -- won't work. Also, everyone in the system in vulnerable to charges of corruption -- even fake, trumped-up charges. This also makes vigorous enforcement very difficult. Some of my favorite stories involve officials who investigate corruption only to suddenly find themselves being investigated and charged with corruption. This makes even investigating corruption a dangerous business.

Anyway, in this environment, when a Politburo member is charged with corruption, it would seem that he didn't have sufficient "protection." This is where the speculation begins. I agree that some of this speculation is really off -- just reaching to fit everything in to the Hu-Jiang power struggle. If Zeng Qinghong sneezes, it is a sign that Hu is winning and consolidating power -- we've heard that for almost 3 years.

Sun Bin said...

well, there are maybe some grey areas that is probably system-wide. but cases like Chen's are black and white. he even had his relatives in the game as well, which is hardly a 'neccessary evil' to climb the party ladder.

I think the danger of mis-interpreting the genuine effort of fighting corruption are plenty: e.g., false message that grey areas are okay, to the extent that sympathies are given to criminals such as chen xitong and chen liangyu -- they are victims of party struggle.

"The party knows it has to end corruption or corruption will end the party"
that is why i believe there is genuine intention to fight corruption. i agree with you it is an uphill battle. in addition to your list of obstacles, the single most important factor is to raise the salary level of the party cadres. they have car, chauffeur, cook, but they should have enough cash to send one child to study in a private school.

the whole conspiracy theory description looks very sloppy. they never bother to show any direct evidence as all, only pure speculation, with professionalism comparable to Far Long Gone. the 'logic' goes
1) corruption is wide-spread in China (this is true)
2) HU/CCP does not have any genuine interest in fighting corruption (wrong -- as we discussed above)
3) therefore, any corruption fight must have some ulterior motive (wrong - wrong, some have, some don't.)
4) what else to explain the fact that many cases were untouched ? (select in vs select out theory -- it is more often "select out")
5) let's attribute this to 'political struggle' (wrong -- what about other cases that does not involve shanghai or shanghai gang?)
6) then they can go back to their hypothesis that CCP is incurable, they are corrupted as hell, any action against corruption is just a by-product.

the first time i read it, i thought they might have some insider information. but now it has been over a decade. none of such claims were verified in subsequent years. i have to speak my skepticism.

i am surprised that NYT would subscribe to such sloppy journalism, they should at least qualify their report as "rumour" or "according to some analysts". they did not even bother to say so.

Anonymous said...

I will wait to see what Willy Lam's theory on this is, since he usually seems to have good sources on this type of thing. (although he disagrees with your theory on Chen Xitong ;).


Sun Bin said...

My 'alternative theory' is just to illustrate how ridiculous these conspiracy theories have become. I think my 'theory' is as true as (or as false as) those 'power struggle' theories (which I think Willy Lam subscribes to).

Again, my problem with these theories (including willy lam's -- their ultimate source is probably some HK-based analysts/observers, plus their own imagination) is this.
usually after a few years there will be direct or indirect evidence supporting such theories (if they were true). I have seem none, since Yang Shankun, Chen Xitong, and perahps even earlier cases.
In addition, Hu seems to have full control already. Why would he need to attack (antagonize) Jiang by attacking Chen? Some theories point to the non-cooperation of Shanghai, well, I would say Hu sped up the investigation because of the non-cooperation, but his objective was not to undermine Jiang. There is nothing from Jiang that worth undermining and Jiang has so far behaved quite well as a retiree.
There are just too many flaws for the Hu-Jiang struggle theory. It also reminds us of the Deng-Hua struggle in 1979-80 (in reality Hua did not even try to struggle. he invited Deng in and gave up to Deng). It is so 1970s.

Sun Bin said...

There are, of course, many layman analysts (e.g. ), who do not have the channel to the center like Ching Cheong once had. They do their analysis based on logic and publicly available information. I think their analysis are more credible.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, 88.

Sun Bin said...

More commentators are taking the rational view. Ming Pao's Ouyang Wu put it very well


After the case of Chen was announced, some people interpreted this from the habitual view of intra-party faction struggle. But some scholars pointed out that in the past few month, senior officials from Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai were shot down one by one, it showed that the Central government is determined to fight corruption, and the target is not just on Shanghai. To the government and the ruling party, a clean society and ruling matches its highest interests, CCP should be aware of this fact by now.

Anonymous said...

Just a few points:

>1) It is rare because it is hard to collect evidence

Why is it hard to collect evidence? From an investigative standpoint, with how widespread and blatant corruption is, it isn't hard at all. It is hard because the investigation process is politicized. Investigating corruption in the PRC is essentially a political activity, not a law enforcement activity.

>2) How about "Mr. Hu almost certainly would not have approved of the action unless he considered there is sufficient evidence for the charge"?

