China's whole future is at stake in anti-corruption drama

Only strong leadership that can take on vested interests will bring the reforms needed to stop China stagnating in a middle income trap.

"With the rise of China, we are observing the geopolitical equivalent of the melting of the polar ice caps. Slowly the ice thins, cracks appear and one day a large sheet of ice spectacularly peels away. If captured on cameras the world momentarily sits up and pays attention before CNN returns our gaze to the drama of the Islamic State's most recent atrocity."

The author of this China metaphor is Australia's former prime minister, Kevin Rudd. He penned it earlier this year in a study he was commissioned to write on Chinese-American relations for a Harvard institute.

However, the metaphor is certainly apt for a political system that has recently jailed for life one of China's most powerful figures, Zhou Yongkang.

Zhou had for years occupied a prime spot on China's Politburo Standing Committee, the elite group at the top of the country's government pyramid. His incarceration was briefly revealed in the official newspaper this month after sentence had been passed. No details of the charges have been released. All that we know is that he was charged with corruption, while his life sentence was for treason - to which he had pleaded guilty.

Zhou is the largest "sheet of ice" so far glimpsed in what has to be one of the most politicised and extensive anti-corruption campaigns in history.

The targets in this drive are what President Xi Jinping described as the "tigers and the flies"; that is the high- and lower-level officials in the Communist Party, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and the state enterprise system.

In 2014 alone, 68 top officials and more than 70,000 lower level officers were investigated for violations of anti-graft rules. About 36 tigers have been brought to trial.

Among those arrested were senior officials regarded as being close to former Party General Secretary, Jiang Zemin, who at 88 remains a figure of considerable influence. Jiang supported Xi for the presidential post.

The anti-corruption purge has maintained its momentum into 2015. In the first three months, the chief of military intelligence was removed from office. Dozens of PLA officials including 16 generals were placed under investigation.

At the same time President Xi has moved to centralise his power by establishing additional policy groups in charge of national defence and the military, state security, cybersecurity and information, and one rather cryptically referred to as being "responsible for deepening reform comprehensively". President Xi heads each of these new groups.

One obvious conclusion to draw from Xi's centralisation of power in his hands is that he is the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, perhaps even Mao Zedong.

At one level, the need for structural reform of China's economy actually requires a powerful leader capable of taking on the vested interests that have flourished under the protective umbrella of the Communist Party for the last 60-odd years. Xi was well known and respected as a technocrat as he climbed the slippery ladder of Chinese politics. What has come as a surprise has been the methodological way in which he has implemented his political strategy, which appears to have outflanked the complex, bureaucratic and interconnected political structure.

One of the primary drivers of this political system has been to prevent the emergence of a Mao-like dictatorship.

It would be easy to dismiss Xi's anti-corruption drive as being a convenient vehicle with whichhe is rounding up his political opponents. While there is doubtless more than a grain of truth in that description, there is also the reality that institutionalised corruption imposes an enormous brake on a Chinese economy that is struggling to avoid the middle-income trap that, if sprung, would condemn China to "developing economy" status.

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Max Walsh

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Max Walsh was for many years one of Australia’s top economic and political commentators, highly regarded as a journalist, author and broadcaster. Throughout his career, Max was involved in all dimensions of the media industry, which has encompassed positions with two of Australia’s largest publishing companies and television networks.

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