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China arrests anti-corruption activists even as it pledges to oust dishonest officials

Even as China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, talks about rooting out corrupt officials, he has simultaneously launched a serious crackdown on individual citizens who have dared to raise the same subject in public.

At least 16 activists have been arrested or detained since banners were unfurled in Beijing in March and April demanding that officials “publicly disclose assets.” The arrest last week of prominent activist Xu Zhiyong heightened the sense of despair among leading liberals about China’s new leadership and prompted open letters of protest.

The crackdown dramatically illustrates the Chinese leadership’s paranoia about street protests that could snowball out of control. The government seems haunted by memories of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, the Arab Spring and China’s own short-lived 2011 “Jasmine revolution.”

It also signals that any moves by Xi to crack down on corruption will be on his and the Communist Party’s own terms, if they are meaningful at all.

“From the ruling party point of view, they think anti-corruption is an internal affair – citizens have no right to judge them, they are fighting corruption on their own,” said lawyer Liang Xiaojun, who is representing one of the arrested activists. “But the one-party system has never been good at fighting corruption on its own. The contradictions just get increasingly sharpened.”

President Xi’s moves to battle corruption have so far been largely symbolic, with a ban on lavish displays of wealth, such as the alcohol-fuelled banquets that had been one of the hallmarks of Communist Party rule in recent years. In an apparent bid to soften popular resentment, Xi has pledged to catch the “tigers” as well as the “flies” responsible for stealing public money; some senior officials have been removed from office, while earlier this month former Railways Minister Liu Zhijun was convicted of using his office to embezzle large sums.

But the fact that Liu’s death sentence was suspended, and the trial was conducted behind closed doors, made many people here skeptical. Nor does the prosecutions of individual officials convince many Chinese people that the system is interested in cleaning house, say experts who monitor public opinion online.

Replacing officials won’t change anything, said one commentator on the microblogging site Weibo, in a post that was widely circulated but has since been deleted. “The meat has always gone bad in the fridge,” the post said. “Should we change the meat or the fridge? What do you say?”

Even before his arrest last week, Xu had been under house arrest since April and had taken no part in any demonstration, said his lawyer Liu Weiguo. Still, he has been charged with “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place,” and Liu said he has been illegally denied access to his client since the arrest on July 16.

Xu, 40, is the founder of the New Citizen Movement, a grass-roots social campaign that aims to promote a respect for China’s constitution and rule of law through the protection of human rights and the limiting of the unbridled power of officials. In a statement on Monday, two of the movement’s supporters said the group was “well-intentioned, not hostile – that is constructive, not destructive.”

Yet by campaigning for an open declaration of officials’ property and assets, the activists represent a direct threat to the powerful vested interests that underpin Communist Party rule.

“We believe we stand on the right side of history,” investor Wang Gongquan and journalist Xiao Shu said in their statement, vowing never to “yield in the face of despotic power.”

The letter, like news of Xu’s arrest, has been ignored by state-controlled Chinese media, and all mention of it has been removed from social media sites.

A popular saying in China is: Failing to fight corruption will kill the country, but battling it would kill the Communist Party.

“You can’t legitimately govern a country when the party is so corrupt, but at the same time they ⅛the leaders⅜ rely on the party,” explained Wang Feng, a senior fellow at the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy in Beijing. “If you punish your own officials, you won’t have a party.”

That viewpoint leads some people to argue that China’s president may be sincere in his battle against corruption, but that he is merely proceeding at his own pace or on his own terms. “I see no reason to write it off as a show designed just to keep the masses distracted while the looting continues,” argued Donald Clarke of the George Washington University Law School on the ChinaFile website. “But it does mean that reform will not involve outside accountability. We’ll handle it ourselves, thank you very much. Sorry, citizens: it’s really none of your business.”

Prof. Mao Zhaohui, director of the Center for Anti-Corruption and Clear Government at Renmin University in Beijing, advanced a similar announcement, saying that street protests can be counterproductive.

“Political reform in China will only be delivered gradually,” he said. “Give us time and be patient. More drastic anti-corruption methods will only trigger powerful vested interest groups to fight back harder. Personally I don’t agree with street democracy: That does not offer hope, it will only make things worse.”

The Communist Party’s central disciplinary committee says more than 30,000 party members were punished for corruption last year, a rise of 12.5 percent from the previous year, state media reported.

But in a party with more than 85 million members, where corruption has become endemic and the top leadership appears immune to prosecution, those kind of number fail to impress activists. They say Xi’s anti-corruption talk is merely a smoke screen for the president that allows him to crack down harder on dissent.

Hu Jia, a well-known activist, said Xi was not interested in reform. “The tightening of control comes from the party’s fear about a changing society, including the speed of social media. The party is finding it harder to control the situation, especially public opinion, and there is a danger of them losing control finally one day. No wonder they will try to hang onto power by all means.”

Famous artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, whose passport has been taken away since his arrest in 2011, said the system is structurally so corrupt that internal reform was impossible. “I don’t think they are capable, they don’t have the ideology,” he said. “Most people have totally lost hope.”

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