Why is Hu involved in approving or disapproving corruption investigations at all? Again, because investigating corruption is essentially a political exercise. And because of this fact, people naturally look for political motivations behind these investigations -- esp. when they reach such high levels of the party.

>3) It is also rare because the more senior the criminal is, the more careful (and harder it is) the investigation needs to be.

I think we can rephrase this: corruption investigators have to be more careful (and it is harder) when investigating powerful members of the party because these investigations are political in nature. And allies of the accused usually shield the person under investigation or block the investigation. So if someone in the Politburo or very senior position is brought down, it usually indicates that his mentors or allies at higher levels could not or would not shield him.

Ok, this is a sort of narrative. Everything won't fit into this narrative so perfectly. But if the system generally functions like this, I don't think it is unreasonable for "observers" to look for political motivations/machinations behind an essentially political activity in the PRC. That doesn't mean these observers always draw the right conclusions. I think it is best to look at it on a case by case basis; however, you can't ignore that the vast majority of corruption cases are politically motivated in one way or another. (That is my own judgment -- I don't claim to have scientific proof.)

Also, I wrote, "The party knows it has to end corruption or corruption will end the party." I should qualify this: elements within the party know this. And I believe the senior leadership knows this. However, this is a case where everyone is for something in general, in the abstract, and against it in the particular (i.e., when it affects them and theirs).

Sun Bin said...

I agree with most of what you said. I am not even saying there is no political motivation. I am expressing my skepticism on these conspiracy theories. I am just saying it is ridiculous to discount the genuine and much wider campaign against corruption by the simple characterization of party faction struggle, in particular, the allegation that Chen will not be charged had it not for the so called Hu-Jianhg show down, and those who claimed than Chen Xitong and Chen Liangyu were "scapegoats".

The Chen's are "deserved" corruptors, the are perhaps the most senior cadres charged, they are probably also the most guilty. to discount the effort and attempt (however inefficient or ineffective they are and however bad the current system is) with the theory of power struggle alone is just absurd.
Because, if there is such struggle, Hu most probably would have won the struggle before going after Chen LY (similarly for the case of Jiang vs Chen XT).
The consolidation of power comes before the investigation, not after. that tells us something about the objective and means. Had the time sequence be reversed, the conspiracy theory could have been more credulous.

Anonymous said...

>The consolidation of power comes before the investigation

That is a key point. However, sometimes investigations are derailed in the middle or the investigation is turned on the investigator himself -- that is just a Kafka novel set in China waiting to be written.

Anonymous said...

> The phrase "consolidating his power" is lazy analysis. It doesn't actually mean anything. If the move was successful, doesn't it mean his power was already consolidated?

Presumably, those in power (let's say a provincial party boss) still have power of some sort (by definition) until they are actually removed from office. Your McDonald's analogy: the staff has a union that makes it difficult for the manager to fire the slacker. Or the owner of that McDonald's is the slacker's uncle, so the manager's hands are tied. Until the slacker is actually fired, he still has power (to screw up your order or whatever). You could say that in the moment just before the actual firing the manager has consolidated his power -- but you can't say this until after the firing. The firing is the act that reveals that the manager has consolidated his power. Without the firing, you have no proof or indication that the manager was able to overcome any possible obstacles in firing the slacker.

> If the move was successful, doesn't it mean his power was already consolidated?

You said it yourself: if the move was successful -- in other words, if someone was actually fired, it indicates that the manager has succesfully consolidated his power. Isn't that what everyone is saying? Whether this consolidation came at the moment just before the firing makes no difference -- the firing is the only external evidence you have of the consolidation.

> Is the manager at McDonald's "consolidating" his power when he fires someone for coming in late all week and then makes some new hires?

Maybe yes, maybe no. It depends on the situation. Maybe the manager is in the middle of a turf war with the relatives of employees and the relatives own the restaurant. Maybe the manager has been in a power struggle with the union over firing decisions. Maybe half of the employees are spies from the Burger King next door and the manager is slowly firing them and replacing them one by one. In all of these cases, firing the employee could indicate that the manager has "consolidated his power." It depends on the situation.

I'm not saying that in this particular case Hu was necessarily "consolidating" his power -- we need to see some facts and not just speculation -- but I don't think that is such an unreasonable assertion.

