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China

Xi looks to Mao's legacy to tackle corruption

As an emerging superpower, China is undergoing major changes. Still, its new leader seems to be drawing inspiration from the past to deal with one of the country's most pressing issues: corruption among party officials.

President Xi Jinping is harking back to the legacy of late Chairman Mao Zedong in an attempt to "clean up" the ranks of the 80-million-member Communist Party of China (CPC) amid growing public consternation over inequality and corruption.

According to the official Xinhua News Agency, Xi, who is also the party's General Secretary, reminded officials that the upcoming year-long campaign will be a "thorough cleanup" of undesirable work styles such as formalism, bureaucratism, hedonism and extravagance. "These four forms of decadence are the problems most hated, and complained of, by the people, severely damaging relations between the party and ordinary people," Xi was quoted as saying in a teleconference in the Chinese capital Beijing.

"Self-purification" required

With the new strategy, Xi is seeking to strengthen the legitimacy of the party which appears to have been weakened by its failure to effectively fight corruption. "Winning or losing public support is an issue that concerns the CPC's survival or extinction," Xi said according to Xinhua, stressing that the mass line, or furthering ties with the people, is the lifeline of the Party.

"What's new about the campaign is that Xi has placed it at the top of his political agenda," says Eberhard Sandschneider, China expert at the Berlin-based Research Institute of the German Council on Foreign Relations.

Eberhard Sandschneider, China expert at the Berlin-based Research Institute of the German Council on Foreign Relations (Photo: DGAP/dapd)

Sandschneider says the new Chinese leadership is prioritzing the fight against corruption

"The mere fact that the issue is being prioritized demonstrates that the new Chinese leadership is taking this seriously," says Sandschneider, adding that Beijing is keen on showing to the public that it is capable of taking decisive action.

The campaign is set to focus on "self-purification" and "self-renewal" said Xi, using a metaphorical phrase that could have come from Chairman Mao himself: "Look in the mirror, straighten your attire, take a bath and seek remedies." According to state media, CPC organs and officials at or above the county level will be required to reflect on their own practises and correct any misconduct.

Unrest and power struggles

However, it remains unclear whether Xi's latest move will be a success. Sandschneider says that the officials affected will first try to delay the process, fearing the loss of wealth, political status and income. "Such campaigns usually spark power struggles and unrest within the party. The challenge for the CPC leadership will be to deal efficiently with the matter," Sandschneider states.

But the China expert doesn't believe the fight against corruption must go hand-in-hand with political reforms. "We find cases of corruption in all countries of the world and each political system has its own way of handling it." The key issue is what sanctions are the governments willing to impose, he adds.

China's Communist Party Chief Xi Jinping talks to China's Vice Premier Li Keqiang during the presidium of the first session of the 12th National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing, March 4, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

Chinese leader Xi (left) wants to 'clean up' the Communist party of corrupt members

Central Document No. 9

Experts believe that the best indication of the worldview of Xi, who is also commander-in-chief, can be found in what insiders call "Central Document No. 9," which is being circulated in party circles throughout the country. Titled "Concerning the Situation in the Ideological Sphere," the document asks party and government units responsible for education, ideology and propaganda to tackle "seven serious problems" in the ideological sphere that merit attention.

Specifically, journalists and college teachers are reportedly being asked to steer clear of "seven unmentionable topics." These taboo areas allegedly include universal values, press freedom, civil society, citizens' rights, the party's historical aberrations, the "privileged capitalistic class," and the independence of the judiciary.

Willy Lam, a Chinese politics expert and professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong is troubled by "Document No. 9", especially because of how the new leadership plans to deal with the mistakes made by the CCP in the past. "By forbidding intellectuals and the media to dwell on the party's past mistakes, Xi is in fact paving the way for the resuscitation of Maoist norms, especially the Maoist-Leninist tradition of 'democratic centralism' and the ruthless suppression of dissent," said Lam.

After all, he adds, much of the CCP's aberrations - including the Great Leap Forward, the Three Years of Famine, and the Cultural Revolution - had to do with the feudalistic mentality of Mao.

An ideological campaign?

However, China expert Björn Alpermann from the University of Würzburg wouldn't go that far in his assessment.

A retouched picture released by Chinese official news agency of Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party from 1935 until his death in 1976, delivering a speech 'about correctly handling contradiction among the people' at the standing committee of the State Council in Beijing in 1957 (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Mao Zedong was CPC Chairman for over four decades

He says Xi and his family also suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Xi's father was one of the founding members of the CCP alongside Mao until he fell out of favor in 1962. Alpermann therefore states that one shouldn't simply imply that Xi is seeking to sweep Mao's actions under the carpet.

On the contrary, he believes the Chinese leader has other priorities: "I expect him to promote economic development, keeping tight control over the party and launch an ideological campaign in order to take the wind out of the sails of people demanding political reform."