Sun Bin said...


while i agree with everything you said, the reason i wrote this short rant is that every single time a corrupted official was caught, such assertion was given.
yes, it is not an unreasonable one, i even believe 1 out of 5(or 1/3 or even 1/2) times the assertion may turned out to be right. but these observers have been asserting this every single time......and none was verified/supported later, pretty bad track record.
(you may also remember the cases of Lai Changsheng (smuggler fled to canada), and Cheng Kejie (vice-chairman of NPC) -- same assertion, never really proved. in the case of Lai, it is becoming a joke)

re:"If the move was successful, doesn't it mean his power was already consolidated?" & 88's response

i think the causality argument does not support the theory that "Hu wanted to consolidate power, so he wanted to purge Chen, so he finds faults with Chen. that was easy, because everyone is corrupted to some extent."
instead, i think it is more plausible that "someone is corrupted, Hu wanted to purge him but didt have enough evidence and worried about his links to higher up that evidence mayu be destroyed during investigation. so hu waited and planned, until 1) his power is consolidated, 2) he collected enough evidence. and act"
NYT was very adamant of the former, though a legitimate (and not unreasonable) explanation, which I think is quite dubious, for a number of reasons (causality/time sequence, existence of a genuine intent to fight corruption, lack of evidence that there is a hu-jiang struggle, lack of reaction from the so called jiang gang before and after, deservedness of the corruptor, etc)

Anonymous said...


We don't disagree on the whole.

One point:
>"someone is corrupted, Hu wanted to purge him but didt have enough evidence and worried about his links to higher up that evidence mayu be destroyed during investigation. so hu waited and planned, until 1) his power is consolidated, 2) he collected enough evidence. and act"

Does Hu want to purge him only because he is corrupt or because he is an obstacle to Hu's power/control/power base/wing of the party? Or both? That is the key question. I don't know the answer. However, until more (any?) of Hu's known allies or protégés go down because of a corruption investigation, I will be more skeptical than you regarding "pure" corruption-fighting motives. Well, that and all of the other factors I listed.

Sun Bin said...

The Economist did an amazingly concise but comprehensive story capturing all the important facts, plus informing us of different theories.

".....At the central level, there is little sign of any concerted challenge to Mr Hu. Observers of Chinese politics often refer to a “Shanghai gang” of politicians who came to power thanks to their association with Mr Jiang when he was the city's party chief in the 1980s. But Mr Jiang's influence has ebbed considerably since he gave up his last position, as military chief, in 2004. He has kept quiet on state affairs. China's vice-president, Zeng Qinghong, at one time considered a Jiang loyalist, has shown no obvious sign of resistance to Mr Hu. Another Jiang ally in the Politburo's nine-member standing committee, Huang Ju (a former Shanghai party chief), has been ill with cancer for the past several months......"

Anonymous said...

I don't see how this article is so different from the others, though:

"Mr Chen clearly owed his rise to the patronage of Mr Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin. This made him vulnerable."
= Chen was vulnerable because he was part of the JZM/Shanghai clique.

"It appears more likely that Mr Hu has moved against Mr Chen in order to demonstrate his resolve in the face of a more general threat"
= this is a political act and part of a larger power struggle. The stuggle isn't necessarily between Hu and JZM, though.

"Mr Hu wants them replaced with loyalists. In Shanghai, the city's mayor, Han Zheng, has taken over as acting party chief, but it is likely that Mr Hu will send one of his protégés to fill the post."
= Hu is trying to consolidate his control.

The only difference I see is that this article states that the Shanghai gang isn't really able to challange Hu at the level of the central government and that JZM no longer has any real power or influence.

Sun Bin said...

The Unpublished Lang Xianping Interview

Sun Bin said...

The first fishyh smell from Shanghai I sensed was the notorious Zhou Zhengyi case, and the 'bizarre persecution of Lawyer Zheng Enchong. Now Zheng has spoken.

Sun Bin said...

There is an interesting story about the decision process in Beijing.

Not sure how much is true (incredibly detailed description makes it less credulous). But it explains why it is so difficult to fight corruption in China's central government, and also what has changed this time. (and what will less likely to change -- eg, if one of the 7 engineers in Politburo is under investigation)

Anonymous said...

The reason I think that the talk about factionalism is non-sense is because Zeng Qinghong is actively involved against the Shanghai group. It's strange that no one argued that this may possibly be because Zeng is clean and dislikes corruption, and that is more important than any hypothetical factional ties.

Willy Lam has some sources in the PRC government, but his analysis has never been good. Also just because someone is in the government, doesn't mean that they have any real clue about what is going on.

About Nathan's comments.

People tend to be very sloppy about Chinese history. Statements that "this is the way that things always have been done" tend to be false once you look at the facts.

(For example. The examination system started in the Tang dynasty. The eight legged essay wasn't standard until the Ming dynasty. For much of Chinese history, there was the law of avoidance which was that an official could not serve in the province of their origin. Going into local government finance of the Qing dynasty is complex, but it was rather difficult for an official to get their family members on the gravy train.)

Also, just because someone has done it for 2000 years doesn't excuse it.

88: Chinese laws and practices are murky, but there are places where there is black and white.